Right now, everything is loverly for Laura Benanti.
The Tony-winning actress is finally getting to tread the boards in her dream role as Eliza Doolittle in Lincoln Center Theater’s Broadway revival of My Fair Lady, after passing on an initial audition for the production due to being a new mom. What’s more, she just produced an album called Singing You Home featuring some of Broadway’s biggest talents, the proceeds of which go to support separated families at the border.
Stepping into the role of the cockney flower girl turned proper lady marks a pinnacle for Benanti after playing a long succession of dream roles in Broadway productions of She Loves Me, Gypsy, Into the Woods, and The Sound of Music.
The LCT production, which opened this past April, originally featured Six Feet Under’s Lauren Ambrose as Eliza, who earned a Tony nomination for her performance. But when it came time for Ambrose to move on, Benanti took over, beginning performances Oct. 23 and currently attached to the production through Feb. 17, 2019.
EW caught up with Benanti in the whirlwind of adjusting to her new stage role to talk about why Eliza has always been her most coveted part, how she thinks the show holds up in the #MeToo era, and which song is her favorite to sing.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Eliza Doolittle is one of the most iconic roles in Broadway history. Do you remember the first time you encountered My Fair Lady and what your reaction to her was?
LAURA BENANTI: I was 4 years old and my mom was playing the record for me and reading me the record inserts. We did that probably every day for a really long time, an embarrassingly long time, like until I was like 14 or 15. This has been my dream part literally my entire life. It’s genuinely a dream come true and I’m not just saying that.
Did you used to sing along in your living room?
Oh, of course! I would sing along until I finally could hit the notes.
You’ve played so many of your dream roles, and roles that are iconic parts for sopranos – where does this fall on the spectrum?
This is No. 1. This has always been the pinnacle of pinnacles. And then under that was and I’m not kidding, Amalia Balash [in She Loves Me], Maria in The Sound of Music, Gypsy Rose Lee in Gypsy, and Cinderella in Into the Woods. Those were the parts I really wanted to play. But this was absolutely the No. 1.
I know you’ve previously said you ended up passing on the Eliza audition for this the first time around. How difficult was it to make that decision?
My lifelong dream was also to be a mom. So, was it disappointing to think I would never be able to play this role? For sure. But it was far outweighed by my gratitude for being the mother of Ella Rose.
And what was your reaction when it came back around to you?
I was so grateful. It was such a good lesson in truly letting something go. Because I had. It wasn’t like I was holding onto it and begrudging the production or anything. It was a wonderful lesson in if you let something go, if it’s meant to be yours, it will come back. And if it’s not meant to be yours, it won’t.
Eliza has so many memorable songs, but do you have one that you enjoy singing more than others?
It’s so funny because when I was younger my least favorite song to listen to was “Without You” and now it’s my most favorite to sing. Because it feels like such a revelation. It feels feminist. Certainly in this era, that is a very welcome thing.
And, on the other side of things, are there parts that are more daunting than others — that every night when it starts to come around you just cringe in anticipation of it?
Certainly, the cockney is really challenging vocally. It requires your tongue to work differently than we’re used to and once your tongue gets fatigued, your [vocal] cords start taking over. That can be really tough on your voice. I always feel my vocal chords be like, uhhhh, be careful! But there’s nothing I do in this show that I don’t enjoy.
You’ve played a lot of vocally demanding roles — where does this fall on the spectrum? Is it the hardest?
Yes. Oh my gosh. This is the most vocally demanding I’ll probably ever have to do maybe. Unless somebody writes me something harder in which case how dare they? [Laughs]
What do you think makes Eliza such a singular character in musical theatre history?
Obviously the music is so beautiful. But I think [there’s also] the fact that she’s everything. We see her grow from this person selling flowers, someone we first meet who is so low-class, but she has a dream and ambition. She’s the one who goes to Professor Higgins after hearing him talk about how she could change her life if only she could speak better. It’s not like he plucks her from obscurity; she goes to his home. The fact that she’s taking the initiative; the fact that she’s trying to better herself at a time when that really wasn’t a thing. You were born into the class you were born into and you stayed there. I love that this is a person who is taking ownership over her own life at a time when that wasn’t really happening.
Because of where you are in your career, a lot of the time you are with a show before it opens in early rehearsals. How does jumping into this after it’s already been running compare? Was it a new challenge?
One-hundred percent. I’ve been joking that it’s like jumping on to a moving train but you’re supposed to be driving it. I’m supposed to be the conductor but it’s already speeding [laughs]. it was not a typical 9-to-6 rehearsal period. Rehearsing by myself with [Jennifer Rae Moore] our stage manager and no other actors was hilarious. Fortunately, she’s so wonderful and Maggie Burrows, the assistant director is so wonderful. [Director Barlett Sher], when he could be there, was so helpful. It definitely was not when I anticipated in terms of rehearsals, but we made it work.
Was the first time you were acting opposite Harry Hadden-Paton as Henry Higgins at your first performance?
Harry was shooting the Downton Abbey movie. So the very first day I met him was the night that we went on together!
That’s kind of perfect for those roles, though.
Totally. And it was such a good lesson in really actively listening and not going on autopilot or having set line readings with someone. Sometime’s you can get into a rhythm, and it’s actually not good. We did not have that option.
The set is built on many rotating turntables. Have you worked with that many of those before?
I have worked on turn tables before, but I’d had the entire technical process to get used to it. I had literally one day. That was hard. I got pretty nauseous the first couple of times. My quick changes are in a a closet onstage, so I’m literally changing my clothes while it rotates.
All of Eliza’s costumes are astonishing. Do you have a favorite?
Certainly the dress at Ascot is bananas. That hat — it’s also so heavy. But the ball gown is amazing. It’s very rare that I look in the mirror and go like, “You look good girl” but in [costume designer Catherine Zuber’s] clothes I almost always do feel that way.
Recently, there’s been a lot of talk about how well classic musicals like this hold up in the #MeToo era. As someone who is very politically outspoken, is that something you’ve had to grapple with as you find your way into the role?
I saw the production before I took the role. Bart is such a feminist, and he is so politically minded as well that this really feels like a My Fair Lady for the Time’s Up generation. There’s so much discussion of class. There’s so much discussion of gender roles. It’s very of the moment in terms of all that. To me, it feels like a feminist production. Certainly the way that Bart ends this piece, I think, will be very satisfying to feminists and all people who love and admire women.
Are there shows you think really just don’t work anymore?
I don’t know. I would have to take that question with me and get back to you. But I also wouldn’t want to be the person to say that because I’m sure there’s a genius out there, maybe that person is Bart, who could figure out a way to make it work. Just because something is revived doesn’t mean we’re co-signing that era’s beliefs. We’re showing there was a period of time in which these things happened.
So many of these dream roles you’ve played have very non-traditional romances or at least grapple with the confines of gender and how that limits or impacts romantic relationships. Is that something you love to dig your teeth into? Do you think it’s important to tell a more complicated story than just an old-fashioned happily-ever-after?
Yes. I absolutely do. That’s something I loved about Into the Woods. It’s something I loved about Gypsy. Certainly Amalia in She Loves Me, that was more happily-ever-after. But in this version of My Fair Lady, this is not and she lives happily-ever-after with a misogynist. I love stories where the woman makes it on her own, and I love that about Cinderella in Into the Woods.
Audrey Hepburn or Julie Andrews?
Julie Andrews, what are you insane?! [Laughs] She’s my idol. At 6 years old, I had schadenfreude when I found out that despite being rejected for the movie of My Fair Lady Julie Andrews won the Academy Award for Mary Poppins. I was like, “In your FACE, Audrey Hepburn!”
In addition to My Fair Lady, you also recently produced an album. Can you tell us more about it?
Singing You Home is an album that I produced where all the net proceeds go to reunite the families separated at the border. I produced it with my friends Mary-Mitchell Campbell and Lynn Pinto. It has remarkable artists, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Mandy Gonzales, Kristin Chenoweth, Idina Menzel, Josh Groban, Cynthia Erivo, Ingrid Michaelson and myself, and more. It’s a dual language children’s album. You can get it anywhere digital music is streaming. If people want to figure out a way to make a difference now that the administration has once again opened up the idea of family separation, you can purchase this album and know the majority of the money is going to these families. Not a single person involved in the making of the album made anything. The only reason we have to say net proceeds is because Amazon and Apple are taking their 2 percent, but even the label, they’re not taking money. It’s pretty astonishing. I’m really, really proud of it.