When D.C. calls, Laura Benanti comes. The Tony-winning singer and Nashville star is one of those entertainers who turns up around here a lot. But while John Legend seems to be on speed-dial for the Kennedy Center and Stevie Wonder could be mistaken for the White House’s resident blind pianist, Benanti performs all over town.
Her 2014 appearances included singing with the National Symphony out at Wolf Trap, dropping in on the Ford’s Theatre Society’s annual gala, joining Kelli O’Hara and Jessie Mueller to serenade Tom Hanks at the Kennedy Center Honors and serving as guest vocalist with the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington for several numbers at its annual spring concert.
That last gig might seem a little surprising, but the chorus is near and dear to Benanti’s heart: Her uncle, the late Robert Wonneberger, co-founded the group in the early 1980s, long before such ensembles were fashionable or even socially acceptable. He died suddenly in 2002, but both of Benanti’s parents grew up in northern Virginia, and she still has family in the area who turn up to see her en masse.
But we may see less of Laura in 2015: she’s currently rehearsing the Radio City Music Hall’s new Spring Spectacular—-which was written by, of all people, the same Juilliard grad student who penned Bad Jews, a not-for-children comedy currently playing at Studio Theatre—and on Wednesday, the Roundabout Theatre Company announced that next year Benanti will star on Broadway in a revival of the musical She Loves Me.
On Sunday night, Benanti and her musical collaborator, Todd Almond, will bring an unconventional cabaret act to the Barns at Wolf Trap. She spoke with Arts Desk about bridging show tunes and alternative rock, Bad Jews, and her tentative plan to retire to the D.C. suburbs.
Arts Desk: You’re performing at the Barns this weekend, a small, slightly rustic venue that typically books string quartets and indie chamber-rock bands. This looks like a different kind of gig for you.
Benanti: I sort of didn’t realize that, and now I’m nervous. But the show that I do with Todd Almond is like 50/50 theater stuff and also some popular music—-and by popular music, I mean music from the 1990s, because that’s when I stopped listening to the radio. Todd and I are on a mission to bridge the gap between musical theater and popular culture. I’m excited for people who know me from Nashville to see the show and see that I do a very different thing; and for my musical theater fans, I hope they don’t find it too irritating that I’m not only singing “Glitter and Be Gay” over and over again.
Awkward transition, but—-you’ve sung with the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington.
I have! A lot! My uncle Robert Wonneberger was one of the original members, and he had an alter ego, Wanda Mae Wonneberger. That was his drag name. I grew up loving gay culture and loving that particular group of men. My uncle died very suddenly, and the last time I ever saw him was singing with chorus, when I played Maria [from The Sound of Music, Benanti’s first Broadway show] and he played the Mother Abbess. That group is extremely meaningful to me.
I thought there had to be some kind of connection, but I didn’t know it was such a strong one.
Yeah. And now I’ve also sung with the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus a lot. I’ve found that these choruses are so important for these men. So many of them do not have supportive families, and they’ve found a new family through these choruses.
Are we going to see less of you now, with your role as Sadie Stone on Nashville and the new Radio City Music Hall show?
And I’m doing this one-night-only show of the musical Parade February 16. I’m a little bit busy, but it’s so much better than sitting by the phone waiting for someone to hire me.
You don’t sit by the phone, though, right? You make Youtube videos.
Yeah, I don’t really sit still. Someone asked me if I had ADD yesterday in rehearsal. I was like, “That is not a compliment.”
Have you met Joshua Harmon yet, the Spring Spectacular playwright? He wrote Bad Jews, a play that’s been running for more than two months in Washington, but writing a musical like this is a real switch.
He’s in a uniquely difficult position. There’s never been a book musical at Radio City. He’s in a tricky place. He has to create a spectacle, but also give it heart. And he’s done really well. He’s very open to collaboration, and I really appreciate that. I play Jenna, the owner of a tech company who thinks everything should be virtual, and you basically get to see my heart melt. It’s like a Scrooge story. I’m like a lady Scrooge.
Harmon told me he was told to add more animals.
There is a horse and nine dogs. Nine. I’m like, “Who is picking up this poop?” There is going to be so much poop backstage. It’s like a science experiment, and it is very different for me. We’ll see. I’m game for anything. And it affords me the ability to do smaller productions that don’t pay anything.
Like your mock audition video for Peter Pan Live, with 42,000 hits? It opens with you saying, “Here’s my headshot from seven years ago.” Have you always been so self-deprecating?
Yes. It’s where I come from. My mother is ridiculously funny and dry, and self-deprecating, but in a way that doesn’t put herself down. That’s the line I try to walk too, but sometimes I go back and re-read a tweet and think, “Wow, Laura, go easier on yourself.”
It’s like you are the anti-diva.
That’s something that my parents really instilled in my sister and I, that we’re not better than anybody. Just because you have talent doesn’t mean that you get to act like a jerk.
And your parents are from around here, right?
My mom is from McLean, and my father is from Woodbridge. Washington is my favorite city other than New York City. If I could live anywhere else, it would be D.C. There are such tremendous arts programs—I love the museums, the culture, and I like the people. And they’ve been really kind to me.
We’ll take you anytime.
Good. Great. When I think, “Where would I retire?,” I think, “Maybe I’ll retire to Virginia.”