On Broadway: Laura Benanti
BRIAN KELLOW chats with Tony Award-winner Laura Benanti (Gypsy, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown), who stars as Rosabella in the New York City Center Encores! presentation of Frank Loesser's The Most Happy Fella, opening April 2.
OPERA NEWS: You don't have any history with The Most Happy Fella, correct?
LAURA BENANTI: I don't, but it's a show I've always wanted to do.
ON: Do you get as tired as I do of the question: is it an opera or is it a musical?
LB: Absolutely. It's a musical! It's so strange to me; I just don't understand why people think it's an opera. It's very dramatic. There's talking. There are scenes. I don't really understand why that conversation exists, and it makes me feel crazy because I never, ever claimed to be an opera singer. I'm trying to sing and tell a story through a legit soprano that is of the musical theater, and not of the opera.
ON: I think people mostly ask the question because of the history of people who have sung it — from Robert Weede to Spiro Malas.
LB: I understand that, but people cross over all the time into things.
ON: Sure. What do you find most challenging, musically, about The Most Happy Fella?
LB: It's tricky music. It's all over the place. You have to manage to be sort of warm in your lower process and bring that into your upper process. You're sort of shot out of the cannon in the first five minutes of the play. As an actress, what I find tricky about her is that she spends a great deal of time reacting to people. That can put you in a sort of "victim" position, which I find extremely boring. It's not of our time, so how do you honor the piece but make sure that she is an entirely "real" human being? How do you spend so much reacting to what has been "done" to you? In those moments where she is taking matters into her own hands, I really try to sink into it.
ON: I was talking to Marin Mazzie recently about the importance of "legit" training in a Broadway singer's career. It just helps so much when you're faced with all that hard singing.
LB: I agree. It's interesting, because on my album I do a whole bit about "The Soprano Museum." I think it's eventually going to be all belting and pop music, and there's going to be a hologram of Barbara Cook singing a high C. It concerns me, because I feel that musical theater is one of the only art forms that is purely American. We started it. Baseball and apple pie and jazz and musical theater. I get worried sometimes that everything is going to be one big generic pop song so I'm so thrilled that Encores! brings these shows into this new space where we're trying to energize it with our acting and our singing and remind people what it feels like not to be accosted with sound all the time. What it's like to truly listen where lyrics matter and tone matters and there's something about the vibration of tone when you're dealing with a couple of octaves. You know what I'm saying? Instead of just belting a D all the time. It's almost become vocal gymnastics, where we're supposed to go, "Oh, you riff the best!"
I've been belting for years because that's the Broadway landscape. I was out of shape, and I'm still getting back into shape.
ON: Like pretty much everyone else I know, I thought you were the best Gypsy Rose Lee ever.
LB: Oh, thank you so much.
ON: So many people have talked about the difficulty of melding young Louise from the first act with the older, sexy and mature Gypsy. How did you figure out that transition?
LB: I did not do it alone. Arthur Laurents helped me navigate the openness of the child and the longing of the child and then the anger and the sex of the woman. He really helped me in the beginning with Louise, because I was twenty-seven, I think, and I was concerned that I was too old and I was trying to play a kid. He said, "Stop doing that — just be available so we can see how you are feeling. So that's what I started to do — to think of her as a completely empty canvas and start the play clean every night and wipe away everything I've ever known. All she knows is that she loves her mom and her sister and that she's not good at anything. And she loves animals. That's all she knows. And I had to let every thing happening on the way inform her. The important transition is in the script — the final insult to injury after Herbie leaves, and it's just her and her mother. She's never worn anything other than boy clothes and how to transition from the fear of that into "Everyone is looking at me the way I've wanted to be looked at" and how through the script, she devoured that energy and it sort of masticated itself and turned into anger. Arthur told me to think less about the sex and more about the anger. She deals in humor — that's her whole schtick. She knows she doesn't have any "talent." So that was the key for me, and Arthur helped me a lot with that. We had one tricky bit where he wanted me to use a lower voice in that last scene with Rose, and it didn't seem real. I have a sort of naturally high speaking voice.
ON: So many people I know who love that show feel such personal resonance about their own parental relationships. I certainly do.
LB: Yes. Who hasn't felt, "You aren't the parent I wanted you to be." And if you become a parent, who hasn't felt, 'What about me? I used to be a person, too, and now I just live through you. I gave up everything I ever wanted!"
ON: With whom have you studied voice?
LB: I study with my mother, Linda Benanti, and Tessa Lang. I studied with my Mom my whole life and in the past year I started going to Tessa who does a lot of laryngeal work. It's very hands on work with the combination of the two, and it's been a really wonderful thing. I love my mother more than anything in the world, but Tessa is really special. She is an opera singer.
ON: You work on the lowering of the larynx?
LB: Yes. I broke my neck in Into the Woods and I've had two surgeries on my spine, so I have a tricky time breathing into my spine. She's helping me breathe into the intercostals, under my armpit so I can get the breath I've been missing for all these years. I'm lucky I had such a good foundation with my Mom in terms of lifting the soft palate and my breathing and all of that. But working with Tessa on the physical aspect was sort of the missing piece of the puzzle.
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