'Sound of Music': Laura Benanti talks live performance, Carrie Underwood, and why musicals are ready for a comeback

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Image Credit: Paul Drinkwater/NBC

TV fans may already know Laura Benanti from roles on Go On, The Playboy Club, Law and Order:SVU, and many others. And of course theater lovers have long been fans of the Tony-winning Broadway performer. On Thursday night, the two worlds merged when Benanti stole the show as Elsa in NBC’s ratings smash Sound of Music Live!, leading more than a few viewers to hope that Captain von Trapp might end up with her as opposed to Maria.

While nothing so sacrilegious happened, Benanti is enjoying increased attention since the broadcast. EW talked with the actress Friday afternoon about her day-of prep, tweeting offstage, and what she’s planning next.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: First of all, congratulations. If Twitter is any indication, people are loving you particularly.
LAURA BENANTI:
Team Elsa! That makes me so happy. #GaysForElsa. I was so happy to see that, I literally gained 3,000 Twitter followers in three hours.

That’s nuts! The Baroness is making a comeback.
I know, man. I worked very hard to make her a person and not just a villain, so I was happy people felt that. It’s a tricky role, and it took work to make her more layered than that. I’m glad that that seems to have been effective.

I know you played Maria on Broadway in 1998. What made you want to come back to this piece in particular?
I love [chairman of NBC Entertainment] Bob Greenblatt; he’s really looked out for me. It just felt like a time in my life to come full circle. The Sound of Music was at the beginning of my career, it’s what started me. It just felt like a nice thing to do around the holidays. I love Bob and I love NBC, and I was excited to work with this cast.

Take me through your day before showtime.
I got up, I worked out with Christian Borle and Stephen Moyer in the little tiny gym in our hotel. We went to rehearsal, we rehearsed in our street clothes, and then we ate and I took a nap and then we performed for America! [Laughs] Yup, no big deal. I was literally pooping my pants. I was so scared. I have never been that scared in my life.

You’re obviously a pro at the live aspect. What was different about performing for the camera as opposed to an audience? The fact that there wasn’t any clapping threw me.
18.5 million people watched! So when my train got stepped on, 18.5 million people saw me try to react to that, instead of 1,000 people. So that to me was the craziest thing. But I’m glad that we didn’t have an audience. Because when you have an audience, even when you’re acting to camera, you tend to play to the audience and that would have made our performances too big for the camera.

Did you give any advice to Carrie Underwood?
No, she didn’t need my advice. She was so brave and she worked so hard and I think she had such tremendous heart to open herself up in that way to something she had never done before and to do it in front of millions of people. She knows what it’s like to perform live; she doesn’t need any help from me.

Talk to me about working with Christian Borle. Watching the two of you play off each other — like in “How Can Love Survive” — was such a high point.
He is maybe my favorite scene partner I’ve ever had. He’s so playful and so smart and so funny. He makes me laugh harder than anybody makes me laugh. Every time that we do it is new. He’s always listening, he’s always thinking of something, he’s really, truly remarkable. He’s so fun.

Anything surprise you last night?
When my dress got stepped on! That surprised me. [Laughs] Honestly, I’m surprised that we didn’t have any mistakes. Considering what an enormous feat it is to do anything for three hours, I can’t believe that nothing bad happened. That’s what surprised me: how smoothly it went.

Right before showtime, were you all together?
Yes. We were all together, which was really beautiful. We were all together in one big hair/makeup room. The nuns were singing, the kids were singing, we were all hugging each other. It really became like a family. It was a tremendous group of people. And I have to say, I think that’s a real testament to this Broadway community, because the majority of the people in this show in the ensemble are Broadway people, and there is just a generosity to the theatrical community that permeates everything. So I was very happy for Carrie and Stephen to get to feel that.

Big burning question: About 30 seconds after you were done, you immediately tweeted. Was someone holding your phone backstage?
I had my phone backstage in my little cubicle that I shared with Ariane [Rinehart], who played Liesl. … I literally walked offstage, grabbed my phone and tweeted it. I thought that would be funny. … [Post-show] we all had a party and hung out and ate food and drank. Some of the nuns had written a song for Carrie that they performed. Mostly we just hugged each other because we’re all sad it’s over.

The ratings for this were huge!
They were huge! Which is exciting, because to me that says they’re going to do it again. And let me tell you something: I’m so excited that people who aren’t necessarily familiar with musical theater or who don’t have a theater in their hometown or don’t live anywhere near a metropolis, the idea that musical theater is coming into people’s living rooms again makes me so happy.

I would love to see musicals make a comeback.
Right? I would too. Not to mention the fact that Broadway has become so prohibitively expensive. If you could see a Broadway show basically in your living room in your bathrobe once a year? How great.

Speaking of listening to Broadway in your bathrobe, what can you tell me about your new cabaret CD In Constant Search of the Right Kind of Attention?
I’ve been doing these sort of one-woman shows all over the country, and I thought that would be a really good way to dip my toe into the album water. Because I’ve not known what I’ve wanted to do in terms of a studio album, because I have such eclectic tastes in music. But I also like the fact that I am a live performer. In this day and age where everybody is Auto-Tuned within an inch of their life, it’s nice to have an album where you can say, “This person isn’t Auto-Tuned at all!” And there’s some mistakes here and there, but this is live. And I like the idea of people getting to hear the patter in between the songs. You get a sense of how silly I am, which a lot of people don’t know. [Note: As evidence, check her hilarious Tonys performance this past year.]

Actually, Matthew Perry came up with the title. I had been calling my show Let Me Entertain You, as a nod to Gypsy, and he said, “Look, that’s fine, but it’s sort of boring and people need to know how weird you are.” And I said, “OK.” So he came up with the title, and I’m really proud of it. … I feel like when you listen to the album, you feel like you’re there, and again, not everybody can get to a cabaret space, so this is like hearing a show, but you get to do it from the comfort of your own home.

If NBC does something like this again, what production would you like to see?
I want them to do something with me! [Laughs] I would like to play Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady. They will never do that. … I think it has to stay in the family-friendly zone. Peter Pan, maybe?

My pick is Cinderella.
Cinderella would be great! You know that has been done [on TV]. White Christmas? It could be Christian Borle and Stephen Moyer and then me and Audra [McDonald]!

We’re so there.

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