In addition to regularly appearing on Broadway in musicals as well as comedic roles, Benanti is probably familiar to TV viewers from shows such as “Nashville,” “The Detour” and “Nurse Jackie” among others. However, for the last few years, she has found a new niche, appearing as first lady Melania Trump in a series of sketches on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.” On July 6, Benanti brings her show “Tales from Soprano Isle” to Caramoor in Katonah. Benanti was kind enough to take time out of her schedule to answer a few questions about her career and Melania.
Laura, I’d like to begin by asking you to please say something about the challenges and rewards of playing classic stage musical roles, including Eliza Doolittle in “My Fair Lady,” Maria in “The Sound of Music,” Louise in “Gypsy,” Claudia in “Nine” and Cinderella in “Into The Woods.”
“I think the challenge is that people might already have preconceived notions about that character based on someone else’s performance. The rewards are that they’re classic for a reason; they’re beautifully written.”
You have also had the distinction of originating a role, as in the case of Julia in “The Wedding Singer” and Candela in “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.” What does that kind of experience mean to you?
“It’s very meaningful to me. To be able to put your stamp on a role that no one else has played before is gratifying. It’s interesting, I actually approach revival and character that have been previously played in the exact same way that I approach a new one. I try to come from my own being as opposed to trying to emulate anyone else. It’s funny, I guess I don’t think of it as that much of a difference, but I suppose there is.”
“The Wedding Singer” and “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown” are musicals based on movies. Are there any movies you think would make good musical adaptations?
“I think (the 1989 Shelley Long movie) ‘Troop Beverly Hills’ would be wonderful. I would love to play that part. I think it would be so much fun.”
That’s a great idea!
“Wouldn’t that be so funny? And I think it lends itself to music. I think that would be funny.”
With your extensive Broadway background, is there a style of music that you personally enjoy on your own time that might surprise your fans?
“I like country music. That might surprise people. I like classic country. Not like Blake Shelton.”
Do you mean like Patsy Cline and Loretta Lynn?
“Yes, Patsy Cline. But also Brandi Carlile.”
“Kacey Musgraves! I love her! I actually got to sing one of her songs on the show ‘Nashville.’ That was really exciting for me.”
I’m glad you mentioned “Nashville” because in addition to your award-winning stage work, you have also performed in several TV series, including “Younger,” “The Detour,” “Supergirl” and “Nurse Jackie” to mention a few. What do you like best about series work?
“I like that it lasts forever. Although that could be a mixed bag, too. Although I’m proud of the work I’ve done. I like that it requires a different skill. It requires a different concentration, which I appreciate. It’s a different energy. In film and television, you’re drawing people in instead of extending your energy towards them, as we do onstage. I like being able to flex those very different muscles.”
What was involved in selecting “Arroró Mi Niño,” the song you recorded for the benefit album “Singing You Home: Children’s Songs for Family Reunification”?
“Mary Mitchell Campbell and I produced that album together. All the proceeds go to reuniting the families separated at the border. There are some new songs, like ‘Singing You Home,’ which Jason Robert Brown wrote for Audra McDonald, and ‘Lullaby’ written by Josh Groban and Dave Matthews. We wanted to have some traditional Spanish songs such as ‘Arroró Mi Niño’ and ‘Cielito Lindo,’ which is what Lin-Manuel (Miranda) and Mandy Gonzalez sing. And we did ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star,’ which is sung by Ana Villafañe and Ingrid Michaelson. We wanted to incorporate traditional children’s songs in Spanish and English just to show we are not ‘other.’ We are all human beings and deserve to be treated as such.”
What can you tell me about the process of putting together a concert such as “Tales from Soprano Isle” that you will be performing in July at Caramoor in Katonah?
“It’s honestly one of my favorite things in the world to do. I want people to feel like they’ve just come into my home and I’m singing them songs and telling them jokes. I really want it to feel laid back and fun and enjoyable. For me, it’s a chance to do a little bit of stand-up between singing my most favorite songs. It’s everything I love to do. Sing. Connect with people. Embody a character through the songs. And tell jokes. That’s my happy place.”
Earlier we talked about the fascinating women you have portrayed onstage. Can you please say a few words about women who you consider to be role models and mentors?
“My mother has always been a role model for me. Patti LuPone and Chita Rivera. Their work ethic is astonishing to me Connie Britton who I worked with on ‘Nashville;’ she’s just a remarkable human. Rosemary Harris, at 91, is an absolute beacon of light. I aspire to be like her. I love Amy Schumer’s wit and humor and her kindness and love for her family and her friends. Oh, my gosh, there are so many! Rebecca Luker, the first person I ever understudied, who always treated me with kindness and respect. Sarah Ruhl, who I think is a beautiful playwright and a beautiful human. Celia Keenan-Bolger who is one of my dearest friends. She’s a remarkable mother and actress. The list goes on and on. But I think that’s a pretty good start.”
This interview would be incomplete without talking about your portrayal of Melania Trump on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.”
How did that come to be?
“Honestly, I was on the Colbert show promoting ‘She Loves Me.’ They put up a photo of me and a photo of her and pointed out our physical resemblance. That was kind of it. After the famously plagiarized Michelle Obama’s speech at the Republican National Convention, I got a call from them asking me if I would come on (the show) and do an impersonation. I only had a few hours to pull it together because I had never thought about it before. It’s sort of taken on a life of its own from there.”
Have you heard from her or her husband?
“I have not; which is interesting. I think she likes to stay under the radar, which I appreciate about her. I think she’s done an incredible job of keeping her son out of the spotlight, as well. But (Trump’s) such a narcissist. He doesn’t know that it’s about him. He just sees that I’m making fun of her and he could probably care less.”
In a way, the Melania Trump sketches and your involvement in the “Singing You Home” album are kind of political statements. Do you consider yourself to be political or an activist in any way?
“I do! I think that so many of us became complacent during the Obama administration. It felt like everything was going to be fine. I think that part of the difficulty of white privilege is that you do live in a bubble. I was absolutely shocked about the racist and deeply disturbing snakes that were popping up their heads. All of my friends who were people of color or indigenous people or Asian. They were like, ‘Yes! This is the world. Welcome.’ It made me realize that we have quite a bit of work to do. I have become increasingly political as it felt more and more like a dire emergency.”
We’re grateful for your work.
“I appreciate that. Thank you!”
Tony Award-winning actress and singer Laura Benanti performs her show “Tales From Soprano Isle” on July 6 at Caramoor’s Venetian Theater. For more. visit caramoor.org/events/laura-benanti.