As Laura Benanti's mother tells her, she arrived in this world exactly on her due date: "My mom says I couldn't miss an opening. I'm good at this."
Indeed she is. And she's not missing much, either, having made her Broadway debut a year ago at age 18, and her debut as a Broadway leading lady -- as the new Maria in "The Sound of Music," opposite Richard Chamberlain -- this year, at age 19.
When critics arrived a month ago to look at the new casting in the year-old revival, they gave her glowing reviews, with almost all commenting that the show was much improved by her and Chamberlain's presence.
Benanti's future looks rosy, too: Just last week, she completed a workshop production of "Time and Again," a new musical based on the popular Jack Finney time-travel novel that has a hoped-for opening in New York about a year from now. If that comes through, she'd be originating a lead role on Broadway.
Her rise is all the more remarkable for being so fast. She only started acting professionally at 18, after representatives from the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, N.J., saw her as Dolly in the Kinnelon High School (300 students) production of "Hello, Dolly!" and gave her its Rising Star Award. A couple of small roles at the Paper Mill followed.
Before that, her parents -- her mother, Linda, is a voice teacher and her step-father, Sal, a psychotherapist -- had been "adamant about me having a normal childhood. I'm grateful now, but all I wanted was to do commercials and be Annie." Her father, Martin Vidnovic, is also a Broadway actor.
Benanti (who uses her step-father's last name) had just enrolled at New York University when she auditioned for "The Sound of Music" -- to play the oldest daughter. "They laughed at me," she says. "I looked too mature, and my voice is an adult's voice, not a child's voice." The producers asked her to come back seven more times, she said, before casting her as what she calls "a random nun." And they asked her to understudy Maria.
"I was elated," she recalls. "I'm grateful to the producers. They took a real risk," in part because she feels she didn't look sufficiently Austrian for the role. (A brown wig over her dark, curly hair has taken care of that.) It's rare for an understudy to take over, so that news came as a "big surprise. I was sure they would bring in a big star."
She'd like to go back to college at some point, she says. "I don't know if it would be for theater, or for something academic like history or women's studies. But that would be eventually in my life. Right now, I need to ride this wave." The right TV or film project down the road would also make her happy.
For now, she says, she feels "overwhelmed . . . that my life came together so quickly. But I also feel fear, for the same reason. What could be better than this?" -- Aileen Jacobson