Monday, June 23, 2003
By BARBARA WILLIAMS
JAMES W. ANNESS / THE RECORD23-year-old Kinnelon native Laura Benanti in her dressing room before a performance.
She was 2 years old when, dressed in a long gown, she took a bite of an apple, put her hand to her forehead and said, "I feel faint." Her parents knew it was time to take away the Snow White videotape.
But her passion for performing and musical talent only grew stronger, and today Laura Benanti is appearing in "Nine" - her fourth Broadway musical in five years. She has been nominated for two best-featured-actress Tony Awards, and will appear in a new Richard Greenberg play, "The Violet Hour," this fall.
"I've been so lucky, it's amazing," Benanti says in her dressing room as she paints on layers of makeup before a matinee performance. "I've worked with and learned from some of the best in the business, and I get to be creative eight times a week - that's the best part of this whole thing."
Indeed, the Kinnelon native is not impressed with the glitz and glitter of her world. She dismisses the whole award process, noting that some of the best performances are not recognized, and declaring it all very subjective.
"So many factors can affect who is given an award. I'm not saying the people who win don't deserve it, but sometimes what the people giving out the awards ate for lunch can affect how they vote," Benanti says. "Forming relationships with the other people in the cast, and giving each performance all you've got, is really what is important."
Benanti's Broadway career began at 18 when she won the understudy part and then took over the role as Maria in "The Sound of Music." It was her first audition for the Great White Way, and she won the part playing opposite Richard Chamberlain after being called back five or six times.
She went on to appear in the musical "Swing" and then played Cinderella in the revival of "Into the Woods." Both roles won her Tony nominations for best featured actress.
Although each production offered its own personal and professional rewards, Benanti gushes praise for the current cast members, especially Antonio Bandaras, Chita Rivera, and Mary Stuart Masterson. She credits them with showing her how to be more confident, telling her to stand up straight, and providing true friendship. They return the affection.
"Laura is amazing; she is one of the most deeply talented and funniest people I know," Masterson says. "She is so honest of heart, and even with the talent and drive that she has - without personal skills like she has, you can't survive in this business."
But just as Benanti has hit career highs, she has also plummeted into some pretty dark valleys.
On her fast track to Broadway, several people told her she should lose weight and get a nose job. She never considered the surgery, but she did stop eating to shed some pounds. It spiraled into an eating disorder that took two years to overcome.
"I lost 20 pounds, which is pretty significant on my frame, and I felt awful," Benanti says. "My hair was falling out; I was extremely fatigued. I was really sick."
With some outside help, she fought her way back, and she now talks about it to prevent young girls from trying to "look like a model who has been airbrushed in a magazine. They are not real, and young girls need to understand that trying to look like them can destroy your health."
One teen girl influenced by Benanti is Molly Ephraim, the youngster who played Red Riding Hood in "Into the Woods." The two struck up a friendship in December 2001 that is still going strong.
"She is one of the neatest people I know," Ephraim, 17, says during a phone interview. "She's mature beyond her years, but very young at heart - she's hard to explain, but anyone would be lucky to have her as a friend."
Like most people, Benanti gained much inner strength and maturity through a very painful episode in her life. After suffering a herniated disc from doing daily pratfalls off a moving staircase while playing Cinderella, she had to withdraw from the play but was not allowed to speak publicly about her injury. Rumors ranged from her being deathly ill to faking the whole thing.
To make matters worse, Benanti was misdiagnosed for months. The correct treatment eventually required cervical spine surgery on her neck earlier this year. Her body is still healing, leaving her unable to play the guitar, and requiring daily physical therapy. She is expected to make a full recovery.
"It was terrible; I couldn't talk about it - it was a contractual thing - so I couldn't correct any of the things people were saying about me," Benanti says. "But I learned that the only thing that really matters is your family and friends, because they know you, and you can't control what other people are going to think or say."
Benanti's mother, Linda, a former
Broadway actress and voice teacher, says singing will always be a part of her daughter's life.
"I used to sing to her when she was an infant, and when I stopped, she would hum," Linda Benanti says. "She's been singing since she was 2, and it's just always been her passion."
Benanti had a conventional childhood, growing up with her mother, psychotherapist stepfather, Sal, and athletically talented younger sister, Mariel, in the affluent borough. She returns home from her Manhattan apartment whenever possible, admitting that she misses her close-knit family and the quiet found in the bucolic community.
Despite her talent, Benanti's parents did not allow her to perform as a child, and she was permitted to be in only one play a year during high school.
Her golden voice quickly attracted attention, however, and she received Paper Mill's first Rising Star Award for her title role in Kinnelon High School's production of "Hello Dolly!" She went on to perform in several other Paper Mill productions, so impressing directors that when Broadway casting scouts came looking for a Liesl, the oldest daughter in "The Sound of Music," they pointed to Benanti. Her auditions landed her a job in the chorus and the part of Maria's understudy, launching her Broadway career.
This professional windfall derailed her plans for attending New York University, however. It is the one thing she feels she missed out on due to her life on the stage.
"I wish I could have gone to school, and I certainly recommend it to other people," Benanti says. "I've learned from the best, but I missed out on being with people my own age, the socializing that goes along with that life.
"There were many lonely times living by myself in a studio apartment in Manhattan and performing with people in their 40s while I was 19," she adds. "I just wasn't around people my age; many times, I was treated as a child and expected to act like an adult."
Currently, Benanti pals around with her roommate, Darcy, and is dating someone she doesn't want to identify, but admits "he's in this business." She hopes to marry someday and have children, but says she is not even considering these additions to her already full life.
She has also shed a longing to be content with an "ordinary life, like living on a farm in Montana." She says she used to think that type of life would be much easier. Now she says she realizes that would not be any easier, just different. Today, she is thrilled with her catapult from the suburbs of New Jersey to Broadway stages and is enjoying every moment.
"This is a rough business, and the only reason to be in it is because you can't be yourself out of it," Benanti says. "But I know who I am and this is my life, and I know how extremely lucky I am."
©2003 New Jersey Media Group