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Though she's happily married to fellow actor Steven Pasquale (Rescue Me, A Man of No Importance), Laura Benanti, 28, has another man in her life -- musical theater legend Stephen Sondheim. After starring in both the 2002 Broadway revival of Into the Woods (for which she got a Tony nomination) and the Los Angeles Opera's 2004 staging of A Little Night Music, Benanti nabbed the plum role of Louise -- a.k.a. Gypsy Rose Lee -- in the City Center Encores! 2007 production of Gypsy, which made the leap to the Great White Way in March. The Advocate spoke with Benanti from her Manhattan apartment about battling illness, sharing the spotlight with the legendary Patti LuPone, and why her own mom is nothing like Mama Rose.
We actually had to reschedule this interview because you diagnosed with walking pneumonia. How do handle the physical demands of a show like Gypsy while battling a serious illness? I was out Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and the Saturday matinee two weeks ago. And I was really sick for the two weeks before that. I was taking two different courses of antibiotics and pushing through as best I could. But I was coughing onstage and the doctor said, "You have pneumonia. You can't go to work." Because it's contagious -- God forbid I give Patti LuPone pneumonia!
The queens would kill you! Were you put on bed rest and not allowed to talk? Yeah, I was on vocal rest for two weeks. But the show is so demanding, it wasn't such a punishment. And I'm not one of those people who always has to be out and about shopping or going to parties. I'm happy to sit and read a book or watch TV.
Landing a role like Louise alongside Patti LuPone could make anyone sick with nerves. How did you handle it? It was a little nerve-racking. It's an iconic role with brilliant performers -- you don't want to be the jerk who spoils it. After a week of rehearsals, though I felt like, OK, you'll be decent -- you won't be so bad that you'll distract from everyone else.
Hopefully you've realized you're doing a lot more than "decent." How is it sharing the spotlight with Patti? She's so warm and supportive and gracious. We really do have a family-type relationship off-stage, but more sisterly than mother-daughter. She never gives advice without you asking for it, and she lets me have my own creative experience. In the dress-room scene where we have the big confrontation, I noticed that her back was to the stage a lot. I mentioned it to her and she said, "I know -- but this scene is about you, it's not about me." How many Broadway stars would say that?
What's your favorite number in the show? Ooh, that's a tough one. I love doing "If Mama Was Married," but watching "Rose's Turn" is like taking a master class. It's my favorite to watch -- and really the only one I can watch.
Rose is often characterized as this monster of a mother. Do you think she's misunderstood? I do. Most people don't think about the fact that Rose didn't really have a mother of her own. She was raised by her dad. At the end of the play, when I ask her why she did it, she says, "I guess I just wanted to be noticed." The way Patti plays Rose, she's very much a woman who loves her children. I don't think she realizes she's hurting them -- when she finally realizes that's just what she's done, she's utterly horrified. It's sad because she's driven June away and turned Louise into a much colder person than she might've been.
How do you approach Louise? I see Louise, like everyone in the show, as someone who wants to be loved. By her mother and by Tulsa. I know it's a cliche, but a lot of actors are screwed up because they never got enough love in their lives. And they bask in the glow of the applause because for a second it feels like love. That's what happens to Louise. But the applause of strangers is never going to be as fulfilling as the love of your family.
Speaking of family, your dad, Martin Vidnovic, starred in The King and I and Oklahoma! on Broadway and was nominated for the Tony for Brigadoon, which he costarred in with your mom, Linda. Did you parents encourage you to get into acting? No, not really, and thank God. They saved me from a lot of heartbreak. I was 5 foot 4 at age 11 -- I wasn't going to get cast in Annie. As I got older, my mom and her second husband, Salvatore, who really raised me, said I could do one community theater production a year and my high school musical -- if my schoolwork didn't suffer. They let me enjoy theater without facing that kind of serious rejection until I was old enough to handle it. But they totally encouraged my creative side. I grew up in a home where it wasn't unusual for us to have a big parade with pots and pans and kazoos.
And your mom was actually your vocal coach? She still is. She made sure my technique was good, but she never pushed me. Even now, there's never any sense of, "I'm so proud of you because you're doing well in the theater." She's proud of me because I'm a good person -- if I do say so myself!
You know, you're the envy of many gay men. Not only are you a breath away from Patti LuPone every night but your husband, Steven Pasquale, is drop-dead gorgeous and extremely talented. Do people just hate you? Hah -- I hope not! But Steven and I are really just total geeks. The other night we were sitting at home watching Battlestar Galactica and making up silly sings. I had just taken my curlers out, so my hair looked like a giant afro. And we both realized if anybody knew how dorky we really were, they wouldn't believe it. But it's great to be loved by someone who's as silly as I am.
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