Laura Benanti On Amy Schumer, Melania, And Her Experimental Youth

Also, Rosie O’Donnell: “I Did Not Have Sex With Madonna!”

Since her first Broadway musical, the 1998 revival of The Sound of Music, New York-born Laura Benanti has worked steadily and delightfully, whether in other revivals (Into the Woods, Nine, and Gypsy, the last one garnering her a Tony award) or original shows (The Wedding Singer, In The Next Room). She’s also regularly appeared on TV, most recently as Melania Trump on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert and as Edie on the Samantha Bee/Jason Jones TBS show The Detour.

After getting her fifth Tony nomination for playing the lovesick Amalia in She Loves Me last year, Benanti returns to Broadway for Steve Martin’s play Meteor Shower, which opens on November 29, and which happens to also star someone named Amy Schumer.

I talked to Benanti for her take on her career, Amy, and just about everything else under the sun.

Hello, Laura. So you have a non-singing role this time?

Yes. I’ve really tried throughout my career to diversify what I do, so I do musicals and plays and television and comedy and drama, to stretch the muscle and never be typecast. In this business, it’s so easy for people to pigeonhole you. I feel people know me for doing musicals and singing. I also really enjoy not singing. [Laughs]

I hear Meteor Shower is like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? on acid. True?

It’s absurdist. To me, it reminds me the most of a Christopher Durang play, where we’re asking the audience to suspend their disbelief a lot. It’s not a linear exploration of human behavior.

Walter McBride/Getty

What kind of character do you play?

I think of her as the id to Amy’s character. She’s a character not confined to social mores or rules of behavior. She’s very comfortable in her own skin and delights in making others uncomfortable.

Sounds delicious. And how is Amy to work with? Comfortable in her own skin?

I adore her. This is not one of those situations where I’m working with a famous person, so I have to tell you they’re great. She’s collaborative, and she’s the quickest, fastest, wittiest person ever. She’s not a people pleaser. She’s honest. She’s so kind and generous and hilarious and real, seemingly untouched by how famous she is. She’s still a regular person, except now she has money. If she buys herself a soup, she buys us all a soup.

At first I thought you said a suit! By the way, the show has a huge advance.

Thanks to her and Steve [Martin].

You’re no slouch yourself. And you have a lot of gay fans.

Thank you. Not to generalize a whole bunch of people, but they’re pretty much my favorites. If I have to choose a group I’d hang out with for the rest of my life, it would be gay men and women. I was the headline entertainment on a gay cruise to Alaska once. It was the happiest I’ve ever been. Thousands of gay men—and 14 lesbians.

I guess your heaven is my hell. [Laughs] You have gay fans. Have you had any same-sex sexual experiences?

Bruce Glikas/FilmMagic
Laura Benanti and Boyd Gaines attend the 62nd Annual Tony Awards on June 15, 2008.

I’m sure you know I’ve been married 100 times, and all those times to men, but surely in my youth I had curiosities, and all our sexuality rides on a spectrum.

You experimented?

I thought, Let’s see what this is like. I have so much respect for the gay community. The idea that somehow being gay is a choice rubs me the wrong way. I’m not a gay person or a bi person, but I think women are beautiful and there were times in my drunken youth where I was like, “Yeah, let’s make out.”

I have the photos! But let’s get to the important matter here: You’ve played Melania Trump [below] on Stephen Colbert’s show. Will this continue to be recurring?

Yeah, we do it whenever she pops up and does something ridiculous.

Scott Kowalchyk/CBS via Getty

So you’ll be on a lot more. [Laughs] Did you watch tapes of her for research, or did you just do it instinctively?

I watched tapes of her. Even though it’s an impersonation, I wanted to approach it as an actor, so I could have layers, and I wanted to have a point of view on it. When the whole thing came up with Ivana [and her mini war of words with Melania], they asked me to come on, but I was having a small issue with my daughter, which was then resolved, but I couldn’t do the show.

Do you feel Melania is a trapped animal or a willing accomplice?

I think she’s a willing accomplice, for sure. But for me, comedically, it’s more fun if she’s like America—if she’s reluctantly married to Trump the way America is. I play her as someone who’s married to him, but secretly hates him. That’s fun for me and most enjoyable to watch. But no, she knows who she’s married to.

You’re also on The Detour. Tell me about that.

We finished season three, in Calgary. It’s such a funny show, I wish more people watched it. I play a postal inspections service cop—the mail police. In Season 2, I became sort of obsessed with the family, and in Season 3, I get kicked out of the postal inspection service and I feel compelled to take the family down, so I follow them to Alaska.

I have to admit I don’t watch that much TV, but I do know everything Broadway. I remember when you tweeted against a man who wouldn’t clap during She Loves Me.

It turned into a shitstorm! People went crazy. I thought, This is what you’re all up in arms about? That an actress who just worked her balls off would prefer if someone, instead of staring angrily, put their hands together? Also, it was a joke. If I really wanted to make a statement, I certainly wouldn’t do it in a jingle—not with a limerick I made up. Why me? Why come out for me? I’m pretty harmless.

People don’t always get the tone, and besides, the twitterati are often angling for any showdown to flex their power. Let’s talk more about your Broadway career. Is it true that you aggressively went after the role of Maria Von Trapp?


No, I didn’t. I was 17. I auditioned for Liesl. They told me I seemed too mature, because I was basically born like a 45-year-old gay man. I auditioned several other times to be in the ensemble. My very last audition, they asked if I would read for the understudy to Maria. I read and got it. I thought they were joking (when offered the role). After Rebecca Luker left the show, I played the part opposite Richard Chamberlain when I was 19.

Was that your last Rodgers & Hammerstein show?

In The Sound of Music Live! [on NBC in 2013], I was the baroness.

Will Hart/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty
Stephen Moyer and Laura Benanti in The Sound of Music Live!

Of course. You played her more sympathetically than most.

Everybody knows that show backward and forward. I wanted to make it harder for the audience—like, “I might root for the baroness.”

Here’s something else Broadway-related: You went from supporting Patti LuPone in Gypsy in 2008 to both of you being ensemble in Women on the Verge of Nervous Breakdown in 2011. Was that a weird transition?

No, it was awesome. What’s so great about Patti is she doesn’t always have to be the star. She’s so collaborative, she just wants to be good in what she’s in. I think she was relieved to not have the entire thing riding on her. I’d work with her till my very last breath. She’s such a remarkable human. As you can see from Patti and Amy, I‘m drawn to women who aren’t bullshitters. These are women that are not trying to be quote-unquote nice girls. They’re real.

Bruce Glikas/FilmMagic
Patti LuPone and Benanti in 2011

I think you fit that mold yourself.

I appreciate that. I’ve incorporated that, thanks to Patti. I was much more of a people pleaser before.

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The Chronicles of Ridic

Way before Steve Martin, there was Charles Ludlam, who, 50 years ago, started the Ridiculous Theatrical Company with the campily posturing play Conquest of the Universe or When Queens Collided. Ludlam died of AIDS in 1987, and since then, his partner, Everett Quinton, has kept the spirit of the Ridiculous going, so why not direct and star in a revival of Conquest at that hub of avant-garde herstory, La MaMa?

Theo Cote

With giant orb-like planets hovering over the stage, the resulting pageant is elaborate, over the top, fourth wall breaking, and self referential, and sprinkles in pop cultural references (“My Man,” Valley of the Dolls), as well as citations to Chaucer and Shakespeare—plus fart noises and jokes. Yes, it’s as zanily aggressive and special as it seems, and I loved seeing my old pal Brian Belovitch (whom I first met when he was Tish Gervais) donning drag for the role of Alice, First Lady of Earth, who’s a nono-mom and quite the singer/dancer.

The show, by the way, is about a tyrannical buffoon who wants to control the universe. Sound familiar?
 

A Lesbian Cougar and a Cutie-Patootie

A big booster of Broadway, Rosie O’Donnell had her annual Marriott Marquis gala for Rosie’s Theater Kids, and this time (which was a fab Lion King celebration), Rosie showed up. Last year, she explained, Trump had been elected, “and I was sad and crying in bed. This year, it’s all Bob Mueller for me! Nothing was as good as last week’s indictments. I did not have sex with Madonna,” she added, “but if I did, this was 10 times better.” She paused, looked at a woman in the crowd and deadpanned, “You wouldn’t have. It was scary—at least to me.”

Manny Carabel/Getty
Parker Jaren O’Donnell, Rosie O’Donnell, and Blake O’Donnell attend the 2017 Rosie’s Theater Kids Fall Gala

Rosie also remarked that Carter Page and George Papadopoulis are “super gay-faced men” and she loves the idea that “two sissy-assed boys and lesbian Rachel Maddow are taking his orange ass down.” Way back when, I used to out Rosie, but now she’s the one doing taking the wheel and doing it—I love this switch.

As for her own lesbian life, Rosie may not be diving on Madonna, but she has been dating a much younger woman—a Boston cop named Rooney—and explained, “She kept asking me out! You know how these young kids are so pestery. I’m a lesbian cougar!” Rosie admitted that she sometimes asks her new girlfriend, “Am I too old for you?” and Rooney replies in a Boston accent, “Absolutely.” But I bet Rooney has trouble keeping up with the amazing Rosie, who’s also doing a Showtime show and soon a David Rabe play.

Bruce Glikas/FilmMagic
Madonna and O’Donnell in 2005

By the way, I was at the table of “freaks” bought by patron of the arts Jane Friedman (from the Howl gallery, which keeps East Village bohemia alive) and at one point, Rosie announced, “Give me a freak any time of the week. I’m comfortable with those you call demented.” After we donated money to the charity, she graduated to calling us “the creative table”—even better.

The next night was a benefit for Howl, where performers (including myself) sang Joni Mitchell songs, in my case while sporting a period-perfect poncho and beret. Backstage, the talented Nellie McKay told me she was doing a one-woman show as another cultural icon—the late Joan Rivers—at Joe’s Pub. McKay added that she’d just gotten a cease and desist from Rivers’ lawyers, which seems to be an intimidation tactic, though she’s obviously not ceasing and desisting.

Can we talk?
 

Tiffany and Company

Someone else who’s keeping on keepin’ on, Tiffany put on a powerhouse show at Iridium this weekend. The ’80s teen star is a wow in her prime, with amazing pipes that she applied to material she’s written, plus her old hits (she ended with “I Think We’re Alone Now”), and a sizzling ’80s medley that spanned the Eurythmics, Stevie Nicks, and Kim Wilde.

Darlene Hammond/Hulton Archive/Getty
Tiffany in 1989

Right off the bat, Tiffany came into the audience while singing, to break the fourth wall, establish rapport, and also hear herself better. (She said sometimes sound systems don’t work the way they did at sound check—the added bodies alter the effect—though I can tell you she’s pitch perfect no matter what.) And she’s extremely real and funny. Tiffany talked about her early days, trying to break into the country market at age 10. (She pointed out the absurdity of her little self belting adult ballads like “Stand By Your Man” and also trying to sing about tractors, though she she was from L.A.)

She reminisced about her emerging stardom and the weird trends back then, saying, “I wouldn’t change anything. [Pause] The bad hair I would change.” Pointing out that she’d done her own coiff for this evening with a simple bobbie pin, she remarked, “All the gay men in my life, and this is what I accomplish! I’m going to get texts saying, ‘Gurl!’”

A bluesy duet with her amazing backup singer, Jen Friend, was another highlight, and throughout the concert, the musicianship and spirits never flagged. Before the show, I asked Tiffany if she’d ever experienced the awful sexual harassment so many celebrities are coming forward to talk about. She said she hadn’t and that Dr. Oz’s show had asked her to make an appearance on the subject, but she had no personal experiences to talk about. Thank God! I’m glad no one creepy ever said to her, “I think we’re alone now.”

Michael Musto is the long running, award-winning entertainment journalist and TV commentator.
@mikeymusto