I get the feeling that if you were to go back in time and tell 11 year old Laura Benanti that she would one day be one of Broadway’s most beloved stars, she would’ve thought you were out of your mind. At least, this is the impression I get when I hear Benanti talk about her Old Soul childhood on her essential new album In Constant Search of the Right Kind of Attention (Amazon, iTunes), a live recording of her cabaret at 54 Below released by Broadway Records.
In between her eclectic song choices, which range from Golden Age Broadway to Harry Chapin, Benanti interjects endearing, self-deprecating anecdotes about learning to sing entire Sondheim scores as a pre-pubescent, dressing up as Fosca from Passion for Halloween and crying on the school bus because none of her classmates knew who Rosemary Clooney was. (She pays homage – and bids adieu – to these formative years with an irresistible rendition of “I’m Glad I’m Not Young Anymore” from Lerner and Loewe’s Gigi). I sense that Benanti herself is still somewhat surprised that the awkward, unpopular girl with the frizzy hair and love of classic movies grew up to be a glamorous Tony-winning leading lady.
My first encounter with Benanti came with the 2007 City Center production of Gypsy. Frankly, I had no idea what to expect, as I was surprised by her casting. However, my jaw dropped in admiration as I watched her transform from awkward Louise into Gypsy Rose Lee during “The Strip.” I went back to see the show three times on Broadway (opening night, post-Tony performance and closing), and it became quite clear to me that Benanti was the heart and soul of that production. I doubt I will ever see a better Louise as long as I live.
With her shimmering soprano, Benanti is clearly at home with classic musical theatre repertoire (“I’m Old Fashioned,” “My Time of Day”), but she is also utterly compelling on contemporary and original material, including two of her own original songs. A tribute to 54th Street comes by way of the modified “On the Street Where I Lived” followed immediately by a mash-up of Ellie Goulding’s “Starry-Eyed” and Lana Del Rey’s “Video Games.” She closes her set by revisiting “Unusual Way” from Nine, which she dedicates to Chita Rivera (who taught her how to take a bow) and offers “Model Behavior,” her dazzling showstopper from Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, as an encore.
Benanti was assisted by Todd Almond, who served as the evening’s musical director, arranger, pianist, scene partner, back-up singer and accordionist. Almond is also a composer, and he joins Benanti on his “Tilly’s Aria/Frank and Tilly Make Love”, which is immediately followed by Benanti’s rendition of his “Spring is Coming.” His is a voice I want to (and expect will) hear more of in the near future. Also, his arrangements are superb; fitting the atmosphere of each song perfectly.
Some of the best moments on the album are the spontaneous, off-the-cuff interactions she has with the audience (most notably a chance encounter with a gynecologist). It’s clear that Benanti is much more interested in the human connection than with sticking to her script. The star is so at ease in the venue that her performance is all the more charming and humorous, making it one of the best of the Live at 54 Below albums so far.
While Benanti’s recent ventures into TV haven’t been successful (something she discusses on the album – though Go On definitely deserved a renewal), she always comes home to NY as she did with this show, this album and the upcoming Encores! production of The Most Happy Fella. I can’t wait until she is back on Broadway headlining a musical, but in the meantime I’ve got this delightful album to keep me company.