Laura Benanti: ‘In Constant Search of the Right Kind of Attention’


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.

New from Broadway Records

New label Broadway Records is fast adding eclectic titles and talent to its catalog with its first cabaret recording and first concept cast album, though I don’t really think a 20 year old score can really have a “concept” recording this late in the game (more on that later). They’re fast becoming a label to reckon with, following on their high profile inaugural releases of Bonnie & Clyde, Lysistrata Jones, and the Nick Jonas How to Succeed EP.

It seems that Laura Osnes is just about everywhere these days. In the last year alone, the rising star has become a Tony nominee for her leading turn in Bonnie & Clyde as well as the new darling of the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization (Encores! Pipe DreamCarnegie Hall’s The Sound of Music and the upcoming revisal of Cinderella). She also brought Dream a Little Dream, her first go at cabaret, to the Cafe Carlyle.

She opens with “How ‘Bout a Dance,” the best from the Bonnie & Clyde before launching into a specialty “I Have Confidence.” An affable personality, Osnes has a self-deprecating sense of humor about stints in The Music Man (her dream role is Marian the Librarian) and even sings along with a demo of “Don’t Rain On My Parade” recorded by her 12 year old self. The comic highlight of the album is her reunion with Bonnie & Clyde co-star Jeremy and their spirited rendition of “Anything You Can Do” from Annie Get Your Gun (lots of delightful ad libs, and Osnes holds that note for 23 seconds). Props to her for including the obscure “Femininity” from the 1958 musical Oh, Captain. The emotional apex was with her tribute to her late mother, singing a devastating “When She Loved Me.”

Overall, Osnes is stronger in her middle register, or interpreting pop material (“I Think It’s Gonna Rain Today” and Norah Jones’ “Sunrise”) than in her less interesting ingenue/soprano mode (“Till There Was You” and “All The Things You Are”). That said, this doesn’t detract from the overall enjoyment of an accomplished recording. The single misstep I see in the recording is the inclusion of “A Whole New World,” a duet with Osnes’ husband Nathan Johnson which quite frankly lacks any real spark. This was Osnes’ first attempt at cabaret, so the patter isn’t very strong and she fills in gaps with what sounds like nervous laughter. As cabaret, this set as a whole lacks cohesiveness, but as a recording it’s quite fine. As a bonus, she included a preview of her upcoming Cinderella with a sincere rendition of “In My Own Little Corner.”

A new tour of Jekyll & Hyde starring Constantine Maroulis and Deborah Cox is on tour prior to a spring berth on Broadway. This new “concept” recording has been released in correlation with this new production. This time the orchestrations (by Jason Howland) are more rock flavored than I recall. Since the recording consists of the principal characters, the abysmal ensemble numbers are (thankfully) nowhere to be heard. The album restores “Bring on the Men,” which had been cut for the 1997 Broadway premiere. To be honest, the adaptation of the Robert Louis Stevenson novel is still fairly ridiculous, with some truly poor lyric choices from Leslie Bricusse and Steve Cuden though it has a few moments that stand out (namely “In His Eyes”).

Maroulis sings an impressive “This is the Moment,” while his “Confrontation” is something of a hot mess. Cox brings an appropriately dark, sultry vocal quality to Lucy (the role originated by Linda Eder) and acquits herself especially well on “Someone Like You” and “A New Life.” Teal Wicks doesn’t made much of an impression as Emma, a flavorless performance of a flavorless role paling in comparison to those have sung this role before. This recording was made in July and I can’t help but feel that the singers would have been better served with a later recording date, allowing them to define the characters they hadn’t yet played.

Three from Broadway Records

I have to say I’m really excited by the high number of cast recordings that have emerged this season, from Broadway, off-Broadway and the Encores! season. If rumors of a Leap of Faith cast album are true, we’ll have recorded accounts of all Tony-nominated Best Musicals and Musical Revivals, among others. In the midst of this busy season, a brand label has emerged on the scene. Broadway Records is making its first foray into the cast recording world with three releases of note: two original Broadway cast albums and a star replacement EP. All three are beautifully produced and handsomely packaged, with color photographs. The two full cast albums contain lyrics, synopses and essays from the creators.

Bonnie & Clyde didn’t do much for me in the theatre, but it makes for a surprisingly entertaining listen. I still feel that Wildhorn’s music was the least of that show’s problems. Don Black’s lyrics remain a mixed bag, but that is buoyed by some wonderful performances especially the four principals. Laura Osnes’ performance of “How About a Dance?” is worth the price of the record. Some numbers are duds (including the act two opener “Made in America”), but for the most part the cast album makes a better case for the show than the show itself! In fact, separating the score from that terrible libretto is probably the best way to experience Bonnie & Clyde. Included is a bonus track of the cut song about Clyde’s impotency, “This Never Happened Before” (just be warned, it’s one that cannot be unheard).

How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying has ended its run at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre, but that shouldn’t stop you from hearing the third and final Finch, Nick Jonas, on this new 5 track EP. I am only familiar with Mr. Jonas from what I had seen of the Les Miserables anniversary concert, where his performance as Marius was strained with pop mannerisms and was rather uncomfortable to watch. However,  his performance as Finch on record is a far cry from that; Jonas is affable and sings delightfully. He sounds much more at ease when not trying to do that straight-tone pop thing they expect of the kids these days. The tracks include “How to Succeed,” “The Company Way” (with Rob Bartlett), “Rosemary” (with Rose Hemingway), “I Believe in You” and “Brotherhood of Man.”

“So give them Lysistrata, and I wish them lots of luck.” So Carmen Bernstein sings in Curtains. She’s not far off the mark, as far as musicalizing Aristophanes’ bawdily enterprising heroine is concerned. There was the 1961 musical The Happiest Girl in the World, which combined Offenbach’s music with Yip Harburg’s lyrics, that lasted 97 performances. Then there was the much-reviled play-with-music adaptation of the play in 1972 starring Melina Mercouri. And while it had some ardent admirers, including Ben Brantley, Lysistrata Jones wasn’t long for the Broadway stage.  I missed seeing Lyssie Jones but the early closing of the show allowed the producers to make this original cast album which will no doubt give this show a cult following post-Broadway. This adaptation involves a perpetually losing college basketball team, and the head cheerleader (the dynamite Patti Murin) withholding sex from the players until they win a game. The score (by Lewis Flinn) is rather tuneful, engaging and at times just fun (and occasionally some of librettist Douglas Carter Beane’s work shines through). Included is a bonus track of the show’s inspirational “Hold On” sung by Jennifer Holliday with the cast.

With these three marvelous releases, I look forward to hearing what Broadway Records has to offer in the future. (Crossing fingers for an EP of Victoria Clark’s Sally in Follies).