“I dance with the Rockettes!”
That’s actress Laura Benanti gleefully describing one of the aspects of her starring role in Radio City Music Hall’s New York Spring Spectacular, the venerable theater’s current bid to offer a warm-weather counterpart to its long-running annual Christmas show. Opening Thursday and running through May 3, the lavish production is being presented by Madison Square Garden Entertainment and Weinstein Live Entertainment, with Harvey Weinstein handling the producer reins.
Not that Benanti ever particularly wanted to be a dancer. While she had dreams of starring on Broadway ever since childhood, dancing was never one of her strengths.
“But as I was kicking with them in Radio City Music Hall I realized it was the fulfillment of a dream I should have had,” she says.
The actress hit it big early on, playing a small role in the 1998 Broadway revival of The Sound of Music while understudying its star Rebecca Luker as Maria. When Luker later left the production, Benanti, then only 19 years old, took over the lead role opposite Richard Chamberlain and garnered raves.
She has worked consistently on New York stages ever since. She received Tony nominations for her work in such shows as Swing!, Into the Woods and Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown and won for her performance as Louise opposite Patti LuPone in the hit 2008 revival of Gypsy. Her other Broadway credits include Nine, The Wedding Singer and In the Next Room (or The Vibrator Play).
Benanti’s stock has risen even higher in recent years thanks to extensive television work, including recurring roles in such shows as Royal Pains, Nurse Jackie, The Good Wife and Law and Order: Special Victims Unit. Although her much-hyped series The Playboy Club lasted a mere three episodes, Go On, the sitcom in which she appeared with Matthew Perry, managed to struggle through a whole season.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that, according to Benanti.
“I don’t consider a full season of a television show a failure,” she says. “In this day and age it’s hard to have a hit. If Seinfeld premiered now it would be canceled after the first few episodes.”
She also appeared in 2013’s NBC live broadcast of The Sound of Music as Elsa Schrader, Captain Von Trap’s would-be fiancee.
“At first I wasn’t sure what to do, because I had only approached the piece through the lens of Maria,” she says. “But then I had a really great time looking at Elsa through fresh eyes. She’s not a horrible person. She’s a beautiful, savvy businesswoman who’s just not that great with children.”
New York Spring Spectacular is not Radio City’s first attempt at creating a spring hit. Last year the venue’s $25 million production Heart and Lights, written by Pulitzer and Tony Award winner Doug Wright (I Am My Own Wife), was abruptly canceled just days before it was to begin its five-week run, with producers conceding that the show needed more work.
The retitled incarnation features an all-new creative team led by Tony-winning director and choreographer Warren Carlyle (After Midnight). It’s written by rising young playwright Joshua Harmon (Bad Jews) and the creative directors are Diane Paulus (Hair, Pippin) and Randy Weiner (Sleep No More).
Starring opposite Benanti is Dancing With the Stars heartthrob Derek Hough and, of course, the marvel of precision dancing that is the Rockettes. Among the many celebrities appearing in video cameos or via voiceovers are Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Donald Trump, Walt Frazier and Bella Thorne. There’s even an appearance by Paddington Bear.
“That Paddington is a real diva, let me tell you,” the actress laughs.
“I play a technology mogul named Jenna who has a company called JennaWorld,” explains Benanti about her character. “Essentially she wants to take the world into a virtual place where you can experience everything from the comfort of your own home and your own devices.”
Unfortunately that means sacking lovable, longtime NYC tour guide Bernie (Lenny Wolpe), who resolutely sticks to his old-fashioned methods. Hough plays Jack, an angel sent by God (voiced by Whoopi Goldberg, no less) to help Jenna learn the error of her ways.
“At first I didn’t think I wanted to do it,” says Benanti about the show. “But when they explained what it was going to be, I thought about the opportunity to be part of such a family-friendly, iconic production in the city in which I live and it made me excited.”
She says that it’s been a challenge performing in a theater that seats approximately 6,000 people. (Even the biggest of the official Broadway houses have less than a 2,000-seat capacity.)
“I’ve been doing a lot of television lately, which is all very internal,” she explains. “You just think something and the camera sees it. So this is a lot bigger. You have to use a lot of physical gestures, and I’m learning that the voice is very important. People need to hear your mood based on the timbre of your voice. It’s been a real learning experience.”
Among Benanti’s current television credits is a recurring role on the third season of ABC’s Nashville in which she plays country singer Sadie Stone, the victim of domestic abuse, struggling to put her painful past behind her. The lighthearted Radio City show makes for a nice departure.
“I’m not pretending 16 hours a day that I’ve been punched in the face,” she says. “But I think it’s a powerful storyline that the Nashville writers were brave to take on and they’ve handled it really beautifully.”
After the Radio City show ends its run, Benanti will be filming CBS’ new comic-book series Supergirl, tentatively scheduled to premiere this fall. She’ll play the recurring role of Alura Zor-El, Supergirl’s mother, who helps guide her daughter through her development into a superhero. Then in spring 2016, she’ll be back on Broadway in the musical revival, She Loves Me, starring opposite Josh Radnor.
As with dancing, comic books were not a particular passion for Benanti when she was a child.
“To be honest, not really,” she admitted, when asked if she was a fan. “I was too busy singing along to Julie Andrews.”