How I'm Living Now: Laura Benanti, Tony Winner

Jenny Anderson

The performer talks about her viral movement, Sunshine Songs, covering Selena Gomez and the Jonas Brothers, and devouring her go-to comfort food — English muffins.

With production grinding to a halt in the face of the novel coronavirus pandemic, the entertainment industry has found itself navigating uncharted territory. To offer a better sense of how, The Hollywood Reporter is running a regular series that focuses on how Hollywood's writers, actors, directors, executives and others are living and working in these challenging times.

Standing on the porch of her parents's New Jersey home, where she's isolating with her husband and their 3-year-old daughter, Ella, Tony winner Laura Benanti recorded a request of young performers everywhere. She wanted to see clips of the performances in school productions that they wouldn't be able to stage due to lockdown orders. The videos poured in by the thousands and, with the help of a few friends and major organizations, Benanti created a Sunshine Songs initiative that will produce its first concert series this weekend. She talks to The Hollywood Reporter about how it all came together, what it's been like to perform for virtual audiences and what she's learned about herself during the pandemic.

Let’s start easy: How are you?

As well as can be expected. That’s kind of my answer. I'm acutely aware of how lucky my circumstances are, so when I get into a dark or a scared place I just remind myself that I'm very privileged to be experiencing this the way that I am.

You’re still at your parents’ home in New Jersey, correct?

I am — with my husband and my 3-year old. We have not seen another human in a while, other than socially distant visits with my [in-laws]. We wear masks and [stand] 10 feet apart. We’re in New Jersey and not in New York, which I have really mixed feelings about. We wanted our daughter to be able to get outside when she needed to.

Tell me about those mixed feelings. New York City is such a big part of who you are and your career. What does it feel like to be far away? Not that New Jersey is technically that far …

Yeah, but it feels like a million miles away. I was born in New York, and I moved back there when I was 18. I'm a New Yorker. Other than New Jersey — in the house I'm in now — I've never lived anywhere else. It feels really odd not to be there. There’s a little part of me that felt like a traitor for leaving, like I was abandoning my home. These are the moments where I feel like this is where motherhood has changed how I lived my life. If it were just me I'd still be there — but it's not just me. I have a 3-year-old who is very active, and I want her to be able to get outside and run around, and we would not be able to do that in New York in the same way. We’re very grateful to have the option and we’re very aware most people do not.

What do your days look like now?

My daughter has not been sleeping through the night, which is a bit of a regression. I hear a lot of parents saying that older kids are asking for bottles and pacifiers and not sleeping through the night, which is a way of processing what's going on. So, we're up a lot in the night, which is really challenging. Then up for the day usually anytime between 5:30 a.m. and maybe 7 a.m. at the latest. Seven a.m. is like, “Oh my gosh, I’m a lady of leisure.” (Laughs.) Then we immediately try to figure out what to do with her. So we're doing a lot of sensory activities with boxes and clay and trying to make things. But at 3, her attention span is five minutes at best. She’s wanting to do a lot of imaginary [games], which one would think I'm great at and love and that is inaccurate. I'm very bad at it, and I hate it. I’m playing an evil wizard and my daughter turned to me the other day and said, “I just don’t believe you’re angry.”

My husband works from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m., and then he usually gives me from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. to do my work and then at 5 he goes back to do his. My work, right now, consists of watching and commenting on all of the Sunshine Songs, which may sound like a small thing, but I promised the kids that I would do it. It's beautiful, and there are a lot of them. Now we’re working on the Sunshine Concert series with my friend Kate Deiter-Maradei.

How did that come together?

Kate is a community activist in Raleigh, [North Carolina], and she and I got together to figure out a way to bring the joy of the Sunshine Songs to people who don't have social media and who are particularly isolated during this time, including those in senior living communities or hospitalized children because those are groups who are more isolated than ever. Many are not able to see families or see anyone because it puts them at risk. We really wanted to reach out to them, perform for them, celebrate them, and just bring in a sense of community. Kate reached out to a company called K4 Connect, a senior technology company. Another company called Seniorly reached out and now we've partnered with them.

We have hundreds of thousands of senior living communities that are now going to be able to view our concert this Saturday, May 2, at 6 p.m. ET. It’s completely free and not monetized in any way. Our plan is to do as many as we can and then give permanent links to senior living communities and children's hospitals so that they can have them in perpetuity and show them as part of their programming. Audiences at home can go to SunshineSongs.com which is a website built for us by my husband’s company, Prompt. People can download Sunshine [play]bills and tickets and print them out if they want to make an event of it. We’re hoping people at home join to bring a sense of community to our aging loved ones and to our hospitalized children to say, “We see you; you have not disappeared. You are here. We love you. You're not alone.”

I have to ask you about your new cover of “Sucker.” Why the Jonas Brothers and why that song?

I’m releasing an album later this year and it’s already recorded — it’s just sitting there because of the quarantine and who knows what’s happening? We’d always planned on releasing a single in April, but it did not seem appropriate considering what we’re going through. We went through the 11 tracks and honestly, that song was the only one we felt could remotely work during this time, But I did not want to [profit off of] it, so I’m donating it as another way to be of service. I feel like we're suckers for the people we're missing or suckers for the people that we’re in quarantine with. I'm certainly a sucker for all of these people being of service and these medical professionals. So we tried to tailor it as best we could and make it have a positive message, something that would be a bit of a light in the darkness.

The music video is a like a love letter to America, to the world, at this time. I wanted to create a bit of a time capsule of how we're spending our days with a particular emphasis on gratitude for people being of service in their communities and our health care workers on the front lines. So I reached out on social media to people asking how they're being of service to their communities and I received just an influx of responses. I was gathering videos and sending them to our wonderful editor, Jodi Savitz. I'm donating 100 percent of my proceeds to an organization called Food Corp. One out of every six kids in the United States relies on the school cafeteria for their daily nutrition, so Food Corp. is making sure that they don't go hungry while schools are closed. 

Because you covered the Jonas Brothers and so many other top pop songs during your Sage Awards gala performance, is there an artist or a pop song out there right now that you're really hoping to cover next?

I'm embarrassed to say I don't really know a lot of current pop music. I listen to tried-and-true stuff, like a lot of Joni Mitchell. I do have two other covers on the album and they are very popular songs. One is a Selena Gomez [song], and it was meant to be our first single but it would’ve been too sad. I don't think I'm allowed to say what [the other one] is, but she's a pretty awesome artist so I’m very excited for people to hear it.

You’re also part of this new Dracula radio project. How did that come about?

My pals, who are producing it and wrote it, reached out and asked me to do it. I asked them what it was and they said, “You get to do a ridiculous voice.” I said, “Yep.” We spent a few hours together recording and I'm so excited it's happening on Friday. I cannot wait to hear it. It's such a fantastic group of people. Doctors and scientists are dealing with an insurmountable obstacle right now in caring for our bodies, our health and wellness, and I feel as artists, my only way to help is to care for the soul and the heart. Music and laughter are the two best ways to do that. I'm just trying to contribute the best I can.

As a performer, how have you found the transition to virtual venues?

There’s an intimacy to it that I really love. I'm missing connection with people, and for me, I feel like this is an opportunity to really, like, reach someone who might need it. I try to make it really personal instead of feeling like I'm performing for thousands of people, I just try to reach this one person and connect with them. That’s what I do on stage.

What are you hearing from friends, peers and producers about the path back once live events can resume?

I don't think any of us know, which is what's so scary. It really is the unknown. I don't know when and I don't know what it will look like, but I think we're seeing that people are craving that connection. We have been using this method of storytelling from the start, when we, as humans, stood up on two feet and painted in caves around campfires, lending our voices to each other. It's an ancient, sort of, primal art form. I don't think that my heart beating in the same space as a thousand other hearts and me singing only for them can go away. I just don't think it will. It’s an irreplaceable art form. I have confidence that it will go back. I just don't know when and I don't know what it looks like. In the interim, I continue to be so impressed with people for how they are making it work in this time. Until [we're back], we’re going to see more and more creativity.

What have you learned about yourself in this period?

I've learned that I have a hard time doing nothing. Being of service is absolutely the way that I deal with hardship, fear, anxiety and depression. I'm also noticing that I can allow it to spin out a little bit and I become almost like a pathological helper. I'm also trying to figure out how to ask for things and how to fill my own cup so I'm not pouring from an empty cup. Um, I'm learning that. I'm learning that I really need to work on being where I am. Whatever I'm doing, I'm just reminding myself, “Be here now. Be here now.” It’s really easy for me to start spinning, you know? Just focus on what I’m doing and doing it well.

What’s the best advice you've given or received about staying sane right now?

I don't know the best advice I've given, but the best advice I've received is just to be more gentle with myself. I don't have to do everything; I don't have to fix everything. It's OK to have a day when I feel scared, and it's OK to be frustrated and annoyed. It's OK to get mad. I'm not comfortable with those feelings. Motherhood has been a journey for me and, again, I'm learning that I can't pour from an empty cup. 

What are you watching, reading or listening to as a reprieve?

My husband and I — when we are able to watch TV, which is rarely — have started watching Mad Men. I had never watched it, so we'll do an episode before bed when we can. That has been really great. Obviously, the Sunshine Songs are the rest of my day. I've been listening to a lot of podcasts on PINNA. It’s a kid’s platform and they have a podcast called "Sugar Monster," which I highly recommend. I'm reading a book called Beyond Behaviors, which is about my child. I'm not reading novels or watching movies. It's funny, sometimes I do get jealous — another emotion I’m very uncomfortable with — when I see my friends without children exercising a lot, learning how to cook, reading books or watching movies. I'm like, “Oh my God, what is that?” That sounds so delicious. 

What or who have become your go-to news source during this period?

I don't have the news on because of my daughter, and I have to be really careful because I can spin out on it. It can make me really angry when I see the misinformation being disseminated from the White House. I tend to go on my phone and check in with the World Health Organization twice a day, once in the morning and at night, to see if anything has changed or if there are any new protocols. My husband goes online and watches the news and then he gives me the basics. I can’t stand it otherwise, especially the editorializing that is allowed to happen on our “news stations.” I think Fox News is responsible for a lot of lost lives. I really do. I blame them on a major level. I don't know how these people look at themselves in the mirror when they go to bed or how they are able to live with themselves knowing that they are reporting fiction as fact. When I do watch, I'll watch CNN or MSNBC. Any time I see him — he who shall not be named — it puts me in a rage and I feel like I can't function. 

What’s become your go-to comfort food?

English muffins with an obscene amount of butter. I find myself craving that and eating way too many in a day. I now know where muffin tops come from.

What’s atop your to-do list once this is all over?

I want to go visit my grandmother, who is 95 and by herself. She hasn't really seen another person in seven weeks. Her cellphone broke so she can't even FaceTime. She was the inspiration for me wanting to do the Sunshine Songs concerts. That’s what I’m going to do: go see her ... right away.

Before you go, I have to ask about the Sondheim birthday tribute, Take Me to the World, that you participated in. You got high praise, not only for your performance but for the lighting and bathroom backdrop. What was the highlight for you?

I mean, my performance was not [it]. (Laughs.) It's so funny, I watched myself and I was like, “Oh gosh, why?” But anytime you have Meryl Streep, Christine Baranski and Audra McDonald together like that — wow. Patti LuPone, of course. I loved Sutton [Foster’s] performance with her daughter. All of the performances were incredible. Oh my gosh, Bernadette [Peters] and Mandy [Patinkin] in a field! I could keep going …