Laura Benanti on Playing Her Dream Role in 'My Fair Lady'

Joan Marcus
Laura Benanti and company in 'My Fair Lady'

The Tony Award winner (and Melania Trump imitator) talks returning to Broadway as Eliza Doolittle in the Lerner and Loewe classic.

Laura Benanti has wanted to play Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady since she was 4 years old. Her mother would play the Broadway cast album for her, leading her to fall in love with both original star Julie Andrews and the role of the Cockney flower seller who gets an upper-class makeover.

"I actually never watched the movie because I was like, 'Well, that's not Julie Andrews. That is garbage. That woman is not singing her own songs,'" says Benanti of George Cukor's 1964 screen version, in which Audrey Hepburn's singing was dubbed by Marni Nixon. "I had some very serious schadenfreude when Julie Andrews won the Oscar for Mary Poppins the same year My Fair Lady came out. So I was a very popular child."

But when casting began for the 2018 Broadway revival of the Lerner and Loewe classic based on George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion, Benanti had a new baby at home and couldn't find the time to prepare.

"It was a beautiful lesson in letting go because I genuinely had let it go," she says. "I had to make peace with the fact that this was the part I've wanted to play my whole life, but it wasn't going to happen because I have also wanted to be a mom."

However, it was also a lesson in "what's meant to be yours, will be yours," as Benanti is now lighting up the Lincoln Center stage as the titular lady in the revival, having stepped into the production once original lead Lauren Ambrose finished her contract. Benanti's daughter Ella, now 2 years old, often joins her backstage, while "Mommy sings for the people." (They share a love of Andrews, as evidenced by a recent Instagram video, in which Ella commands the Amazon Echo to play Mary Poppins by Julie Andrews.)

Benanti recently went Off Script with The Hollywood Reporter to chat about why Eliza is a heroine for the #MeToo era, passing down her own dramatic side to Ella and the potential similarities between her Melania Trump impersonation on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert and My Fair Lady.

You've wanted to play this character for such a long time. Were there any surprises now that you've finally gotten to tackle the role?

There was nothing that shocked me truly because I have been preparing for this since I was 4. For me, the thing that is most challenging is the vulnerability of it. Through the years, in order to be a functioning human in the world, I've had to learn to manage my emotions a little bit. And so getting back to the vulnerability of someone who is at the mercy of society, that has been the most challenging part.

What do you admire about Eliza?

One of the reasons I wanted to play this character is I've admired her resilience my whole life. This is a woman who has tremendous resilience and agency at a time where women, and especially women of her class, did not. I really admire how Shaw points out the disparity between classes and genders, and that is really discussed within this musical. She's the one who hears he can help her, and she goes to his house to ask for help. It's not like he bullies her into it; she chooses to go to him and says. "Help me, I want to be a lady in a flower shop." And the thing that I love that [director] Bart [Sher] has done with this production is to bring it back to the Pygmalion ending. It really is a My Fair Lady for a Time's Up generation.

Does playing the role during the #MeToo and Time's Up era have special significance?

It feels important; it feels really powerful. There was a woman in the front row last week, and at the very end of the play, when it's a little unclear what's going to happen, I could hear her breathing change. When I did what happens at the end of the show, she audibly said, "Yes." There have been so many young women who have come to see the show who say that they never really connected to it before because they couldn't fathom why this person would stay with someone who's treated her that way. It's really gratifying to feel the palpable sense of heads nodding that happens in the audience when she makes the choice to respect herself. 

I feel like the ending can be interpreted in a myriad of ways.

It can. Some people choose to believe there's hope for them. I choose a different outlook. It's so funny because Bart is very esoteric about it. I asked, "Where am I going?" He's like, "You're going into the future." Okay, cool, so I'm going to where a woman is president. That's my dream.

You've been very vocal politically on social media, particularly when it comes to families separated at the border. Can you talk about the album you put together alongside artists like Lin-Manuel Miranda, Audra McDonald, Kristin Chenoweth and Ingrid Michaelson?

It's called Singing You Home, and it's children's songs for family reunification. It's a dual-language children's album, and all the proceeds go to reuniting the families separated at the border, and you can get it wherever music is streaming. You can buy it on iTunes or Amazon or you can go to ghostlight.com, which is the label. I think it's a really important venture, and it's an all-star cast. Unfortunately, this issue is only getting worse. It's a humanitarian crisis created by our government and I just feel like it's vitally important that we all do what we can. 

You've also become well known for your portrayal of Melania Trump on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert. Do you see any similarities with Eliza?

I mean, there are times in the second act when I'm standing there listening to everyone congratulate [Professor Higgins] during the song "You Did It," and I'm sure Melania has stood in a corner disgusted by everyone. I think that Melania has made the bed that she lies in. I don't feel bad for her. 

You post a lot of videos of your daughter Ella trying on wigs backstage. Is that something you encourage, or does she want to do it?

Because I wear a wig cap in between shows — I don't take it off — she was like, "I want to wear a wig cap." So I gave her a wig cap, and then she's like, "I put on makeup." She wanted to put the dirt on her face that I wear in the beginning. Then my friend David, who does my wigs — we call him Mr. David — was like, "Ella, would you like to wear a wig?" And then he showed her how to properly place it, and now it's a tradition. Everytime she comes, she immediately puts on her wig cap, her makeup and then she asks, "Where's Mr. David?" She walks up to Mr. David, and says, "I need a wig." Thankfully my friend Chelsea gave Ella a microscope for her birthday, so I'm really hoping we can balance it out, but so far all she's wanted to look at under the microscope are pictures of herself.

Do you hope she follows in your footsteps?

I mean, no! Look I hope she does whatever she wants to do. My parents would not let me audition for professional theater until I was 18 years old, and that will be the rule for Ella, as well. If she wants to sing with me once in a while in a concert or if we do a silly video together, that's one thing, but I would not want her on a set 16 hours a day or doing eight shows a week as a child.

Do you have anything special that you keep in your dressing room backstage?

Ella has her makeup station. She has her My Fair Lady robe that says "Ella" on it. I have pictures of my family and friends. I have a picture of my mom's best friend playing Eliza Doolittle 50 years ago. I have an angel given to me by my acting teacher. I have gifts and fan art that have been given to me. I have my favorite letters written to me, mostly by young women and girls as young as 6 years old.

Maybe you're some 4 year old's dream Eliza?

Those are the letters that are on the board. Those are the ones that mean so much to me.

— Laura Benanti is appearing in My Fair Lady at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre at New York's Lincoln Center through July 7.