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Theater & Dance

Laura Benanti on Her Café Carlyle Debut, The Ultimate Compliment, & Reprising Melania

David Andrako

The Tony-award winning actress takes to the iconic Carlyle stage through October 8. 

Though widely recognized as Melania Trump from TheLate Show with Stephen Colbert, Laura Benanti has been commanding the stage since 1998, when she made her Broadway debut as Maria in The Sound of Music at age 18. Fast forward nearly 20 years, and Benanti has become a fixture of New York City theater, securing a Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Musical for her role as Louise in the 2008-revival of Gypsy and most recently starring as Amelia in the 2016-revival of She Loves Me.

But Benanti has taken a break from Broadway to play a new role: herself, in the hilarious and moving cabaret show, Tales From Soprano Isle, at the legendary Cafe Carlyle. Benanti, alongside musical director and pianist Todd Almond and bass player Brian Ellingson, is on a mission to prove that sopranos can sing just about anything. All the while, she shares funny tales from her childhood as a musical theater geek and school-sanctioned absence from gym class.

Here, we chat with Benanti about all things song, feelings, and Melania.

Out: Confession, I made a rookie mistake and didn't wear a blazer to work, so I showed up at Cafe Carlyle in a way-too-casual cardigan. But then you came on stage and had all these suited dudes and dressed-up ladies laughing immediately, and I was so grateful your comedy equalized the crowd. Where do you get your sense of humor?

Laura Benanti: I feel like I got my sense of humor from my mother. She has the unique ability to find the funny in literally anything, to the point where sometimes we're like, Mom, no. You're not allowed to say that right now. Even really sad, horrible moments in life I'll find myself laughing with my mother. She taught me how to look at the world through a lens of a sense of humor in order to sort of get through it--and to have more empathy for yourself and others.

Coming from musical theater, sometimes there can be a stigma attached to you. That you're not a good actor, you're just a singer, all you can do is jazz hands. I found it challenging to make inroads in comedy, though I do find myself really drawn to it, and I think it's something that people find surprising that I can do. I certainly think the Melania Trump video went a long way.

The Carlyle has a pretty rich history of cabaret performances, from Sutton Foster to Woody Allen and so many others. How did your show land there?

I'd never worked at the Carlyle before, but when I got pregnant that immediately limits what you're able to do as an actress. So I wanted to do sort of a residency somewhere. This seemed like a golden opportunity. I think 54 Below and the Carlyle are two totally different venues. I love the people over at 54 Below, I've known them since I was 17 years old. They're like family to me. But coming over to the Carlyle gave me the opportunity to expand my horizons and work at a classic New York institution, and in such a beautiful room.

The Carlyle is the epitome of uptown, Upper East Side nightlife. But places like Joe's Pub and 54 Below feel a bit more downtown-cool. How do you compare the energy in these different spaces? How's that compare to performing, say, on a Broadway stage?

Broadway and cabaret are two totally different beasts. On Broadway, you're playing a character, it's a thousand-seat theater, there's a fourth wall. In cabaret--and it's one of the reasons I love it so much--it's just you there, as yourself, talking to a small group of people. It truly is my favorite thing to do. And I definitely think there's a different vibe. The Upper East Side sort of vibe is unlike anything I've ever experienced before. So far it's been really delightful. At first I think I come out and the crowd is like, Whoah, who is this person? You mentioned great equalizer before. I feel like by the fourth song we're all in it together, we're all in the same space. That's something that is important to me, that everyone feels like I'm speaking to them specifically, because I am.

Then you pull out that Beyonce song and I was all like, We're going there. This is great.

Oh yeah. I don't know if anyone's ever sang that song at the Carlyle.

Can you give me a brief history of how this show came together?

Todd and I always approach it from, What is the story we're trying to tell? What is the mood we're trying to set? I really wanted to do the songs from She Loves Me because I think they're so perfect and beautiful, and especially for the space I thought it'd be good to start with something more familiar and classic. I love Harry Chapin, and Tori Amos, and Joni Mitchell. So our idea for this show was to do soprano-style songs. The show is called Tales From Soprano Aisle. I have a soprano voice and I tried to embrace that throughout many genres, to show the fluidity and flexibility of a soprano voice. We get pigeonholed as purely operatic or stuffy, and that's just not the case. We have tremendous color. That's what we're trying to show through these songs. We have funny-uplifting songs, poignant-moving songs, and then my unique brand of humor.

You made me cry twice during the show. I love feelings. So thanks for that.

You're welcome.

But I'm curious: What's the biggest compliment or reward an audience member can offer you?

When they say: I want to be your friend. That to me is the ultimate compliment. That's how I want people to feel! There's so much ugliness and chaos and hatred right now, and I think music is a great equalizer. It's a common language that we all speak. I think it's important to remind ourselves of our common humanity. Of course, I want people to like my voice, but I more want them to walk away feeling joyful, and that they experienced something in a group of people, and that they felt the energy of those people.

Rapid fire! What's your favorite musical? Broadway diva? And a duet you'd love to make happen?

Into the Woods. I just love it so much. Patti LuPone, duh. A duet? Look, I'd love to sing with Julie Andrews. She's one of my idols.

And I have to ask: Would you ever say yes to a round table with Tina Fey as Sarah Palin, Amy Poehler as Hillary Clinton, and you as Melania Trump?

I mean--yeah! I would do literally anything to be in the same room with those women.

Let's please make that happen once your Carlyle residency is up.

Tales From Soprano Isle is currently running at Cafe Carlyle through October 8. Find ticket information here.

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