When Laura Benanti was 4 years old, she listened to the music of the original cast album of My Fair Lady and decided that one day she would play Eliza Doolittle, who goes from flower girl to belle of the ball. “It’s absolutely true,” she swears before an evening performance at Lincoln Center. “It’s my dream part since I was 4. I’m not exaggerating.”
Her dream — which was on the verge of fading at the age of 39 — came true when director Bartlett Sher asked the Tony Award-winning actress (Gypsy) to succeed Lauren Ambrose of New Haven in the role in the hit revival of the musical.
“When they first talked of reviving the show, my daughter was 5 months old and they were asking everyone to audition,” she says. But Benanti decided her daughter was too young. “I just let it go. Then Bart called me and said Lauren was leaving the production because she got a television show.”
Benanti, who will be singing in concert at the Long Wharf Theatre gala June 3, got the part and is having a ball — and going to one at every performance. “I feel much more comfortable in my motherhood and my daughter, who is 2, understands what I do for a living now. She’s able to come to the theater between shows and has seen me in the show — at least the first act.”
Like Ambrose, Benanti is an older Eliza than originally written “but in this day and age, the story of an older man and a much younger woman whom he’s grooming for a wife is not the story we want to be telling,” she says. “As an older Eliza I can bring layers to this character that [I] would not have been able to do at 18 because I didn’t have the life experience. So I’m grateful to be playing it at this age with what I know now.”
Benanti also starred on Broadway in the revival of She Loves Me, Steve Martin’s Meteor Shower and the musical Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. Her Long Wharf show, Tales from Soprano Isle, which is separate from the gala and open to the public,will include songs from her career and stories from her life on and off the stage. Her musical director is Todd Almond, whose musical Girlfriend is playing at Hartford’s TheaterWorks through April 28. Maybe she’ll even do a bit of Melania Trump, a character she plays every once in a while on CBS’s Late Show with Stephen Colbert.
Returning to the Heights
Marcos Santana has experienced the heights, and he’s living them again, directing the Westport Country Playhouse production of the Lin-Manuel Miranda musical In the Heights. The season opener runs through May 11.
Part of the original workshop as well as the Broadway run, Santana has seen first-hand how the show continues to radiate feel-good affection from audiences 11 years after it won the Tony Award for best musical, and Miranda his first as composer.
In fact, you can see bits of the staging from In the Heights that Miranda would later use to make Hamilton a sensation. But In the Heights — which began when Miranda was a sophomore at Wesleyan University in Middletown in 1999 — made its own mark in its day, introducing rap and hip-hop to a Broadway audience and showing a loving Hispanic community on stage.
“It felt so authentic yet unique,” says Santana, a native of Puerto Rico. “Lin blends his love of musical theater with traditional music of the islands. He also did a great job lyrically in connecting our heritage and culture with musical theater. It’s my favorite cast album and I never get tired of it.”
The lead actor playing Usnavi for this production — Rodolfo Soto, who is of Dominican heritage — was chosen at an open audition, giving the Westport production the underdog spirit of the original.
Santana points out that the neighborhood — the diverse community of New York’s Washington Heights — is really the lead character of the show. “It tells an honest, simple story that anyone who comes from a specific neighborhood can identify with, whether they come from a black, Asian, Jewish or Anglo-Saxon neighborhood. It’s about home, it’s about community, and it’s about celebrating your heritage.”
The Flamingo Gang
It doesn’t get much better than when you’re about to graduate from your acting program and suddenly get a starring role in a new musical premiering at a theater that has already sent two shows to Broadway. That’s what happened to Jimmy Brewer, who was in his final year at Carnegie Mellon University last year when he took an overnight Megabus from Pittsburgh to New York. “Despite a terrible snowstorm, I arrived just in time for the 10 a.m. audition,” he says. “But I felt good about the audition.”
Now he has the title role in the new Hartford Stage musical The Flamingo Kid, based on the 1983 film starring Matt Dillon as a teen with a talent for cards who falls under the spell of a gambler at a Long Island resort in the ’60s. Darko Tresnjak directs what will be his final show as artistic director of the theater. The musical runs May 9 to June 9.
Brewer, who was still a dozen years away from being born when the film came out, says he identifies with the Brooklyn-born character and the show’s setting. Brewer, who was born and raised on Long Island, knows the turf, though he had to learn some Jewish expressions like “mensch” and “no-goodnik.”
Lesli Margherita, who in the show plays opposite Marc Kudisch, says Brewer “has this really cool, throwback voice that makes him sound like a kind of crooner. Jimmy also has a kind of swagger to him — but with heart — that is so right for the role. He’s a real find.”
As for Margherita’s role, “I play the wife of the gambler whose spell Jimmy falls under. She’s this long-suffering upper-middle class Jewish housewife who is this Jackie O wannabe. The costumes by Linda Cho are fabulous and I have some great bathing suits and wraps. I love that period of clothing. Think The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel at the beach.”
Have You Heard…?
… Jeremy O. Harris — who is in his third and final year in the playwriting program at the Yale School of Drama — has two new plays premiering in New York this season: Slave Play, which received raves, and Daddy,which did not (though it did star Alan Cumming and featured an on-stage swimming pool). His latest play, Yell: A “Documentary” of My Time Here,is part of the Carlotta Festival of New Plays at Yale from May 8-14.