Laura Benanti (born July 15, 1979) is an American actress of television, film and Broadway theatre noted for her award winning performance as Louise in the 2008 production of Gypsy.
Benanti was born in New York City, the daughter of Linda Wonneberger, a vocal coach and former actress, and Martin Vidnovic, a Broadway actor and singer. She is of Yugoslavian-German-Irish-Native American heritage. When quite young, her parents divorced and she moved to Kinnelon, New Jersey, with her mother and her stepfather Salvatore Benanti, a psychotherapist, whose name she took and whom she has referred to as her father.
Benanti remembers being "very serious" and "a bit of an ugly duckling" as a child, and was intensely interested in musical theatre, which distanced her from other children. (In 2008, Benanti told The New York Times that she drew on this loneliness in her portrayal of the neglected Louise in Gypsy.) Though her parents refused to let Laura audition for professional theatre, Laura appeared in several high school and community productions, including Evita (as Peron's mistress), Follies (as Young Heidi), and Into the Woods (as Cinderella). At 16, Benanti played the title role in her high school production of Hello, Dolly! and won a Paper Mill Playhouse Rising Star Award for Outstanding Actress in a high school production. She graduated from Kinnelon High School in 1997.
In 1998, Paper Mill's then-artistic director Robert Johanson recommended Benanti for the role of Liesl in a Broadway revival of The Sound of Music. Benanti auditioned for the show's producers and was considered too mature-looking to play Liesl, but, after several call-backs, was signed at the age of 18 to play one of the nuns and to understudy Rebecca Luker as Maria. Benanti played the role for two weeks during Luker's vacation, and, at 19, took over the role when Luker left the production. Playbill's Michael Buckley later wrote that Benanti "was an absolutely wonderful Maria[...]As do others, I believe that had she opened in the show, Benanti would have been an overnight sensation." When she was cast in The Sound of Music, Benanti had attended New York University for two weeks; the dean recommended she go on leave to take the job.
In 1999, Benanti appeared in the Broadway revue Swing!, for which she received a Tony nomination for Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Musical. In 2000, she co-starred with Donna Murphy in the critically acclaimed City Center Encores! concert production of the Leonard Bernstein-Betty Comden-Adolph Green musical "Wonderful Town." In 2002, Benanti played Cinderella (a role she had played as a teenager) in the Broadway revival of Into the Woods, and received both a Tony nomination for Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Musical and a Drama Desk nomination for Outstanding Featured Actress in a Musical. During a mid-performance pratfall in Into the Woods, Benanti fractured her neck, herniating two discs directly onto her spinal cord and cutting off spinal fluid, a condition that sometimes leads to paralysis.
The injury was misdiagnosed and Into the Woods producers asked Benanti not to mention her injury; when she began missing performances due to neck problems, rumors spread that Benanti was behaving unprofessionally, something that she calls "really hurtful. I had a serious injury and there was absolutely no way I could have done the show. I tried to. I tried to go back and do it but I physically couldn't." Benanti was eventually replaced in the show by Erin Dilly. Eight months after her initial injury, Benanti was rediagnosed and received surgery that could have damaged her voice but was successful, though as of 2005 she still experienced neck pain and myelopathy.
Three weeks after undergoing spinal surgery, Benanti started previews in March 2003 for the Broadway revival of Nine, in which she played Claudia, a movie star who inspires Guido, a director played by Antonio Banderas. She left the show in September 2003. From April 2006 to December 2006 she played Julia Sullivan in the Broadway musical The Wedding Singer. In July 2007, Benanti played in a three-week limited run of the musical Gypsy in the Encores! production at the New York City Center as Louise, alongside Patti LuPone as Rose and Boyd Gaines as Herbie. In March 2008, the production transferred to Broadway, where it ran until January 2009 and received widespread critical acclaim. Benanti's performance as Louise was praised, with The New York Times's Ben Brantley declaring it "the performance of her career".
She won several awards, including a Tony for Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Musical, a Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Featured Actress in a Musical, and an Outer Critics Circle Award for Outstanding Featured Actress in a Musical.
Benanti appeared in The Public Theater's world premiere production of Christopher Durang's play Why Torture Is Wrong, And the People Who Love Them, from April 6, 2009 to April 26.
She next appeared in the Lincoln Center Theater production of Sarah Ruhl's In the Next Room (or The Vibrator Play) beginning October 22, 2009, and opening November 19, 2009, at the Lyceum Theatre.
Benanti has also appeared in the World AIDS Day concerts of Pippin and Children of Eden. These concerts were co-founded by her best friend, Jamie McGonnigal and former Miss America Kate Shindle.
Benanti recently appeared in the new musical Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown which played Broadway from October 8, 2010, until December 28, 2010. Benanti received a Tony Award nomination, and won the Drama Desk Award and Outer Critics Circle Award for Best Featured Actress in a Musical for her performance.
In addition to stage roles, Benanti was a regular on the short-lived FX Networks sitcom Starved (2005), which received mixed reviews but which Benanti described as "a good experience. I got a lot of camera experience, which was something I just hadn't had." A year later, she appeared in two films: Take the Lead, in which she reunited with her Nine co-star Antonio Banderas as his love-sick assistant, and Falling for Grace, in which she played a princess. In 2008, Benanti had a recurring role on the ABC television series Eli Stone. In 2011 she was cast in the NBC series The Playboy Club (which was canceled after 3 episodes). Benanti played the wife of Dr. Atticus Sherman on episode 11 of season two of The Big C, entitled "Fight Or Flight." Despite her forays into screen work, Benanti remains devoted to the stage, and has stated that "musicals are a great American art form. We've got apple pie, jazz and musical theater. I want to do this my whole life." Benanti will guest star on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit as Detective Nick Amaro's wife, who returns from overseas and she and Amaro must figure out where their relationship stands. Benanti, will film one episode with the potential of a multi-episode arc.
Laura appears on the original cast albums of each of her Broadway roles, as well as compilation albums of Stephen Schwartz and Maury Yeston. She also appears as a guest artist on the Gay Men's Chorus of Washington, D.C.'s live album, You've Got to Be Carefully Taught: The Songs of Hammerstein & Sondheim, taken from a performance at the Kennedy Center in June 2002. She can now be heard on the cast album of Gypsy, which was released in August 2008 from Time/Life Records, and on the new studio cast album of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Allegro, which was released by Sony Classics in February 2009.
A songwriter and guitarist, Benanti has written songs privately since at least the early 2000s; in 2005, she said that she was working on a folk-rock solo CD, though "Musical theatre is my first love[...]I want to take my music and orchestrate it in a kind of old fashioned style, and take some standards and 'popularize' them—do a true crossover. I'm working on it."