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“Laura & Linda Benanti: The Story Goes On" in South Orange

“Laura & Linda Benanti: The Story Goes On" in South Orange

A few years ago, Tony-winning actress Laura Benanti sang a duet with her mother during an appearance at the Manhattan cabaret club Feinstein’s/54 Below. It wasn’t a gimmick.

Linda Benanti is a successful voice teacher who was once a stage actress in New York. But she gave up the performing part of her career nearly 40 years ago to raise her daughters (in northern New Jersey). She hadn’t appeared professionally on stage since acting in the Broadway revival of “Brigadoon” in 1981.

Regardless, the venue’s owners were so impressed by their duet, they suggested something bigger: a whole show built around the mother-daughter duo.

Linda laughed it off. Laura didn’t.

The result was “Laura & Linda Benanti: The Story Goes On,” a concert the two have performed at various venues across the country in recent years. On Saturday, Oct. 12, they’ll bring it to New Jersey for the first time — at the South Orange Performing Arts Center.

It’s a homecoming, considering Linda raised her family in Kinnelon in Morris County. Laura’s turn as the lead in the local high school production of “Hello Dolly” won her a Rising Star award from the nearby Paper Mill Playhouse in the mid-1990s.

Not long after graduating, she launched a career on Broadway, earning five Tony nominations since then. She’s also a TV star, acting in shows as varied as “Nashville,” “Supergirl,” and “Younger.” (Oh, and you may know her killer Melania Trump impression on Stephen Colbert’s late-night talk show.)

Linda, meanwhile, continues to run a renowned voice studio in Kinnelon. But returning to the stage after decades away has brought added joy to her life.

“For people that I’ve known for so long to actually see that part of who I am that never knew that about me,” Linda says, “I really started feeling like, ‘Wow, now I feel like I’ve been seen. Now I feel like people really know who I am.’”

Jersey Arts talked to the Benantis about the Garden State, their relationship, motherhood, the most difficult songs to sing, and whether they prefer Bruce or Bon Jovi.

 

Jersey Arts: I’ve always heard your name pronounced “Ba-naan-ti.” Is that correct?

Laura Benanti: That’s correct. It’s like “banana.”

 

JA: Because I saw a clip on YouTube where Neil Patrick Harris pronounced it “Ba-nahn-ti” on the Tonys a few years ago. I just wanted to make sure.

Laura: I know. That bastard.

 

JA: The correct way is a more New Jersey pronunciation.

Laura: Exactly. Thank you.

JA: Obviously, we’re a Jersey-centric site. And you both live or have lived here. So what’s the most Jersey thing about each of you?

Laura: Well, my mom is from Virginia. So she’s not very Jersey. The most New Jersey thing about me? Well, I love New Jersey. So my Jersey pride is the most Jersey thing about me.

And then, like all true Jersey girls, I will not pump my own gas.

 JA: I never understand why people want to pump their own gas.

Laura: Why? No. Especially when it’s cold. No thank you.

JA: Not having to pump our own gas is the best thing about our state.

Laura: I totally agree.

JA: So Linda, why did you move to New Jersey then?

Linda Benanti: I moved here because Laura was about 4 and I was marrying my now-husband. And at that time in (New York City) — we moved in ’83 — it was not a great spot. I had lived there through the ’70s into ’83. And we just felt we couldn’t raise her — we didn’t not want to raise her in the city.

He wanted to come to New Jersey because he had family here. So we ended up in Kinnelon.

Laura: He’s from Garfield originally.

Linda: Yes, my husband is originally from Garfield. And he had family in Kinnelon, and we drove out here. And at the time in 1983, it was like we were going to Mayberry. You know, with the high school football games. We thought, “This is amazing. This is going back in time. Let’s raise Laura here and another child here eventually.” So that’s what we did.

 

JA: You gave up acting to raise Laura. Why is that?

Linda: Well, it was the circumstances of the time. Then when we moved out here, it’s kind of a far commute. I had stopped doing theatre prior to that, but I was still doing television commercials. The commute was too far. And I just felt like I really needed to be present and not be running back and forth so much.

Also, I had a voice studio in the city, as well, and that was going really well. And I found that was something that was more consistent, more stable. So I kept that up and commuted from here for seven years to my studio in the city. Then I moved everything out to here because we had another daughter. And I needed to focus on the home and still maintain a studio. Which has grown — I now have four associate teachers.  

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JA: Laura, what influence did your mother have on you wanting to be a performer?

Laura: Well, there was always music in our home. My mother is a very funny person by nature. And we were always playing. We were always having parades in our house, with pots and pans and recorders from school. You know — the little flute recorders we used to play in elementary school or whatever. So everything always sort of felt like a fun show in our house.

And certainly then there was the musical theatre music that my mom would sometimes play and the old movie musicals we would watch together. While I didn’t get to see my mother perform on stage, I got to hear her sing all the time in our house. And I was really inspired by that.

JA: How did this series of shows featuring the two of you come about?

Laura: My mom and I had performed a song together at 54 Below. And the owners of 54 Below suggested that we put a show together. And my mom sort of laughed it off. I was like, “Yep. That’s what we’re doing.”

I kind of pushed her to do it because she had been hiding this light under a bushel for so long. And I just knew that it was time for her to start prioritizing herself while she always prioritized everybody else. And I think that anyone who comes to the show will see that this is really what she is meant to be doing, among other things.

 

JA: Linda, was it daunting to return to the stage?

Linda: Daunting — I like that word. Yes, it was extremely daunting. It was such an unexpected thing. That was never in my game plan. I thought, “That’s it. Okay. I’m done.” When we did that one concert and Laura and I sang the duet, it just felt so great to be back on stage and to be singing beautiful music with my daughter. When they asked about the concert, I thought, “What in the heck? Who’s gonna care about what I’m gonna do?”

But then I started thinking, when I came up with ideas and a point of view, and started putting some things together. The first time out, I was terrified. But as soon as I got back on the stage, man, that feeling. It’s there. You can’t take that away. That’s always there.

It’s just been such a gift and such a joy. And we were very fortunate that some people saw us at 54 Below. So we really traveled with the concert and been to so many different venues. And it’s just been wonderful. And it’s been great for me — for people that I’ve known for so long to actually see that part of who I am that never knew that about me. I really started feeling like, “Wow, now I feel like I’ve been seen. Now I feel like people really know who I am.” Because that part of me that was pushed aside for so long got to come back. So it’s been a true gift.

Photo by Alexa Brown

Photo by Alexa Brown

JA: Is this the first time you’re performing the show in New Jersey?

Linda: Yeah, it is. This is the first time in New Jersey.

 

JA: Does that have any added significance?

Linda: Yes, I think so. Because I think I’m gonna know a lot of people in the audience. (laughs)

I have to tell you: They’ve all been significant. We did the Kennedy Center, and I’m from McLean, Virginia — the D.C. area. So that was very significant because I have a lot of family down there. It was great. But this is gonna be special.

 

JA: Laura, did having your own daughter (Ella, born in 2017) change your relationship with your mom or give you perspective on what it was like to give up acting for you?

Laura: Certainly. I’ve always had a great sense of appreciation for the sacrifice my mother made for myself and my sister. And it grew exponentially upon having my own child. Because when you become a mother, you don’t stop being a human. It’s not like all the things you used to love, you just don’t care about anymore. And really, parenthood is a constant act of putting someone before you — putting someone else’s needs before yours.

So for me, I love my daughter. She and my husband are the most important thing in my life. But I also really love performing. And if someone asked me to give it up, that would be really hard for me. So I have a really great appreciation for how challenging in many ways that must have been for my mother. And the fact that she did it in order for my sister and I to have the lives that we have now is very moving to me.

And I think becoming a mother made me see my parents more as people and less as my parents. So things that maybe I had been holding onto, I was like, “Oh my gosh, they were just people doing the best that they could.” And they did such an incredible job. So, if anything, I just have a tremendous amount of appreciation for the way I was raised.

 

JA: Has your daughter shown an affinity for theater in her young age?

Laura: Oh, yes. It’s like in her blood. She can’t help it. I’m gently trying to guide her toward perhaps anything else. But she really has a love for it, she has an affinity for it. She’s deeply funny. She’s a beautiful singer. She’s only 2½, but she’s got a sweet, sweet voice. She loves to dance. She’s sort of a natural-born entertainer and hopefully will make a wonderful doctor.

 

JA: Have you ever thought what you would do if you didn’t go into theater?

Laura: I think I’d be a psychotherapist. Because I am very interested in the human condition — as I think most actors are. 

JA: Both of you have performed many musicals on stage. What is the most difficult song to sing eight shows a week?

Laura: That’s a really great question. For me actually, “Will He Like Me?” from “She Loves Me” is really hard. Really challenging. And then also “Somebody Somewhere” from “The Most Happy Fella.”

Linda: I think for me, it’s probably “My White Knight” from “The Music Man.” That was challenging for me. If I had done Rosabella (from “The Most Happy Fella”), it would have been “Somebody Somewhere.” (laughs)

 

JA: So let’s end with some quick Jersey-centric questions. Bruce or Bon Jovi?

Laura: Bon Jovi. Because I grew up listening to him. I have a tape cassette of “Slippery When Wet.”

Linda: I actually like them both. But I have to tell you that Bruce Springsteen’s show on Broadway, I was so taken by that and taken by his new CD, that I’ve seen such an evolution in him as an artist. And I admire that so much because he didn’t have to. He could have just kept doing what he was doing and be ginormously popular. But I’ve seen this evolution, and I’m really struck by it.

Laura: Okay, I’m changing my answer. She convinced me.

 

JA: Do you prefer the Parkway or Turnpike?

Both: Parkway.

JA: I guess it is more bucolic.

Both: Yes.

 

JA: And why do you think so many entertainers come from Jersey?

Laura: I think Jersey people are real. I think there’s an authenticity to Jersey people — what you see is what you get. And I think ultimately, that’s what we want in our entertainers. We want people who are not full of it. We’re coming from an authentic place and authentic sense of self.

Linda: I think it’s the water. (laughs) And what Laura said.

 

JA: And last question for Laura: What role do most people recognize you for?

Laura: You know what? It’s so weird. It really depends. For a while, it was “Nashville.” For a while, it was “Supergirl.” I never get recognized for the Colbert show, which is fine by me. 

"Four Women from Trenton"  at The Center for Contemporary Art

"Four Women from Trenton" at The Center for Contemporary Art