Award-winning Broadway, television and film actress and critically acclaimed soprano Laura Benanti freely admits that she is a classic type-A personality.
“I hope she’s a little bit more neurotic … and I’d like to think that I have more confidence. But we’re similar in that our hearts are in the right place,” Benanti mused recently about the out-of-her-depth, support-group leader she portrayed on the NBC sitcom, “Go On,” starring Matthew Perry—whom she describes as “kind” and “generous” and “a really good guy.”
Benanti, 34 - who formally began her Broadway career at age 18 as a nun and then Maria in a revival of the “Sound of Music” and won a 2008 Tony award for her portrayal of Louise/Gypsy Rose Lee in the revival of “Gypsy,” opposite Broadway legend Patti LuPone — is the star of George Mason University’s Arts by George! gala on Sept. 28.
Billed as “an evening like no other’ and one of Northern Virginia’s most anticipated fall events, the gala’s proceeds - usually about $120,000 after expenses - support student scholarships in art, dance, music, theater, arts management, computer game design and film and video studies. The gala also helps fund and launches Mason’s Center for the Arts’ Great Performances season.
In addition to Benanti’s star turn, Arts by George! also shines a spotlight on the talents of Mason’s performing and visual arts students.
Bill Reeder, 69, dean of Mason’s College of Visual and Performing Arts (“the best 13 years of my life”), relishes how Arts by George has evolved into a dynamic community-based function with the arts as its centerpiece.
In its eighth year, “it hasn’t worn itself out. … It hasn’t lost its sense of purpose or its fun,” he enthused.
Arts by George! has been such a phenomenal success, Reeder said, that Mason is launching a wintertime Arts by George! event that will focus on the visual arts. “We’re seeing an astonishing explosion of the visual arts in Northern Virginia,” he said.
Besides the financial support, the “big pay off” for Mason, Reeder suggested, is the “social energy” the event generates, a symbiotic energy that is felt in both the campus and greater community.
Because students are integrated into the gala, Reeder explained, their “connection to the community is accentuated.
“Their youthful energy and talent are the real raw materials of the evening,” he said.
Benanti’s most important appearance at Mason will not only be on stage but also will take her into the classroom for a master class.
“I’m happy to be part of an event at a time when arts education is getting slashed,” she said in a phone call from her New York City home.
Someone who doesn’t remember a time when she didn’t want to be a performer, Benanti, whose mother, a former actress, is a vocal coach and whose father is a Broadway actor and singer, offered three key pieces of advice for aspiring performers.
“First, if something else brings you as much joy, do it. This is a difficult business,” she advised.
Then, “educate yourself, watch movies, go to plays … Immerse yourself in your craft and the people you admire. Analyze what it is you admire about them.”
And perhaps most important, “be yourself.” Do not, she stressed, “be the new them. … That’s the thing that made them special. … Bring forward the essence and soul of you.”
Benanti attended New York University for two weeks when she was cast in “The Sound of Music.” Educated at the “University of Broadway,” although she thinks regret is a useless emotion, she did admit to sometimes being “embarrassed” that she did not go to college. The people in her world, she said, tend to be singularly intelligent and cultured.
“There were times when being 18 in a grown-up world was lonely,” she confessed.
Also, she acknowledged, “I sometimes wish I hadn’t missed the experience, especially the ability to fail in a safe environment. … I had to learn that it’s OK to sometimes fall on your face.”
Benanti, who prefers the heightened energy and “three-hour treadmill of theater” to the hurry-up-and-wait 16-hour days of television, speaks from experience—lots of experience. She also learned from her own, some truly legendary, role models—like Patty LuPone, Arthur Laurents and Stephen Sondheim.
The common denominator, she suggested, is their absolute dedication: “their curiosity, their divine dissatisfaction, their constant reaching for that perfect moment of honesty and truth … their constant desire to better oneself.”
Working with LuPone, who won a Tony in 2008 for playing Mama Rose to her Gypsy Rose Lee, is like “trying to keep up with a Corvette,” Benanti said.
Her “Gypsy” costar—who also won a Tony in 1979 for her performance as Evita Perón and a British Olivier Award for her performance of Fantine in the original London cast of “Les Misérables”—makes “you have to be the best possible version of yourself,” Benanti added.
Likewise, “Arthur Laurents, he was a genius, the creator of some of the most beloved shows that ever existed,” Benanti enthused.
Her director in the 2008 revival of “Gypsy,” Laurents, who died in 2011 at age 93, was a playwright, stage director and screenwriter. He directed “I Can Get It for You Wholesale,” which turned the then unknown Barbra Streisand into a star, and reunited with her when he wrote the script for “The Way We Were.”
Laurent also won two Tony Awards -- in 1968 as author of the book of best musical winner, “Hallelujah, Baby!,” and in 1984 as best musical director for “La Cage aux Folles.” And he received Tony nominations in 1958 and 1960 as author of the books of “West Side Story” and “Gypsy.”
“Arthur changed the way I act forever!” Benanti said, admitting “my ego got hurt a couple of times.”
The recipient of a Tony nomination as well as Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle awards for her starring role in the 2010-2011 Lincoln Center production of the musical version of “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown,” Benanti explained, “I thought I had to show people what I feel. [Laurents] taught me to be truthful and simple. That feeling it is enough.”
Sondheim, who worked with her on “Gypsy,” continues to leave her totally “starstruck,” said Benanti who also received Tony, Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle Award nominations for her 2002 performance of Cinderella in Sondheim’s “Into the Woods.”
Describing the experience of meeting and working with him as one of the most “gratifying” of her life, she recalled being almost struck dumb in the presence of the acclaimed American composer and lyricist who has won eight Tony Awards (more than any other composer).
“He probably thinks I’m an idiot,” she mused wryly.
On a much more personal level, Benanti, a New York City resident, includes her mother, Linda Wonneberger Benanti, among her most important teachers. Possessing the “most beautiful voice of an angel,” her mother, a rising musical theater star who gave up her career when divorce turned her into a single mother, “changes the way people sing,” she said.
Benanti, who has recurring roles on NBC-TV’s “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” and the USA Network’s hit “Royal Pains,” was still working on her Arts by George! program with her accompanist Todd Almond. But she promised it would be an eclectic mix of show tunes, classic pop music and original songs.
Also included will be music from the new recording of her first solo show, “In Constant Search of the Right Kind of Attention: Live At 54 BELOW,” which played to sold-out audiences across the country and was released on Sept. 10.
A Fairfax resident since 1975, Mark Shugoll, who is co-chairing Arts by George! with his wife Merrill, is very familiar with Benanti’s work and talents. Avid and active supporters of the arts, the Shugolls, both former New Yorkers and lifelong Broadway devotees, got to know her when she participated in the ArtSpeak! Program they launched at Columbia Elementary School in Annandale in 1997.
Shugoll, who was president of Columbia’s PTA at the time, developed a rewarding partnership with Mason’s Center for Arts. As the partnership grew, including assemblies with “big name” artists and mentorships by Mason performing arts students, it formed the basis for ArtSpeak!.
ArtSpeak! brings top-caliber performing artists-- actors, musicians, composers, conductors, singers, dancers --to area schools to meet students and excite and educate them about the performing arts.
“We wanted students in our community to share our joy in the arts … and GMU was very giving,” said Shugoll, CEO of Shugoll Research, a marketing research firm in Bethesda founded by his mother and nationally recognized for its many contributions to cultural and performing arts organizations.
“The company has adopted the arts as its philanthropic cause,” explained Shugoll, 62, the immediate past chair of the Arena Stage board. His wife Merrill, 61, president of Shugoll Research and a former Signature Theater board member, now serves on Signature’s emeritus board.
Benanti participated in ArtSpeak!’s 2009-2010 season. Among the other Broadway luminaries who have participated include: Marvin Hamlisch, Brian Stokes Mitchell and Sutton Foster (all former Arts by George! stars) as well as Audra McDonald, Kristin Chenoweth and Kelli O’Hara. “Glee” star Lea Michele also is a former participant.
Chairing Arts by George! this year is “a natural segue,” he said.
In addition to supporting scholarships and bringing major artists to Mason, Arts by George!, Shugoll enthused, is “the best darn gala in town! It’s fun and affordable. I don’t have to wear black tie.… It’s a smorgasbord of rewarding experiences. You’ll walk out with a tear or a smile or maybe both.”