Laura Benanti On Joining 'My Fair Lady,' Playing Melania Trump, Political Activism

Jenny Anderson
Laura Benanti

As Laura Benanti prepares to take on a dream role -- Eliza Doolittle in the current Broadway production of My Fair Lady (Oct. 23-Feb. 17) -- she visited the Billboard on Broadway podcast to chat about why now is the perfect time for her to play one of Broadway's most iconic and groundbreaking roles.

"I love a transformation," says Benanti of playing Eliza, the London flower girl taken in by the arrogant professor Henry Higgins, who bets he can abolish her Cockney accent and turn her into his idea of a "lady." "In so many old-fashioned musicals, it's a pretty stagnant journey for the leading lady. But what's so thrilling to me about so many of the roles I've gotten to play, they start one place and end up somewhere else entirely, and though they're in relationship to men, the journey is about them." In this production, the ending of the show in particular is "an ending for a #MeToo/Time's Up era."

Even among modern Broadway stars, whose careers now extend far beyond the stage, Benanti's career thus far has been a particularly multi-faceted one. A Tony winner who's considered one of musical theater's foremost actresses, Benanti has led major musicals like GypsyInto the Woods and She Loves Me; successfully jumped to television with roles on SupergirlNashvilleThe Detour and Younger; and gained unexpected fame most recently for her appearances playing Melania Trump on Late Night with Stephen Colbert. Amidst all this, Benanti has also emerged on social media and beyond as one of the most prominent voices in the already politically-engaged Broadway community. 

Benanti is also now known for her comedic talents, but it's taken roughly ten years, she shares, for Broadway and the world beyond to realize she's quite funny. "The ultimate, defining moment was the Melania impression," she says. "I always look for the sense of humor: that's the lens through which I see the world." Impersonating Melania has been just one element of Benanti's political activism lately. Most recently, as she discusses, she corralled a group of Broadway stars including Lin-Manuel Miranda, Audra McDonald, Cynthia Erivo, Josh Groban and Idina Menzel to record a bilingual children's album, Singing You Home, to raise funds for RAICES, the non-profit providing free and low-cost legal support to immigrant children and their families along with refugees in Central and South Texas. "I honestly believe music is the great equalizer," Benanti says. "That's why this album is so important to me, and why musical theater is so important to me."

In a wide-ranging chat with host Rebecca Milzoff, Benanti reflects on what it was like to start out on Broadway while still a teenager, how she wants to see treatment of women evolve both within and outside the musical theater world, and much more.

#BillboardonBroadway is a weekly podcast devoted to all things musical theater and their overlap with pop music. Click here to subscribe to the #BillboardonBroadway podcast on iTunes, and let us know what you think on Twitter (@rebeccamilzoff) or by rating the podcast on iTunes.