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Laura Benanti on Stripping in ‘Gypsy’ and Her Delighted Husband

Photo: Joan Marcus

Laura Benanti made her Broadway debut at 19 years old playing Maria in The Sound of Music and has been one of New York audiences' favorite things ever since. Ten years later, she's been nominated for two Tonys (Swing!, Into the Woods), starred in Nine and The Wedding Singer, and now takes a turn as Louise in Gypsy that's being praised left and right. Benanti spoke with Vulture about stage moms, stripping, and facing off against Patti LuPone.

What was it like getting used to doing striptease?
Ugh. I’m still getting used to it. The hardest part is at the end when I reveal, you know, more than I would on a beach. My husband loves it, though our friends joke that he’s just looking into the audience, getting ready to punch people. For Gypsy and for Louise, I think it really is sexuality as a weapon, and a way of satisfying the need for attention. But there has to be a little bit of anger. I think for any stripper there’s got to be a little anger there — the whole, you-can-look-but-don’t-touch power. How can there not be?

What is it like doing that scene at the end, where you’re facing off with Patti LuPone?
Oh, God. (A) it’s so exhausting, and (b) it was really hard for me to get there. My husband is sitting next to me right now and he’s going to laugh and say that I’m a liar, but I’m not a big yeller. He just went, "Uh-huh." But I’m really not in nature. My place that I go to when I feel something is the hurt place, so I’m quick to cry. Every single night I struggle not to cry. I mean literally at one point my whole body shakes. I just will myself not to cry and pull it together.

What’s the craziest thing that’s happened onstage?
One time as I was saying “I’m pretty, I’m a pretty girl,” the curtain came down on my head. They were having technical problems, and I grabbed the curtain and threw it behind me and kept doing it, and the audience was like, "What the hell is going on?" And then we ended up having to wait for like fifteen minutes and pick up right where we took off. We had to start on, “Mama, I’m pretty.” We were joking I should’ve said, "Mama, I really am pretty. I swear."

Mama Rose is really the stage mother of all stage mothers. You’ve been performing since you were young; what was your mom like?
Well, I wasn’t allowed to have any professional experience until I was almost 18 years old. Of course I wanted an agent from the time I was like 5, but my mother was like, "No, you’re going to be normal, you’re going to go to school, you’re going to get good grades, you’re going to play soccer, and if you do well, if you keep your grades up, you can do one community-theater show a year." So when I was a senior in high school I did a production at the Paper Mill and after that, my first professional job was The Sound of Music on Broadway. It was a huge shift.

And you had just started at NYU then?
I’d gone to NYU for two weeks. I talked to the dean and he was like, "Look, you’re clearly talented enough to have work, and you’re coming to school for this. Why don’t you go do it and see if you like it? If you don’t like it, come back and study something else. And if you do like it and you keep working, then you just saved yourself a hundred thousand bucks."
—Lori Fradkin

Related: Let Me Be Entertained