Embracing the Baroness: Talking 'Sound of Music Live!' With Laura Benanti

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Stephen Moyer and Laura Benanti in "The Sound of Music Live!"
Stephen Moyer and Laura Benanti in "The Sound of Music Live!"

There may have been haters out there, but in the end, love conquered all. Last night's live telecast of NBC's production of the "The Sound of Music" climbed virtually every household in America, garnering an astounding 18.5 million viewers, marking the network's biggest Thursday night since "Frasier" went off the air in 2004, and its biggest night in the advertiser-coveted 18-49 demographic since the "ER" finale.

[Related: 'The Sound of Music Live!' By the Numbers: How the Much-Maligned Musical Really Won]

And at the center of the night, Broadway veteran Laura Benanti's name lit up Twitter for her turn in what is generally the least sympathetic role in musical theater: that of Maria's romantic rival, the Baroness Elsa Schrader.

Apart from her stage work, Benanti has a long list of TV credits to her name including leading roles in short-lived NBC shows "Go On" and "The Playboy Club." She is also a recording artist, having released a live performance album this year.

See Benanti perform "How Can Love Survive?"

We spoke with Benanti by phone from New York as she came down from the big night.

Are you celebrating today?

No, just doing a fitting for "Nurse Jackie." It's back to work.

You've played Maria before onstage. How did you feel about switching sides?

I felt really good about it. I felt excited to be looking at that piece through the lens of a different character. I played Maria 16 years ago so I have lived a lot in that time. I know what it's like to be hurt. I find the Baroness to be so intelligent and witty and sexy and that is the kind of character I'm interested in playing right now.

Are you more like the Baroness or Maria?

I think I'm a mix. I don't think I'm as wide-eyed and naive as Maria. Nor do I think I'm as jaded as the Baroness.

[Related: Speed Date With 'The Sound of Music's' Other Woman, Laura Benanti]

How did you make people feel safe to stand with the Baroness?

I think you find the humanity. What I try to bring to all my roles is a sense of humanity. People are not good or evil. That's boring. People behave in certain ways based on the lives they've led. I think there's a darkness in everyone and a light so I try to cultivate both of those things, and also through the lens with a sense of humor. I worked really hard with Rob Ashford and the other actors to create a character who is a real human being, who has a disappointing situation happen to her but handles it with elegance.

Laura Benanti, Stephen Moyer, and Christian Borle in "The Sound of Music Live!"
Laura Benanti, Stephen Moyer, and Christian Borle in "The Sound of Music Live!"

Did it feel like a moonshot project, putting all your energy into one big performance rather than saving it for a long run?

Yeah, our first preview was our opening and our closing. So there definitely was a sense of such heightened stakes because No. 1 it was live, but we knew it was the last time we were ever going to do it, so there was a mourning process involved. It was a really high adrenaline situation.

Was it fueled by the fact that you didn't have time to relax into the performances?

Well, we did because we rehearsed for six weeks, so the performances were in our bodies.

What worried you the most before showtime?

I was excited for all of these Broadway people to be brought into American homes. I was just excited to bring musical theater into people's living rooms. As a person who has devoted my life to this particular craft that is sometimes disparaged or made to feel silly, I was happy to be bringing the show into people's homes for people who don't get to see live theater. And I think it was really brave of NBC to do it and really brave of Carrie to do it.

[Related: How Did Carrie Underwood Do as Maria von Trapp on 'The Sound of Music Live!'?]

Is there another musical you'd love to do and role you'd love to play like this?

Well, I'd love to play Eliza Doolittle in "My Fair Lady," but I doubt that's happening soon. There's "Music Man," "The King and I." So many wonderful shows. It would have to stay family-friendly, but there's tons I'd love to do.

What is the trick of taking this dialogue which is so of a moment and making it connect today?

I feel like it's finding the humanity. Even though people spoke more posh and a little more affected, people were people and human beings have feelings. And feelings are forever. So for me, the trick is always trying to make everything really real. If you are fully invested in your character, then at home everyone will be invested in your character too, because they will recognize themselves in you.

Were there any snafus or moments you wish you could fix?

Sure. Getting my dress stepped on wasn't the highlight of the night.

Laura Benanti and Christian Borle in rehearsals on the set of "The Sound of Music Live!"
Laura Benanti and Christian Borle in rehearsals on the set of "The Sound of Music Live!"

What was going through your head on live TV when that happened?

I was in character. Not to sound like a jerk. I'm not Daniel Day-Lewis who's always in character, but I was her then so she was slightly annoyed but trying to show that she was fine. It's fine. In a way, looking back, I'm glad that happened because it's important that the audience be reminded that this is live. Stuff is going to happen. That's what happens on Broadway.

What happened when the lights went down last night?

We all screamed. And we hugged each other and we hugged Carrie and we drank champagne and we ate delicious food and we cried. And some of the nuns sang a song they wrote for Carrie that was really moving.

What was the song?

"Sweet Little Bird of Jesus in Her Throat." And you know what, I'm happy for Carrie and for Stephen Moyer that they got to experience the love of the theatrical community. The entire ensemble, we are theater geeks and we have a really tight-knit community where we love each other. I know some people have been bitchy or snarky to Carrie today on Twitter. The family of our show could not have been more supportive and loving and excited for her. So I'm glad she got to experience what it feels like to be surrounded by people who love you and want you to do well — which does not always happen in this industry.

Carrie Underwood and the Von Trapp children in "The Sound of Music Live!"
Carrie Underwood and the Von Trapp children in "The Sound of Music Live!"

How was working with the kids?

I loved them!

Being in the Baroness character, though, did you have to keep an arms' length so you wouldn't get to love them too much?

At first, I really did that. Because I thought kids are so permeable and you can see what they're feeling, so if they love me, you'll be able to tell that on screen. And then they just kept coming at me. And the meaner I was to them — we'd play a game, Mean Elsa, and they'd say, "Who is going to have to go to boarding school first?" And I'd point at one of them and go, "You! I'm going to cut your hair off!" We would have all these games where I'd pretend to be really, really mean to them, and the meaner I was, the harder they laughed.

When you came offstage, did you check the Twitter feed?

Yeah, I love Twitter. So I went on Twitter as soon as I was done and I tweeted "Elsa out." But I caught wind of the fact that people were disparaging Carrie and I thought, "Why would you do that?" She took on such a huge risk, she performed her little heart out, she sounded amazing, and she worked so hard to open herself up. I think people came in wanting to not like her.

[Related: Check Out the Best Tweets About 'The Sound of Music Live!']    

Does the peanut gallery bother you?

Snark is the new cool. The snarkier and more miserable you are, the more followers you get. And I think that's sad, that there's something in our culture where we want to see people fail all the time. There's literally a show called "Wipeout" where we watch people fall down. Is that what we want of our culture, to laugh at people falling down?

Your ratings last night showed that people want something else, too.

I'm so glad that the numbers showed that there is an appetite for this type of entertainment. It's nostalgic. It's bringing a tiny play into your home. I just think it's so wonderful.

Watch the "No Way to Stop It" number: