"The Sound of Music" has been sweet to Laura Benanti. In 1998 at the age of just 18, she made her Broadway debut as Maria in a revival of the Rodgers & Hammerstein musical, but it was her role last month as Maria’s rival, the jilted Elsa Schrader, in NBC’s "The Sound of Music Live!," that brought this perennially on-the-cusp actress and singer to the brink of mainstream stardom.
"I have never felt so much love come my way in my entire career, which is hilarious to me," said the 34-year-old during a recent interview at her cozy Upper West Side apartment, decorated with a twinkly Christmas tree and fuzzy snowmen pillows.
Though Benanti is a firmly established star in the theater, having won a featured actress Tony for the 2008 revival of "Gypsy" and earning praise for diverse roles in shows such as "Nine" and "Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown," the Dec. 5 telecast was a surprise hit that generated 18.6 million viewers and brought her a crop of new admirers.
"People recognize me now in a way that they haven’t before. I was walking in the park and a girl said to me, ‘You’re the lady from the TV. I like you so much,’" Benanti said.
"The lady from TV" will be back onstage Wednesday and Thursday at the Catalina Bar & Grill in Hollywood, where she’ll perform a sampling of songs from her first solo album, "In Constant Search of the Right Kind of Attention." The record features an eclectic mix of show tunes, pop-music covers, and even a whimsical original, "The Ukulele Song," written by Benanti and inspired by Marilyn Monroe’s sexy strumming in "Some Like It Hot."
Recorded live at 54 Below in New York, "In Constant Search of the Right Kind of Attention" is also distinguished by Benanti’s witty onstage banter, including self-deprecating jokes about her track record for starring in ill-fated TV shows.
Benanti was easily the best thing about NBC’s short-lived, 1960s-set "Mad Men" clone "The Playboy Club," which aired for just three weeks in fall 2011. In a part that traded on her glamorous looks and distinctly Old Hollywood charm, she played an aging (the term is used loosely) bunny and singer at the famed Chicago nightclub.
Benanti said she gravitates toward roles in period pieces because of the layered performances they require.
"People now have emotional diarrhea all the time. We know what we all think at any given moment," she said. "But if you look back in our history, there was etiquette, there was a way that people had to behave. I like to play a character who is being forced to behave a certain way but feeling something completely different underneath. To me that is the most interesting and complex character."
In 2012, she went contemporary opposite Matthew Perry in the sitcom "Go On," in which she played the uptight leader of a grief support group. It was canceled after one season despite a heavy promotional push from NBC.
Benanti made light of her small-screen losing streak in a memorable number at last year’s Tonys, where she and fellow Broadway-stars-cast-in-doomed-TV-shows Megan Hilty ("Smash") and Andrew Rannells ("The New Normal") lamented the difficulties of making the transition to Hollywood.
"Television sucks," she belted out in between exaggerated swigs of whiskey. (That Benanti has a wicked sense of humor will not be a surprise to anyone who follows her on Twitter [@LauraBenanti], where she displays a gift for one-liners such as, "Do people who say ‘cooking relaxes me’ know about not cooking?")
Comedic though it was, the performance highlighted the somewhat inexplicable fact that Benanti, a performer blessed with both beauty and versatility, hasn’t become a bigger mainstream star. As the Daily Beast’s Kevin Fallon recently opined, "Benanti should be a household name by now."
But the actress is more ambivalent about the fame game. "I don’t think I’m the type of person that could go to the grocery story and have paparazzi take pictures and have people be like, ‘She looks terrible.’ I’m too sensitive," she said. "But I do sometimes feel like ‘what more do I have to do?’"
For now, Benanti is happy to mix it up between concerts, theater and TV guest spots. In April she’ll appear onstage in a limited run of Frank Loesser’s "The Most Happy Fella" at New York’s City Center, and this spring she’ll guest star on Showtime’s "Nurse Jackie." Though she’s mum about what the part entails, she admits to getting a bit star-struck around Edie Falco, an effect she calls "entering the white room."
And should producers Neil Meron and Craig Zadan stage another live television musical on NBC this year, as they’ve hinted, Benanti will be the first to sign up. (Her suggestions? "My Fair Lady," "The Music Man" or "Mary Poppins.")
Just don’t expect her to play the wide-eyed ingenue anytime soon.
"So boring," she said. "Not interested."
Where: Catalina Bar & Grill, 6725 Sunset Blvd., Hollywood
When: 8:30 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday
Information: (866) 468-3399 or http://www.catalinajazzclub.com