By Brian Scott Lipton


For the past few years, Tony Award winner Laura Benanti has focused her considerable talents on building a television career, with featured roles on such series as “The Playboy Club,” “Go On,” and “Law & Order: SVU.”  More recently, however, the stunningly beautiful singer-actress has returned to her musical roots, releasing her acclaimed solo CD, “In Constant Search of the Right Kind of Attention: Live from 54 Below,” which features tunes by everyone from Maury Yeston to Harry Chapin, Joni Mitchell, and Todd Almond. And this spring, she’ll play the role of Rosabella in City Center Encores! production of Frank Loesser’s “The Most Happy Fella.”


On Thursday, December 5, Benanti will get to combine all her skills – and all her passions – when she takes on the coveted part of the Baroness Elsa Schrader in NBC’s much-anticipated live version of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “The Sound of Music,” starring Grammy Award winner Carrie Underwood. And while it will be the first time she dons the glamorous duds of the would-be-fiancee of Captain Von Trapp, it’s hardly her first exposure to the landmark musical.


“I played Maria on Broadway 16 years ago, although it feels like yesterday,” Benanti says, referring to the show’s 1998 revival, in which she succeeded Rebecca Luker in the role of Maria von Trapp. “I didn’t think much about Elsa then, but I loved how Jan Maxwell played her. She was so funny. And what I love about the part now is that maybe Elsa is good or maybe she’s bad. I love those kinds of characters.”


As Benanti quickly points out, what viewers will see on December 5 is a re-creation of the 1959 Broadway musical, and not the beloved 1964 film. That means, among other things, that Elsa has actually two big musical numbers, “No Way to Stop It” and “How Can Love Survive?”, both of which are trios with Captain von Trapp (played by “True Blood” star Stephen Moyer) and Max Detweiler (played by fellow Tony winner and former “Smash” star Christian Borle.) “I think the real reason to revisit the musical is to expose people to the theatrical version,” she says. “It’s wonderful that some people will hear these songs they have never heard before. That’s what makes it exciting!”


Benanti also has nothing but high praise for her primary co-stars. “Christian is among the most talented people I have ever met, and he is so funny,” she says. “Stephen is such a lovely man, a really hard worker, and a very good actor. And I am excited to have other people hear him sing; he’s very good.” Indeed, Benanti can only say one bad thing about Moyer. “There’s really no making out between us, unfortunately. He just kisses my hand.”


Most of her other scenes are with the seven newcomers who play the young Von Trapps. “I love working with kids,” she says. “I love how they see the world. They’re continuously playing. We grow up and we lose that. It’s sad.”


As a result, Benanti has spent only a little time rehearsing with the many other Broadway veterans who are part of the cast (most notably, five-time Tony winner Audra McDonald as the Mother Abbess) or even with Underwood. Nonetheless, she is incredibly impressed with the country music superstar. “She is a very brave person. After all, she didn’t need to do this,” says Benanti. “She came to the first rehearsal off book, and we immediately realized we had to get our shit together. And not only is her voice so beautiful, but she is coming into her own as an actress. But the best thing about Carrie is that she is very humble, and never acts like a diva.”


The fact that Underwood is no stranger to television – having won FOX’s “American Idol” and appeared on numerous specials – is another reason she’s the right person for this project, says Benanti. “This may be live, but it’s television. There’s a lot of camera blocking. And we are not doing it in front of an audience, which is the right decision. If we were playing to an audience, our performances might be too large for the camera. It’s important that we all live that within the theatrical world and create something that is TV-sized. I feel like all of us in the cast understand that. I can’t wait.”