Laura Benanti is back on Broadway in Lincoln Center Theater’s acclaimed revival of My Fair Lady, and PEOPLE has the exclusive first look at her in costume.
The 39-year-old actress — known to many for her hilarious impersonation of First Lady Melania Trump on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert — has stepped into the iconic role of Eliza Doolittle, the poor, working-class cockney flower girl who seeks the help of phonetics professor Henry Higgins (Downton Abbey‘s Harry Hadden-Paton) and is soon transformed into a cultured member of high society.
In the shot, Benanti beams as she sits surrounded by flowers, dressed in Catherine Zuber’s exquisite period costumes (a blue overcoat and scarf layered over a long dress and accessorized with gloves and simple black hat). It’s an ensemble the actress wears during one of Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s most iconic songs, “Wouldn’t It be Loverly?” — the catchy tune that famously kicks off Eliza’s journey at the top of the show.
My Fair Lady is a “dream come true” for Benanti, who tells PEOPLE she was raised listening to the original 1956 production’s cast recording and idolizing its star, Julie Andrews. “I’m a soprano, so growing up, any opportunity I got to hear voices sounding like that, that was so joyful for me,” Benanti gushes. “That album played all the time in my house.”
In turn, Eliza became a “dream role” for Benanti, alongside Cinderella in Into the Woods, Gypsy Rose Lee in Gypsy, and Amalia Balash in She Loves Me.
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Through the years, Benanti got to play all those parts on Broadway, even winning a Tony for Gypsy in 2008. But My Fair Lady escaped her.
She was offered an audition for the part when director Bartlett Sher was readying this latest revival but as a mom to then newborn daughter Ella Rose, her heart wasn’t in it. “Those pages sat in my house for months,” Benanti says. “I never was able to look at them because I was raising Ella and becoming a new mom and figure out how to be a mom. And finally I called Bart to say, ‘If I can’t get it together to audition, I can’t play this part.’ And that was a really hard decision for me.”
Six Feet Under star Lauren Ambrose would eventually take on the role, and would go on to receive strong reviews when the show opened earlier this year on Broadway — even getting a Tony nomination for best actress in a musical.
When Ambrose, 40, had to leave to shoot a new television series, Benanti got the call to come back in.
“I had genuinely made peace with it but when Bart called me and offered me the part I was like, ‘I cannot believe this is happening,’ ” she recalls. “I let it go and to me it’s such a lesson in letting go and what’s meant to be yours will be yours. It came back and it couldn’t be more perfect.”
Benanti just began performances on Oct. 23 and is scheduled to stay with the role in a limited engagement through to Feb. 17, 2019.
So far, she says taken a different approach to the character — choosing to focus on how she survived her tough times through humor. That lens has allowed Benanti to value the role far beyond the #MeToo limitations might allow.
“As a flower girl in the time period, Eliza would have just sold flowers for the rest of her life until she died. That was her open. And the women above her, their only option was to marry,” Benanti explains. “So she has all this against her, but she makes it through by making jokes to charm people into buying flowers. And when she meets Henry, she’s ambitious enough to go to his house to say, ‘I want to learn how to speak properly because I want to sell flowers in a flower shop instead of selling flowers on the street.’ She’s actually quite brilliant.”
“That’s what I love about her,” Benanti adds. “He’s the biggest mansplainer that you would ever possibly meet. And like many women, she’s made to feel this sense of gratitude. Like, ‘I couldn’t do this without you.’ But throughout the course of the play, she goes from feeling this underclass, lesser than flower girl to a woman who has grown beyond him. And it’s a lesson we can all learn from.”
All in all, Benanti is holding on tight to every bit of the experience.
“I just feel so lucky,” she says. “I cannot believe that I get to do this for a living. There’s no moment of it that I take for granted. I get tired, I get frustrated sometimes with the b.s. of the business, but I’m so grateful that I get to do this for a living. How many people get to do this for a living? So few!”
And she’ll never forget that she’s walking through Andrews’ footsteps — even if the memory of meeting her idol brings up a few cringe moments.
“I met her one time and I really, really embarrassed myself,” Benanti remembers, with a laugh. “There was a lot of crying. But like too much, where it was like, ‘Were you just punched in the face?’ I couldn’t find my words at all. She was so gracious but I could tell there was a sense of, ‘Security…’ “
My Fair Lady is now playing at New York City’s Vivian Beaumont Theatre.
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