MILLBURN, NJ -- Tony Award Winner Laura Benanti, speaking to reporters from across the country about her upcoming streaming concert to benefit a consortium of regional theaters, including Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, she said how much she’s looking forward to being back on a real stage, even if the concert is streaming live and the audience is at home.

She said her goal is “to bring people joy” during a pandemic that has affected so many. She herself has lost her grandmother, her husband’s grandmother, and a friend to COVID-19.

“Paper Mill Playhouse is the entire reason why I have a career. One hundred percent,” she said emphatically. 

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After her performance as Dolly Levi in Hello Dolly in high school — she is from Kinnelon — she won the very first Paper Mill Playhouse Rising Star Award. She then was cast in two Paper Mill shows and staff recommended her to the casting director for the 1997 Broadway revival of The Sound of Music to audition for Liesl. 

“So I went in and ended up instead booking the understudy to Maria, and then taking over that role and playing opposite Richard Chamberlain. It is entirely because of Paper Mill that I had that audition and I had my starring role on Broadway when I was 18 years old.”

“They are my family,” Benanti said of the staff. “They have been so incredible to me my whole entire life, not just professionally, but on a personal level as well. I brought my daughter to see Cinderella last year and it was, like, just so magical, such a magical experience. And I was so emotional to go backstage and see the crew that I knew when I was 17, and the same people [that] have been there for so long. It's just such a beautiful theater, they do such good work. They do such great education outreach and I'm so honored to be an ambassador for them. I just love them so much.”

She also stressed the importance of the regional theaters her concert will raise money for. “If you can come to Broadway, fantastic. But Broadway's really become theater for a rich audience. It's prohibitively expensive in a way that I find really upsetting.” Regional theater is more accessible to people who either can’t afford or can’t get to Broadway, she said. “How are we going to encourage young people to love the theater if you can't afford to go?”

I'm so honored to be an ambassador for them. I just love them so much.

“What I love about regional theaters and local theaters is how they affect their communities… You know, if you are living in Millburn, New Jersey, and you have Paper Mill Playhouse in your town, that is going to affect the ecosystem of your town and of the neighboring towns. 

“For me, it was the one place where I didn't feel like a weirdo. And all the other kids in the neighboring towns who felt like weirdos, they got to go there, too, you know? And I just think that having creative people, artistic people in your town is such an important thing. You know, I feel like especially with such an amazing education program, you're shaping young minds.”

“To me, there's like literally nothing more important than that,” she added.

Tickets for the streaming performance on Sat. Nov. 14 can be purchased at Paper Mill Playhouse online and you can stream the show for 72 hours after it runs live.

Here is a conversation between Benanti and Paper Mill's Producing Artistic Director, Mark Hoebee, which was published on their YouTube page on Nov. 10: