NEW YORK (AP) — Years ago, when her roommate came home one day sobbing, Laura Benanti comforted her the only way she knew how — with a song.
Benanti, who would go on to win a Tony Award, still recalls the night when her friend Darcy returned from a terrible waitress shift at an Italian restaurant. A drunken woman kept calling her a derogatory name and a man tried to pay for his meal in pennies.
"She was sobbing hysterically and I just sat down with a guitar trying to make her feel better," says Benanti, whose string of Broadway credits includes "Gypsy," ''Nine" and "Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown."
The song that emerged championed working stiffs who have to grin and bear abuse from customers. Sample lyric: "No sir, we don't have oysters/And if we did I still could not sit and share them with you/Would you like a menu?/No, sir, I'm not on it."
Darcy's tears turned to a smile and then laughter. "Halfway through, she was like, 'You should be recording this. I think this is good,'" Benanti recalls.
The song — titled "The Waitress Song" — will be one of the highlights this month of Benanti's new cabaret show, "In Constant Search of the Right Kind of Attention," at the swanky theater district nightclub 54 Below.
It promises to be a night of pure Benanti — smart, sexy, funny and kooky. Besides her original song, she and songwriter Todd Almond, who is her arranger, plan to fuse theater standards with pop songs.
What does that mean? She'll take Stephen Sondheim's "One More Kiss" and mix it with Jeff Buckley's "Last Goodbye." She also plans to sing "My Time of Day" from the musical "Guys and Dolls," some Ellie Goulding, a little Lana Del Rey and a new song with lyrics taken from a poem she wrote when she was 12.
"I just do whatever I want to do," she joked. "I have A.D.D."
Benanti's NBC show "Go On" opposite Matthew Perry has been canceled, but she still has a recurring role on USA's "Royal Pains."
She tells The Associated Press what audiences can expect during her May 20-25 shows at 54 Below.
AP: Have you ever done a cabaret act?
Benanti: No. I've always done songs from shows that I've done but I've never just done songs that I love, or songs that I've written or songs that my friends have written. I've never put together a show like that.
AP: Is the plan here to mix pop and the American Songbook?
Benanti: We're just trying to take two typically incongruous art forms and bring them together in a way that feels meaningful. I think there is some beautiful lyricism in some pop and folk music that sometimes gets lost in the arrangement — you're not hearing the poetry. And there's some clunky stuff in musical theater that's not as lush as it could be.
AP: Have you always liked both kinds of music?
Benanti: I always felt schizophrenic as a kid because I loved musicals so much but then I also loved these rock and pop and folk artists, too. I was like, 'Where do I belong? Where does that fit in?'
AP: You're making Frankenstein monsters?
Benanti: Exactly, but they're going to look good. Like supermodels.
AP: Are you scared that people might not like it?
Benanti: Learning to detach myself from the end result — 'Are people going to like me' — is my lifelong struggle in general. So it helps to do it in my work. If I'm doing anything out of fear or because I want to please someone, I shouldn't be doing it.
AP: Who will like it?
Benanti: I think that if you love traditional cabaret, you will be surprised by this show. I don't think it's your grandmother's cabaret. I think it's built toward a younger audience. But I've had 90-year-old women come up to me and say, 'This is my favorite thing I've ever seen. You are so funny.' So, do I always have the funniest thing to say in moment? No, but sometimes I do.
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