What It's Really Like to Be a Broadway Star

In our 9–5 series, we ask our favourite boss babes what a day in the office entails. This week, actress Denée Benton, who is currently starring in the Broadway production of Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812, gives us a glimpse into her daily grind

(Photo: Berkley Vopnfjörð)

(Photo: Berkley Vopnfjörð)

Age: 24

Education: Bachelor of fine arts in musical theatre from Carnegie Mellon University

Length of time as a professional Broadway actress: 2.5 years

You’ve acted on screen and on the stage, but as a kid, what did you dream of doing? I remember when the Brandy and Whitney Houston TV-movie of Cinderella came out. I was still in elementary school and when I watched it, my heart just exploded. I loved it. In my dream world, I was a Brandy who was a recording superstar, a movie star, and a TV star, and a Broadway star. I loved the idea of it all. The challenge that I faced growing up was realizing I had no idea how to get to any of those spots.

How did you figure out how to get where you wanted to be? It was a combination of my teachers and my parents. Once my parents saw that I had a gift and loved to sing, they were always putting me in voice lessons. I sang in the church choir, and then as I got older I did Broadway camps and competitions like the NAACP’s ACT-SO. That’s where I learned about acting conservatories and that you can go to school for acting. As I got older, I would graduate to the next level of competition and I meet someone who would introduce me to this camp then a voice teacher and then a university.

It sounds like a series of fortunate events. Yeah, and it helps to be open to things along the way. I’m so thankful for my mom because as bold and confident as I was in my dreams, as I got older and insecurity started to sink in about the quality of my voice or acting, my mom just never let me quit doing it.

You’ve now gone on to star in TV’s UnREAL and in multiple Broadway shows. How is acting on stage different than for TV? With theatre, you have such a long rehearsal process to get to know your cast and your character, be able to make mistakes and find out what works and what doesn’t. Whereas with TV, I joked that everything felt like a rehearsal. You get your scene—if you’re lucky—a few days before and sometimes it changes that morning and you just have to have faith in your instincts. I loved it in a different way because I had to trust myself more.

Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812 is now in full swing. What is an average day like for you? Previews, leading up to the actual show run, are the craziest time. It’s like running with weights on. When those happen, we rehearse from 12 to 5 p.m., then we have a dinner break and then we do our performance and wrap up close to 11 p.m. I get up around 9 a.m., start warming up my voice, then leave my house by 10:30 a.m. to get to the theatre a bit early and get in the mental space. Then I get home around 11:30 p.m. or midnight. During previews, we rehearse during the day because you can still change things and the entire cast and crew is involved in the process trying to perfect things before the show freezes on opening night. Once the play starts, my schedule is much more set.

You play the title character Natasha, a young woman simultaneously caught in the middle of war and a love triangle. How did you prepare for this role? Natasha has this really beautiful aria called “No One Else” and when I heard it for the first time, I immediately connected to her. When I heard how large she was and her feelings for things and how much she expected out of the world, I just really got her. Once that happened, it really just became about preparing with voice lessons and vocal therapy because it’s a really challenging vocal role.

The show has now started its run on Broadway. How do you get in the zone before stepping out onto that stage? I definitely still get nervous, especially if there are people that I know in the audience. Aside from my vocal warmup, which I always do otherwise I’ll fall flat on my face, I always say a prayer. I say a prayer of gratitude and a prayer that the light of the character will shine through despite my fear or how I’m feeling. That’s a constant that’s followed me since I started doing concerts in the fourth grade.

denee benton broadway star

Denée Benton in NATASHA PIERRE AND THE GREAT COMET OF 1812 (Photo: Evgenia Eliseeva)

The production is also Josh Groban’s Broadway debut. What is something that surprised you about him? We did a lot of press things together before the show and I was surprised at how nervous he still got when we had to do interviews or photoshoots. I was like, “Yes, finally, the lights, I’ve made it!” and for him, he was like, “Oh my god, how am I holding my hands?”

You mentioned that you were inspired by Brandy in Cinderella, and in UnREAL, you played a character who was fighting for better representation of black women—do you relate to Ruby’s message? Oh my God, Ruby is literally saying everything that I would ever say. Ruby had my darker complexion and had natural hair—which I was terrified to do because I rarely saw successful women on television without weaves and straightened hair. And then on top of all of that, she was the one the guy wanted. I used to always hear, “You’re pretty for a black girl,” as if it was some kind of handicap, so to have this representation where it’s not a handicap but an asset to who you are was huge to me. Growing up, it was rare to see black women in this industry being featured at the centre of the story, or in a love story, or really in any roles that weren’t just stereotypes. A lot of things that keep me going when I’m tired is that this feels so much bigger than me.

What has the response been from other young women in the audience? There was someone who came to see this show, she was a friend of our choreographer and around 16 and black. She was talking about my performance and she said, “She was a princess up there. I didn’t know that we could be princesses.” I obviously broke into tears because I can relate to her so deeply, and [relate to] how powerful it is to see yourself and the entire range of the things that you can be.

Have you ever faced challenges along the way with casting? Even in college there’s this pressure to figure out your type and how to fit in and be commodifiable. For white actors, there are so many different archetypes that are represented in the stories that are told, but for people of colour, there tends to be one or two moulds. My type, especially vocally, was always challenging for me. My voice isn’t the voice that is going to bring down that gospel number and usher in the holy spirit. That’s just not my sound. Growing up in church, I was always embarrassed that I couldn’t do that and I was afraid that there wouldn’t be room in this industry if I couldn’t figure out how to fit that mould. It’s been a journey for me, each opportunity challenging me to realize that maybe I can be myself and do what comes naturally versus trying to force myself to fit in. I love the concept of there being more moulds for different people.

What is the best part of your day? Singing “No One Else”. The lighting design for that scene makes it look like Natasha is in a sea of stars, and I get to have a beautiful view in that moment. That’s the point every night where I get to feel like, “Oh my god, this is happening.”

What is the worst part of your day? Setting my alarm for the next morning.

Which Broadway actress do you admire and why? Audra McDonald, hands down. Growing up, she was probably one of the first black women that I heard that didn’t sound like a gospel singer. She was a beacon of hope for me to feel that there was room for me to be myself and do this.

What advice do you have for those hoping to one day make it to Broadway? Get educated. Going to Carnegie Mellon was the beginning of me seeing what it takes to be in this industry, and taking the logical steps to get there. If you’re a young person trying to do this, go to a good conservatory or training program. Take voice lessons, take acting class, take dance class. Be a student.

At the end of a long day of performances, how do you unwind? I sip some tea and I watch Netflix or a sitcom. Between Modern Family, Black-ish, The Mindy Project, or New Girl, I love watching TV. To me, it’s the best way to turn off.

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