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Tony Award-Winner Laura Benanti Is Spreading Sunshine One Song at a Time

Laura Benanti never meant to start a movement. The Tony Award-winning singer and actress is — obviously — no stranger to the joy that musical theater can bring to performers and audiences alike, so when she realized that quarantine meant not only the closing of Broadway shows, but also the cancellation of countless school musicals and concerts, she wanted to do something about it. She posted a video inviting kids to share their songs via Twitter and the rest is history: The video went viral, and the #SunshineSongs movement was born.

“I thought I would get like 20 videos and we’ve had over 5,000 videos,” she told SheKnows in an exclusive interview. “My original post has been viewed almost 4 million times. And we continue to get hundreds a day.”

Not content with spreading just a little sunshine, Benanti is taking the movement a step further, partnering with a company to bring #SunshineSongs into senior living facilities and hospitals for people who are isolated and may not have social media. “We’re curating 30-minute virtual variety shows with videos that are being sent to us by people who know it’s for that express purpose,” she explains. “And it’s not a moneymaker by any means. This is purely a charitable endeavor.”

Benanti is also working on her next album, and just debuted the first single — a cover of the Jonas Brothers’ “Sucker” —  with 100% of the earnings from the single being donated to FoodCorps, an organization that connects kids to healthy food in schools.

Oh, and did we also mention she’s mom to 3-year-old Ella Rose? SheKnows talked to Benanti about #SunshineSongs, what’s keeping her sane during self-isolation, and why she’s not singing hand-washing songs. Keep reading!

SheKnows: Tell us more about what sparked the idea for #SunshineSongs — having high school kids (and ultimately grown-ups) sharing their songs and the performances that they didn’t get to do with you?

Laura Benanti: My mom is a voice teacher and she was sharing with me how disappointed her students were not to be able to do their musicals — especially the seniors — and I just was thinking about how meaningful my school shows were to me. They were the one time of the year that I felt really seen by my town, like I mattered. I was able to show that I wasn’t just a weird kid, but a talented kid. And this generation self-identifies as more anxious than any previous generation in our history. So to me, the combination of what’s already a difficult and trying experience, plus the disappointment of having the one place that you feel really supported taken away from you — and then being in isolation? That’s just a mental health disaster. I thought, if I can offer some support to these kids by being their audience, that would make me feel like I’m contributing in a positive way to our general well-being as a society.

And, you know, not only have the kids expressed how meaningful this is for them, but the people searching the hashtag and enjoying their performances also say it’s bringing light to what is otherwise a very dark time. My grandmother is 95 years old and she hasn’t seen another human being in three weeks. That’s not healthy. So it’s really important to get these talented kids to the people who really need them the most.

SK: Is there one performance that stands out for you, or has moved you the most? I’m sure it’s hard to pick when there are so many…

LB: What I love about this movement is that it hasn’t turned into a competition. It could have easily turned into, “who is the best and brightest?” And I really don’t want it to become that. I love all the videos and all the kids have so much heart and talent, so I just really couldn’t choose.

SK: You say this project has helped you as well as others. What else is helping you through this time? 

LB: Well, I have a three year old, so I’m up at 6:00 every morning with a person who’s like, ‘All right, entertain me.’ My daughter’s number one, number two is trying to be of service. And then the third thing I’m doing is, I’m really not watching the news. I check the World Health Organization website twice a day just to see if there’s any new information I need to know. But I think that our constant diet of news is not a great thing right now.

I’m really trying to remind myself to practice mindfulness. If I start thinking about, ‘What is the world going to look like? Is this forever?’ if I start to trip into the future that much it’s not a happy place to be. So I’m also trying to just be where I am. If I’m with my daughter, I put my phone in the other room and I’m with my daughter. If I’m working, I’m doing that. I’m doing my best to just stay present. And meditation helps me with that as well.

SK: Is your daughter just like, ‘Yay! More time with mommy!’? 

LB: We told her that people are getting sick and so we have to stay inside. And then if we do go out, we only go to a park or something, not a playground. And I told her that we have to be so far away from a person that if we reached out our hands to touch, we couldn’t. And she’ll stand like that and understand.

She’s definitely loving all of the attention, which is gonna be a little bit of a tricky transition when this is over.

In some ways, I just feel like the universe has put us in a big time out — like we’ve been sent to our room and this is an opportunity for us to evaluate our values and to figure out who we want to be as a culture. I think it’s shown us that we don’t actually want a virtual world. You know, it seemed as if we were heading in that direction. And now all anybody wants to do is be with each other. So I think that’s a good thing to learn.

SK: What have you had to let go of schedule- and regimen-wise during this time?

LB: My husband and I are splitting the workday, so I’m with our daughter from the moment she wakes up until 1:00. And then I have from 1:00 to 5:00 to get everything done and then I take over again from 5:00 to 7:30. So within my 4 hours, I have to get a lot done. And then I’m also really trying to exercise and meditate as much as I can because I know that if I get my body moving, I’m way healthier. In terms of my daughter, her preschool is trying to do the online thing. And I’m just like, this is too much. You know, she’s three years old.

SK: Are you doing online concerts? What’s next work-wise?

LB: I did #StarsInTheHouse for Seth Rudetsky to raise money for The Actors Fund. I did a Rosie O’Donnell show to raise money for The Actors Fund. I’m releasing an album in June and all of my earnings from the first single I’m going to donate to FoodCorps. So I’ve been working on that and on a music video for the single to highlight our first responders and all of the good work that so many people are trying to do. It’s hopefully sort of an inspirational look at how we’re all getting through this. And it does highlight five of the #SunshineSongs kids, which I’m excited about.

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LINK TO FULL VIDEO AND WHERE TO PURCHASE SINGLE IN BIO. I recorded my debut studio album late last year and I’ve been so looking forward to sharing this first single with you. Then a pandemic struck, and the power of perspective illuminated what a small moment this is in light of everything we’re experiencing. So here is my small offering ~when you purchase the single, 100% of my earnings will go to Food Corps; connecting our kids, (regardless of race, place and class), to healthy food during this crisis and beyond. This music video is meant to be a time capsule of sorts. An homage to everyone seeking connection, bringing joy, helping their neighbor, being of service to a stranger, and most of all risking their lives to heal others. Thank you. I see you, and I am so grateful. #sunshinesongs

A post shared by Laura Benanti (@laurabenanti) on

SK: I have to ask, is there a song that you and Ella sing when you’re hand-washing?

LB: You know, she’s not into it. She just basically washes her hands as long as I do. Though she would prefer to chat. She gets bored if we’re just singing. And frankly, she doesn’t like when I sing.

SK: She’s the one person, huh?

Yeah. I wish that there were some cute songs, but mostly it’s just me singing in my head and listening to her talk about, you know, outfits.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

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