Laura Benanti wants a bigger audience.
Not just for herself, mind you, but for all theatrical endeavors.
"I'm trying to do whatever I can to bring this art form to the next generation," the singer-actress says on the phone from her home in New York. "I fear sometimes for the future."
Benanti, a Tony-winner for her role in the 2008 revival of "Gypsy," will be in town May 9-10 as part of the Orlando Cabaret Festival. Getting out of New York helps fulfill her mission of getting more people into theaters.
"It's important to me that I'm able to bring this style of performance to places that otherwise might not have the opportunity to see me or others," she says.
She appreciates that tickets are cheaper outside of notoriously expensive New York — she worries that Broadway prices are keeping teens and twentysomethings away from the theater.
"How are young people going to learn that they love it, if they can't ever afford it?" she says, indignation in her voice. "It can't just be that rich people get to see theater."
Television, of course, is society's great equalizer, and Benanti's career in that medium has been steadily growing. She was a star of the Matthew Perry sitcom "Go On" and also has appeared in such hits as "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit," "The Big C," "Nurse Jackie," "Elementary" and "The Good Wife."
Her biggest television audience, however, was for the live NBC broadcast of "The Sound of Music" in December. Nearly 19 million viewers saw her play Baroness Elsa Schrader, rival to heroine Maria, played by Carrie Underwood.
"That was a really big thing for me," says Benanti, 34, of the newfound recognition brought on by the role. "'The Sound of Music' really changed the face of my career in a very positive way."
Not only was it a professional achievement, but playing the baroness provided personal satisfaction as well.
"It was so much fun!" Benanti exclaims. "I think you could tell I was having a blast."
Months later, she's still quick to defend the character, who often doesn't elicit much sympathy for her attitude toward Maria's young charges, Captain von Trapp's seven children.
"I don't think of her as a villain at all," she states emphatically. "It's not that she hates children. She's just not good with them."
"'The Sound of Music'" has a special place in Benanti's heart: It was the show that launched her career.
"It was full circle," she says of returning to the show in the television production. "I felt that the universe was looking out for me."
Back in 1998 she played a nun in the musical's Broadway revival and understudied Maria. At just 19 years of age, she took over the leading role and played opposite Richard Chamberlain.
More Broadway work quickly followed, including roles in "Swing!," "Into the Woods," "Nine," the award-winning turn as stripper Gypsy Rose Lee in "Gypsy" and "Women on the Edge of a Nervous Breakdown," which earned Benanti her fourth Tony nomination.
"That's luck and hard work," she says of her success. "I do believe there's a lot of luck in this business. But when you get a break, you have to be good enough and work hard enough to stay there. I'm a very hard worker, I don't rest on my laurels. I just feel very lucky I'm getting to do what I love most as a career."
Orlando Cabaret Festival
• What: 18 days of lunchtime and evening performances. This week features Broadway actor Nicholas Rodriguez, 8:30 p.m. May 1-3. Laura Benanti performs at 8:30 p.m. May 9-10.
• Where: Mad Cow Theatre, 54 W. Church St., Orlando
• When: Daily, through May 11
• Tickets: $35-$55 for headliners; $12-$25 for other shows
• Call: 407-297-8788
• Online: Check the complete schedule at orlandocabaret.com