Etai Benson’s Bittersweet Return to Broadway

The Israeli American actor shares why his Jewish role in the revival of Stephen Sondheim's "Company" is particularly meaningful.

It feels like Etai Benson was born to play Paul in Stephen Sondheim’s “Company.” The 1970 musical — music and lyrics by Sondheim and book by George Furth — tells the tale of a character named Bobby on his 35th birthday, who is still single but is surrounded by married friends. There’s no real plot, just scenes that deal with modern marriage. In the 2021 revival, directed by Marianne Elliott, Bobby becomes Bobbie (Katrina Lenk) and many of the roles are gender-swapped — including Paul’s spouse, Amy, who becomes Jamie (played by Matt Doyle).

“Company” was set to open on Sondheim’s 90th birthday, March 22, 2020, but shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic after nine previews. Previews resumed on November 15, 2021, and Sondheim attended shortly before he passed away, with the musical finally opening on December 9, 2021. Sondheim had given his blessing to the gender-swapped “Company,” saying in an interview with director Elliott shortly before his passing, “My feeling about the theater is the thing that makes it different from movies and television is that you can do it in different ways from generation to generation… What keeps theater alive is the chance always to do it differently, with not only fresh casts, but fresh viewpoints.”

One of Sondheim’s most famous songs, “Not Getting Married,” makes for a stand-out scene in the revival. In this production, female Amy, who traditionally performs this number, becomes Jamie, a Catholic man singing about his jitters around marrying a Jewish man, Paul. Paul interrupts Jamie’s panic spiral by belting, “Today is for Jamie / Jamie, I give you the rest of my days / To cherish and to keep you, to honor you forever / Today is for Jamie / My lover, my partner, my life.” It’s the best scene in the entire musical.

Between “Company” previews in 2020 and in 2021, the weight of those lyrics took on new meaning: Benson tied the knot with fellow Broadway actor Alexandra Socha — once in an intimate ceremony in Central Park in September 2020, and again with a bigger, COVID-safe party a year later.

“We had already been tough things together,” Benson tells Alma on Zoom. “We had known that we wanted to be married to each other. And the big question came up… How many more tests do we need to know that we want to be together? When we came to that conclusion, why wait? A close family friend of ours who had lost his wife some years ago said that the one thing he learned was ‘Don’t postpone joy.’ And that became our mantra: Don’t postpone joy.”

Over Zoom, we chatted about Jewish representation, “Company” and dedicating his performance to his Israeli father.

How are you feeling right now, with the state of everything in New York City? 

We have learned, in the last year and a half, to roll with the punches as best as we can. I am very much trying to avoid the instinctual panic that everyone feels. These days, we read a headline and it sends everyone into a tailspin. Everybody has these very knee jerk reactions — you’re hearing cries to shut down Broadway. I’m trying to listen to our COVID safety managers, listen to the scientists in charge, and take it one morsel of information at a time. We have incredibly rigorous testing at our show. When there have been some positive cases, those people have been pulled, the show has gone on, and so far, no major outbreaks. That’s all we can hope to do. I’m rolling with it and listening to the people who are smarter than me about these things.

I feel like a lot of people comparing right now, December 2021, to March 2020. But at least from where I sit, it feels so different. We know so much more. We know how to test. We’re in a different world, even though I do feel that panic of similarities.

Everybody’s reliving the trauma of March 2020. In our bodies, it feels like oh, no, is this the same thing, is it [happening] again? Rationality goes out the window. It’s easy to forget the rational circumstances: We are in a different place, and we have so much more knowledge and science than we did almost two years ago. So, I’m not panicking.

That’s good. That’s great, actually. Not to bring you back to March 2020, but what was it like to feel so close to opening “Company” and then go into shutdown mode?

Obviously, it’s different in retrospect. When I actually put myself in the moment of March 2020, none of us took it that seriously. We did in the sense that, wow, okay, Broadway shutting down! But I thought it was a week, then I thought it would be a month, and then at some point, it dawned on us that this was going to be for the long haul. It took me by surprise. It took everybody by surprise. If I’m being honest, the very first few days after the shutdown, it felt almost like a snow day at school. Then that weekend, Matt Doyle, my scene partner, who I kiss in the show, called me and he said, ‘My partner has tested positive,’ and I believe it was that weekend that he said he had tested positive. And suddenly, I realized that it was so close to home. It shifted that weekend. Thankfully, they were OK.

Alexandra [Etai’s now-wife] and I live right across the river in New Jersey, and we saw the medical ship coming in. It was horrifying. It felt like we were living in “Station Eleven.” It felt like we were living in a post apocalyptic film. We can see the skyline, and we see the Empire State Building. [Later in March 2020], they had lit it up like a heartbeat, pulsing red. Looking out at that, knowing what was going on in the city, looking out at the heartbeat pulsing… that was the first emotional breakdown that I had. Where it really dawned on us what was happening.

I’m not sure what the timeline was for rehearsals ahead of the 2020 opening, but you’ve been with this character for quite some time now, even though you haven’t necessarily been performing him for for all that long. What’s that been like, for you to go in and out of playing Paul?

I always felt a kinship with with Paul, in the sense that I am very much a Paul in my life. In fact, when I was auditioning, my wife — we read with each other, we prepare auditions with each other — worked on the scene with me, and she said, ‘Oh, Etai, this is just you. Just do what you do when I’m in a bad place. Just take care of Jamie the way you take care of me.’

I suppose the real difference this time is that I’m now married. Coming back into the show as a married person brings a whole different perspective. And suddenly, there’s a different level of stakes and a reality to the scene. I can bring a different perspective to my imagination in the [“Not Getting Married Today”] scene. When Jamie, my partner in the scene, has a panic attack and decides to call off the wedding, I can put myself into my own wedding and imagine what that would be like — in a way that I couldn’t before. It just hits deeper. It feels more real to me, I understand what making this commitment is. So I think I can bring a different level of depth to the role that I couldn’t before.

And the relationships feel much deeper, much richer. Even though, as you said, I didn’t get to perform it a ton, when we started performing “Company” in 2020, Matt and I had only known each other a few months. We’ve now known each other almost two years, and have essentially been through a major life event and trauma alongside each other. That also adds layers to relationship. It makes a history between two people feel palpable and real on stage when those two people have actually been through something together.

In your bio in the playbill, you write that every performance you’re doing is for your father, and you write in Hebrew “אני אוהב אותך לנצח,” ani ohev otcha lanetzach, that you love him forever.

A month into the pandemic, in April 2020, my father passed away. The perspective that comes with that really changes you — obviously loss and grief change you on a molecular level. Coming into this process, having experienced that, changed the way I approached the work. It’s so easy to get lost in the noise of Broadway and everything that’s surrounding the actual work — reviews and awards and chit-chat and all the stuff that’s happening around what you’re actually trying to do. This time, having experienced grief and loss, having experienced the pandemic, less of that bothered me. I just gave less of a fuck, to be honest — in a good way, in a healthy way. And I was able to appreciate doing the work and be grateful for the ability to do the work.

“Company” was the last show that he saw me in. Amazingly, with only nine performances, he managed to see both the invited dress rehearsal and the first preview. The last time I saw him was in New York, seeing my show. The experience of doing this show will forever be tied to that. That last time I saw him, it was just after the first preview, there was a little after party and Patti LuPone was there and Stephen Sondheim was there and my dad and my mom were both there, and they were so proud and so excited.

What’s funny about my dad is that he’s this very Israeli guy. He fought in the Yom Kippur [War in 1973]. He came from a tough upbringing at the beginning of Israel’s life. He’s not someone who would necessarily go to the theater or be into musicals, even though he was very artistic in his own way. My mom was telling me that he was so excited for “Company,” especially, that he started listening to all the different cast recordings. She said he would drive her crazy around the house saying, “Bobby, Bobby, Bobby, baby, Bobby bubi…” I remember having a conversation with him on the phone where he compared [recordings]. He’s like, “I noticed that in the new one, they change these lyrics.” He had all these thoughts on “Company,” which isn’t anything I ever would have imagined. Any experience will be bittersweet knowing that he’s not there. But this one in particular has has a special resonance with me because it’s the last thing he saw me do on stage. And that’s why I put that tribute in this program.

That’s really meaningful. And of course, that isn’t the only loss that looms over this “Company” production. What were the performances like in the wake of Sondheim’s passing?

That’s a tough question. Suddenly, the show, overnight, became about something else. Most of our feelings right before that were: Wow, here we are, coming off of the pandemic, we’re bringing Broadway back. We’re here for our own employment, but also to help audiences heal in the way that great stories do. But then suddenly, with that news, it became about upholding a legacy, and there was a new responsibility that was laid upon us.

Not only doing Sondheim in his natural habitat on Broadway, but also it being the last production that he ever worked on, and that he ever was directly involved with, and wrote for and made changes for and took notes on. There was a new weight to it.

What happened when you found out?

It was right after Thanksgiving, and after the matinee, we were told to all gather behind the curtain. We were told, don’t leave, don’t go back to your dressing room, there’s a company meeting with the director. And whenever you hear that, it’s usually not good news. We had no idea what was going on. Obviously COVID is still a factor, so we thought, Oh, my God, is the governor shutting down Broadway, what’s happening? Everyone was there. And then our director Marianne [Elliott] said that she had this morning gotten off the phone with Steve’s friend and lawyer, and we kind of understood what was happening. It was a very emotional response. It was tough. It was hard, but that performance that night was really special, because we were really doing it for him and everyone in the audience could feel it.

We had a moment with the audience before the performance began; the curtain went up on all of us standing together and holding each other, and Patti LuPone dedicated the entire run to Stephen Sondheim and emotions were very high. You could feel the emotion and you could feel his presence.

Paul, your “Company” character, is Jewish, and you’re Jewish and Israeli. What does it mean to you to be a Jewish actor performing a Jewish character in a Sondheim musical!?

Sondheim, from what I understand, was not religious at all. He grew up in culturally Jewish home, but he was decidedly not religious. But I do feel, personally, what he brought to this art form, like a lot of writers before him, was a New York Jewish wit and sensibility. His humor, especially, and his dry wit, I always associate with Jewish culture.

So, playing this role in this musical  — it’s not that same connection necessarily that I had to “The Band’s Visit,” where I, for the first time, was playing an Israeli, which is really where I identify even more strongly. I feel much more connected to my Israeliness than I necessarily do my American Jewishness. But, when we talk about representation, and what that means, I do feel like, at the very least, I’m representing this part of myself in this Sondheim musical. Because he is talked about very specifically as being Jewish, and there is a pride there. And I am one of the few Jewish members of the company, so I do take pride in that.

How would you compare your role as Papi in “The Band’s Visit” to Paul in “Company”?

The roles couldn’t be more different. In “The Band’s Visit,” I was basically doing a song that was chromatic whining. In this, I get to really sing out. Also, “Company” is about twice the length of “The Band’s Visit,” which requires a different kind of stamina.

In both of these shows, I’ve been able to pull from different parts of my identity. With “The Band’s Visit,” it was very much tapping into my Israeliness, which I had never gotten to do in my work. It was tapping into the kid who grew up with both languages and grew up with the food and the music and that culture. In “Company,” I’m tapping into a younger part of myself: the high school theater geek who discovered Sondheim at age 14. Like a lot of us in this business, Sondheim was my gateway. When I discovered his work, it just opened up an entire world for me. So both of them, in an interesting way, are tapping into a different piece of my upbringing and a different piece of my childhood.

What does it mean to you to be an Israeli actor on Broadway or Jewish actor on Broadway? I know you said you think about your Israeliness more.

It’s become an increasingly complicated subject, because we’re all grappling with: What does diversity mean? What does representation mean? I’m so aware of the privileges that have been bestowed upon me as a Jewish person, because Jews have been able to adapt and assimilate because of our skin color. And then there’s the part of me that knows that I am often thought of as too Jewish for certain roles. What does that mean? Where do where do I fall? It’s a question that I’m constantly asking myself and exploring. There are no answers. We don’t love to live in the unknown and in a gray area, and that’s where I sometimes feel I am.

But in “The Band’s Visit,” I felt a pride and an authenticity that I had never felt in my work before. I felt like I could really portray the full person that I am. I got to speak Hebrew, my first language, on a Broadway stage. My dad got to see me do that. There was nothing more special than that. And in some tiny way, I started to understand these issues of the importance of of authenticity and representation in a way that I hadn’t before. In a very different way, but in my own small way.

What’s your favorite thing about being Jewish?

My favorite thing is the warmth. The warmth that I feel, and it’s not true across the board for all Jews or all Israelis, but that’s what I’ve tapped into is the immediate warmth that I feel — that feeling of being a part of some kind of “tribe.”

My wife has been in the process of converting. It wasn’t pressure from me or from my family, she came to it on her own. It’s been beautiful to watch and observe and be a part of. We took a class together during the pandemic on Zoom and both learned a ton. One thing I told her was that you know you really identify as Jewish when you find out that someone famous, or someone you really admire, is Jewish, and you instantly feel that yes. That’s when you know you’re part of the tribe. And, on the flip side, how embarrassed you can be when when someone Jewish does something terrible. Like, no, this is so bad for us. That “bad for the Jews / good for the Jews,” that’s something I connect to.

We’re about to enter a new year. Is there anything you’re looking forward to in 2022? 

I think we’re getting a cat! That’s something I’m very excited about. And you know what? I’m looking forward to, hopefully, a year with fewer plot twists. I’d like a more boring season of TV this year.

Do you know what you’re going to name your cat yet? 

No, we don’t know yet. But I think that it will probably be some tribute to Stephen Sondheim.

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