Tony Award-winning actress and mother Laura Benanti has been doing what many of us have been doing during the coronavirus pandemic: worrying.
"I know for myself, as a theater kid, my high school musical was a saving grace, so I was worried about those kids," Benanti, a Broadway actress who has earned five Tony Award nominations, told TODAY Parents. "So I'm doing a lot of worrying about everyone and for me that always translates to trying to be of service in some way."
Benanti started the #SunshineSongs campaign on Twitter, where she asked young actors and singers to submit their performances on social media from their canceled musicals and plays. Benanti, who played Baroness Elsa Schräder in the 2013 NBC television production of "The Sound of Music Live!," was one of the first celebrities to do this, with others like Jennifer Garner and Lin-Manuel Miranda adding their own call-to-actions in the following days.
"It's been overwhelmingly positive," Benanti said of the campaign. "I had no idea that when I posted on social media that it would become what it's become. We've had thousands and thousands of submissions of which I've watched them all. I'm so heartened by the sincerity and the commitment and the love and the talent of these kids. I know that it's brought a lot of people a lot of joy."
One mom tweeted, "My daughter Heather probably won’t be able to perform in Longwood Middle schools Frozen Jr. as Anna. It was her first lead role and she was so excited. Thank you for doing this for the kids. #SunshineSongs."
One high school student wrote, "I was supposed to be Millie in 'Thoroughly Modern Millie,' this would be my final high school performance. Thank you so much @LauraBenanti for helping turn this into something positive and bringing all of these beautiful voices together."
"I'm gratified to be using music for the common good. It's really important, and that's the best I can do right now."
Benanti hopes to turn the videos into something that has even more of a positive impact. Benanti and her friend, Kate Deiter-Maradei, are planning an initiative to get some of the #SunshineSong performances to anyone who might be especially shut in.
"Older people don't have Twitter and Instagram and they would so benefit from being cheered by these kids," she said. "So the next step of the campaign is to create a Sunshine Squad so that these kids can virtually go into senior centers and hospitals and perform for people who are especially isolated during this time. ...
"I'm gratified to be using music for the common good. It's really important, and that's the best I can do right now. These times bring out the best and the worst in us. And I am gratified to say, I think for the most part we're seeing it's the best, you know?"
Another way Benanti hopes to add some light and laughs into the homes of families is with her new book titled "M is for MAMA (and Also Merlot): A Modern Mom's ABCs."
"We just hope that this brings people joy," she said.
The idea for the book came when Benanti — who said she had a "pretty bad case of postpartum depression" after having her daughter, Ella Rose — connected with another new mom (now her co-author), Kate Mangiameli.
"I was in my local coffee shop really early in the morning and I had like locked eyes with another woman who had sort of the haunted, exhausted face of a new mother," she explained. "We got to talking and we've since become really close friends, and the idea just came from us texting jokes back and forth to each other."
The board book is a play on alphabet books, she explained: "We started joking, 'D is for 'Don't touch my hair, I'm going to scream,' and E is for 'Eat the food I put in front of you right now.'"
Most of all, Benanti hopes the book helps new parents feel less alone.
"You know, if there were a book like this when I had a colicky infant who would only sleep for 47 minutes at a time, only if I balanced her on a ball, I would have felt a little more cheered on, you know?" she said. "Even if you keep it in your bathroom and you read two pages when you have the time to yourself on the toilet, it's just something to make you smile."