Fairfield singer reflects on music and Broadway

Fairfield native Julie Benko is an actress, singer and songwriter who has appeared on Broadway in Fiddler on the Roof and Les Miserables. Her debut album, Introducing Julie Benko, with jazz standards and original compositions, is now available on iTunes, Amazon and CD Baby.

The album includes a diverse group of songs, such as Matchmaker, Matchmaker (Fiddler on the Roof), Wonderful, Wonderful Day (Johnny Mercer), I Can Dream, Can’t I (jazz standard), and Tomorrow Is a Day For You (a song she wrote based on the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling to legalize gay marriage).

Benko has also performed in cabaret shows, national Broadway tours and regional theaters around the country, and entourage casts at the Academy Awards, Tony Awards and on NBC-TV’s America’s Got Talent. She won the Gold Medal and Johnny Mercer Award at the 2017 American Traditions Vocal Competition in Savannah, Ga.

A 2007 Fairfield-Ludlowe High School graduate, she earned a bachelor of fine arts degree from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts and now lives in Manhattan. She is the daughter of Stephen and Gail Benko of Fairfield.

Benko will return to her hometown to perform in concert at Fairfield Theatre Company’s Stage One on Jan. 27 at 7:45 p.m. Ticket information at FairfieldTheatre.org and 203-259-1036. Benko recently spoke about her upcoming performance.

Brad Durrell: How were you first exposed to music and acting?

Julie Benko: My dad would always fall asleep on the couch listening to Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington and all the jazz greats, so I’d hear it while falling asleep in my room. My mom was a big fan of musicals and I grew up going to all the musicals on Broadway and the Goodspeed Opera House. We’d go to the video store and she’d always suggest I get ‘Seven Brides for Seven Brothers’ or “Meet Me in St. Louis,’ so I grew up seeing all the big musicals.

BD: Your interest increased while growing up?

JB: I did the drama club in middle school, where everyone wrote their own skits. It was very creative. Then I was in Les Mis at the Fairfield Teen Theater, and that was the moment when I started falling in love with theater. I was always in the high school plays and musicals and summer plays in the area. My first professional job was playing Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz for the Downtown Cabaret Theatre’s children’s program [in Bridgeport].”

BD: Tell me about being on Broadway for the first time in the Les Miserables 2014 revival?

JB: It was very emotional, the culmination of all these things you’ve been working for your whole life. While backstage, I heard the opening notes of the prologue and I started to cry. I couldn’t believe I was making my Broadway debut. But then I got out there and realized, ‘Oh, this is the same thing I’ve been doing for years. It’s not actually that different.’  It feels validating that you’ve finally achieved it.

BD: When did you get serious about singing?

JB: My interest started around the same time as acting. I asked my mom for voice lessons, but she didn’t really take me seriously. Then in eighth grade, after my cantor told her I had talent when studying for my bat mitzvah, I started taking voice lessons. I’d sing a lot of musical theater songs, and you have to be fluent in a lot of different styles and keep your muscles in shape to do this, whether it’s pop-rock, jazz, classical-soprano or other genres. Jazz has been a love of mine through the years, and something I’ve gotten more interested in during the last few years.

BD: Tell me about making the album?

JB: It was a process. Jason Yeager, who co-produced the album and is my boyfriend, and I have been playing together for awhile and picked songs we liked. Three of the 11 songs are ones I wrote. The others mainly come from my musical theater background. When marrying musical theater with jazz, there’s so much crossover.

BD: Are there challenges to being an aspiring performer?

JB: When on staff of a production, you can make a living, but other times that’s not the case. I also do SAT and ACT test prep tutoring, teach voice and acting lessons, and coach teens who want to get into performing. I’ve had short-term jobs through the years, including being a hostess at a New York restaurant.

BD: What will you perform at the Fairfield show?

JB: “We’ll do songs from the album and some other favorites. A lot of musicians will join us, many from the record, playing the piano, bass, drums, trumpet, clarinet, saxophone and trombone. They’ll be two sets. I’m so excited to be playing in Fairfield.  It will be a real homecoming. People are coming who haven’t seen me in a concert setting before, including my high school music teacher. They’ll be a lot of people there who haven’t seen me since high school.

BD: What’s next?

JB: I’m doing some concerts, readings of some new plays and musicals, and auditioning for that next job. As an actor, every show you’re in you leaves you wondering, ‘Is this the last show I’ll be in?’ Then another one inevitably comes along. And as a jazz singer, I can make my own gigs without needing someone else to hire me.