No nonsense; tell it like it is; Diva, with a capital ‘D’. Just a few of the epithets you hear regularly bandied about when conversations turn to Patti LuPone, one of Broadway’s genuine legends and an ornament to a profession she’s dominated for many years now. For a woman who apparently needed an urgent hip replacement late last year, the two-time Tony Award-winner doesn’t appear to be taking it any easier. Right now, she’s preparing for an Australia-wide tour of her acclaimed one-woman show, Don’t Monkey With Broadway. Yes, the show’s title throws out a challenge, and LuPone – a woman with attitude, in the best sense of the word – is concerned for what the Great White Way has become in these commercially-driven $300-a-ticket times. But it’s also a chance to take a stroll down memory lane as a real authentic takes a long, hard look at the highs, the lows, and the ones that got away over the course of a career that is now sailing comfortably into its fifth decade.
Patti Lupone performing Woulda , Coulda, Shoulda. Photo © Rahav iggy Segev
“I’m also a flop – right now I’m lying down, I’m not sitting down, I’m lying down,” LuPone counters, her crisp yet dusky voice pleasingly familiar over the phone from her home in Connecticut. “I’m also at the point in my career where I don’t go after parts, because the parts I do go after I don’t get and it’s heartbreaking. The parts that come to me are the parts I’m supposed to play.”
It’s that kind of direct, at times self-deprecating honesty, and a willingness to speak her mind that make her an ideal host and her show, therefore, self-recommending, but it also makes for a refreshing interview free from any grandstanding or, indeed, dull predictability. A self-declared “product of the Northport Public School System” – that’s a historic maritime village in the Town of Huntington on Long Island, New York, in case you wondered – LuPone was star struck at the tender age of four thanks to tap-dancing and an extracurricular activities program started by her father who was principal of the only elementary school in town. “My mother enrolled me in dance,” she explains, “and I remember distinctly, not classes, but I do remember this recital. I thought the audience was smiling at me, just me. Four years old. I just fell in love with the audience and the stage and I’ve never looked back.”
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Leaving school with little except a burning desire to audition for Broadway musicals, when her brother who was studying dance at Juilliard told her that the college was starting up a Drama Division, she went up to audition and got in. In American theatrical annals, this was a bit of a legendary time, but it was famously gruelling and, perhaps surprisingly, as a classical theatre course it involved no musical training. “It was such a very brutal environment – and then you had to go out and face the streets of New York, and in the 70s, New York was bankrupt,” she recalls. “The city was tough and not what it is today – I don’t know what it is today, Candyland!”
“Juilliard was in Harlem, on 122nd Street on Claremont Avenue – Manhattan School of Music is in that building now – and there were no streetlights on Riverside Drive. Because I had moved to the city earlier and I’d been coming here since I was a kid, I had an apartment and street sense. But if you were a kid who got off a bus from Minneapolis or a farm in Minnesota, and you had to deal with all the scrutiny and training and then hit the streets, it was tough. We lost, I think, some of our best actors in the first couple of years.”
Patti Lupone. Photo © Axel Dupeux
And if it wasn’t the mean streets, it was the teaching. When I ask her what she learned the most during that period the one-word answer says it all: “Failure… it’s the best lesson… what I learned was that when I failed in a role, I had to figure out why. I sort of became an example in the school,” she elaborates. “I was a recalcitrant student but someone who had talent. In my particular case, they didn’t like my personality. They were trying to throw me out of school, but they couldn’t throw me out because they simply didn’t like my personality, so they threw every conceivable role in my direction and that ultimately taught me versatility. We started out with 36 of the original class and at the end of the four years we had 17 of the original 36. The class was cut in half. You were in a state of fear every year that you’d be eliminated from the school.”
“They were trying to form an ensemble,” she explains, “so certain women would be leading ladies, certain women would be soubrettes, and others would be character ladies – and then you got the leftovers. Well, two of us were leftovers. All of the rest of the actors were playing Hecuba or Lady Sneerwell – or roles that they were too young to play. They fell into a pattern and if they were successful and stayed in that pattern they didn’t grow as actors. I think I had the best and most invaluable training of my class, because they didn’t typecast me. And what I learned was that when I failed in a role, I had to figure out why.”
After Juilliard, LuPone would go on to be a founding member of Houseman’s The Acting Company, criss-crossing the country for four years. What did a young actor get out of that kind of old-school repertory work? “Training,” she snaps back, “15 years of technique and form. We were on every possible configuration of a stage doing Measure for Measure at 11 in the morning battling influenza. We did nothing but act 50 weeks out of the year. It taught us very early on that you basically leave it all on the stage. Young actors might have a tendency to carry the character home. We acted so much that we got sick of it! We lived our lives and honed our craft as opposed to being consumed by it. That training was extraordinary. I can walk into pretty much any size theatre, catch the acoustics and know how to play it because of that training.”
She made her Broadway debut as Irina in The Three Sisters in 1973, an Acting Company rep production, while across that period, a couple of musical projects gave LuPone the chance to be heard in singing roles: Marc Blitzstein’s The Cradle Will Rock (which the company revived and recorded in London as late as 1984) and The Robber Bridegroom, in which she starred as Rosamund alongside fellow alumni Kevin Kline and Mary Lou Rosato. The show would earn LuPone her first Tony nomination for Best Featured Actress in a Musical.
LuPone would really make her international name when she created the role of Evita in 1979, but before that she had her first taste of Broadway’s fickle side when she went into Stephen Schwartz’s musical The Baker’s Wife. “First big flop,” she says ruefully. “Then for three years I was a Mamet actor. Spent a lot of time with David Mamet. I went back to my roots. I always go back to my roots. After Evita, when I went to the Guthrie to work, I got raked over the coals because they said what’s Evita doing at the Guthrie Theatre.”
Patti Lupone. Photograph © Rahav iggy Segev
The decision to ditch Mamet and go into Evita, a resolution about which LuPone admits she still feels guilty, came out of a desire to work with Hal Prince, but as has been well documented, it was a far from happy time – at least as far as the leading lady was concerned. “You never want what you do to be painful – I’m in this business because it brings me such great joy – but the lessons learned in it were phenomenal,” she says when I ask if she has any regrets. “It has forever associated me with that part and I got to play it in Australia, in Sydney, which was fantastic! But does anybody ever want to go through any kind of pain? No! Who wants to go through pain?”
“Mandy [Patinkin – her Che Guevara] and I talk about it all the time. We were both desperately filled with fear, fear of the hugeness of it. This was probably the hugest ever musical to come down the pike ever, and there was a lot of responsibility on our shoulders to deliver. We were thwarted because the critics were against it from the beginning for a couple of reasons. British composers usurping an American invention, and it was glorifying a Nazi sympathiser. There was a lot fear every night onstage, to sing it, and to act it because there’s really nothing to act.”
“Mandy and I both had Juilliard training, so we were able to dramatise exposition, and make it interesting to an audience. We were throwing up this invisible lasso every night to get the audience to come with us, and the audience is what really made the show a success. Because if you look at the reviews from LA to San Francisco to New York, they are not good. They are not good for me, and yet I won the Tony and I won the Drama Desk. You have the greatest time of your life and you’re not remembered for it. You have one of the worst experiences and you’re celebrated for it. I don’t know what to tell you. Am I glad I did it? I don’t know, because it also branded me. Before I went into it, I was a chameleon, afterwards I was a fascist, tap dancing dictator. It’s a tough business.”
To list all of LuPone’s successes post-Evita would take a whole other feature. Suffice it to say she won her second Tony for her remarkable turn as Mama Rose in Gypsy (2008) and has created roles in some of the more interesting new musicals in recent years including David Yazbek’s 2010 Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, for which she received another Tony nomination despite the show closing after only 69 regular performances. “I think Women on the Verge should have been a success,” LuPone opines. “I’m a huge David Yazbek fan – I think The Band’s Visit is pretty spectacular – and right now I would do anything that David wrote if he asked. I would drop anything and do anything that he was involved with.”
She also believes that War Paint, Scott Frankel’s musical about cosmetics’ rivals Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden should have run longer. “They were going to close it earlier, but I couldn’t go on because I needed a hip replacement,” she explains. “It didn’t catch fire, which was shocking. The music was glorious, and if you’ve got Christine Ebersole and Patti LuPone onstage, what more do you want? And singing! Singing extremely well together and acting extremely well. Two people that have put their time in. It was fantastic, so I was really surprised.”
Patti Lupone. Photograph © Rahav iggy Segev
Don’t Monkey With Broadway is a love letter to the American musical, a potted biography and wish list, and a critique of the state of New York’s current theatre district. Taking its cue from the show albums her mother would buy – “I always gravitated to the men’s songs because they were more interesting in the Golden Age of Broadway,” LuPone says – she’s created a narrative to illuminate how she came to end up on the musical stage. “I guess musical theatre’s never been that far from me, even though I wanted to be a rock and roller,” she laughs. “When I sing rock and roll I sound like Ethel Merman. And that wasn’t going to work!”
And though the title of her show may be a good old Cole Porter song, it’s also meant as a deliberate challenge. “It’s all about how Broadway is changing – not even Broadway, it’s about Times Square basically. How did it devolve into this pedestrian mall and a haven for Elmos?” she says using the generic term for the various costumed Spidermen and Statues of Liberty that roam the streets and have been known to harass tourists. “Times Square was named after The New York Times, and it was a literary and theatrical environment. And now I don’t think you could find a theatre if you walked through it. And that’s terrible, really, really terrible. People stand around Times Square doing what? Nothing.”
Looking back over her career to date, the roles that have given her the most satisfaction are the roles that have allowed her to grow as an actor. “And that’s pretty much all of them,” she explains. “If I can grow, if I can learn. Of course, I could do all of them again, cos you think ‘Oh, I could do that better!’ But for short periods. I’m kind of over long runs now. In a long run, there is an arc for me. The adrenaline in the first three months, and then boredom. And in that boredom, I stop acting and all of a sudden it becomes a lesson in how to edit the performance.”
So, are there any parts that got away? “Oh, tons of them,” she exclaims. “Ado Annie in Oklahoma – I always liked the second bananas, cos they’re the funny parts. And Ruth in Wonderful Town – I thought I’d be a fabulous Ruth.”
And although she has some hard words for half-hearted producers of shows like David Mamet’s The Anarchist – “we had a stupid producer, the same guy who killed Great Comet. There are no producers left. I beg your pardon. There are producers left, but the majority of them don’t know how to produce” – she is equally optimistic about the current crop of performers. “I’ll tell you the honest to God truth, because I’m a Tony voter and I’ve been seeing a lot of theatre, I am stunned and overjoyed at the amount of talent on the stages of Broadway musicals,” she enthuses. “You see people out there doing phenomenal work, and it’s pretty wonderful.”
As well as touring Australia, LuPone is already lined up to play the role of Joanne, the archetypal ‘lady who lunches’, in Marianne Elliot’s intriguing, partial gender reversed staging of Stephen Sondheim’s Company in London’s West End next year (Australian audiences might be lucky enough to get a cinema broadcast of that one). Apart from that, she plans on enjoying some welcome R&R, and yes, she does have a bucket list:
“I want to spend three months in Capri and three months travelling northern California,” she says. And after all that, I’d say she thoroughly deserves it.
Patti LuPone’s Don’t Monkey with Broadway plays at Adelaide Festival Theatre as part of the Adelaide Cabaret Festival on June 21, Sydney Opera House on June 23, Canberra Theatre Centre on June 25, Queensland Conservatorium Theatre on June 27, and Arts Centre Melbourne on June 30
Limelight is giving away one double pass to the Adelaide Cabaret Festival performance. Click here to enter.