Being Vocal

Patti LuPone isn't difficult. She's just the ultimate perfectionist, on and off the stage

Interview by Randy Shulman
Published on September 27, 2012, 2:43am | Comments

If you truly want to experience the performing force of nature known as Patti LuPone, Google "Patti LuPone Anything Goes" and click on the ensuing YouTube link. Then revel in awestruck delight as you view the clip of her performance from the 1988 Tony Awards. LuPone was nominated for that very portrayal of Reno Sweeney, but, regrettably, didn't win. No matter. The lady has been awarded plenty of Tonys, Drama Desks, Oliviers, and has been nominated for just about every major production she's helmed since the mid-1970s.

One of Broadway's bona fide legends, Patti LuPone is that rare songbird – although song-belter seems far more apt – who can turn in a dramatic performance that will leave your jaw agape, your emotions in turmoil and your devotion to her in full throttle.

Patti LuPone

Patti LuPone

(Photo by Ethan Hill)

She was Broadway's original Eva Perón. She was London's original Fantine. She was also London's original Norma Desmond, only to famously lose the role to Glenn Close when Andrew Lloyd Webber's Sunset Boulevard was transplanted to the states. It took her some years – and the putting aside of a decade-long feud with the legendarily fussy Arthur Laurents – to make Gypsy's Mama Rose her own (which provided both a Tony and Drama Desk for her mantel). She's sung Sondheim, acted McNally and Mamet, and, most recently, she partnered with friend and colleague Mandy Patinkin in a series of concerts.

LuPone is a little less well-known – though no less regarded – for her film and TV work, though everyone remembers her as Libby Thacher on the 1989 drama Life Goes On, the first television show to feature a major character with Down syndrome. She's guested on Frasier, Ugly Betty, Oz, Law & Order, 30 Rock (in an unforgettable turn as Frank Rossitano's mother) and, of course, Glee. And next Friday and Saturday she'll be here, at The Music Center at Strathmore, where she'll perform her paean to love, Matters of the Heart.

Clearly, LuPone's career has been an astonishing one – but it's also been a stormy one. She's clashed with not only Laurents, but Webber, of whose music she's been publicly critical. But what may be interpreted by some as a difficult, diva-esque temperament is really a stunning dedication to her art, a potent, pure perfectionism. She has an unyielding respect for the material she performs, and for ensuring that the audience leaves fully entertained and, hopefully, engaged in discussion and thought. Talking on the phone with LuPone is like being addressed by a thunderstorm filled with ideas, notions and passions, all presented with the kind of dramatic flair that one might associate with a higher form of Broadway superstar.

So, yes, Patti LuPone is a perfectionist. And, by golly, she's a perfectionist with a point. Lots of them, in fact.

METRO WEEKLY: What was it in you that drew you to theater, that made you say, ''This is really what I want to do for the rest of my life''?

PATTI LUPONE: I was 4 years old and I was tap-dancing in a recital at the Ocean Avenue Elementary School. I fell in love with the audience and I never looked back.

MW: It was that simple?

LUPONE: Yes. I knew I had a voice, and I performed every chance I got. I knew very early on what I was supposed to do with my life.

MW: I was looking over some of your earlier shows and I was unaware you'd done Working. It closed after only a few performances.

LUPONE: Well, our production wasn't very good. We opened and closed on Broadway very quickly. It had a wonderful cast and we had the script and the music, but we didn't last. I think there were a lot of problems from the very beginning. Sets were being thrown out, orchestrations were being thrown out, and the costs escalated. Then we got mixed reviews.

MW: Is it frustrating to put that much effort and creativity into something to have it grind to a sudden halt?

LUPONE: Yes. It's hurtful that you can't get a run out of something. But, you know, we're hired hands. The actors are hired hands. It's up to the producers….

MW: I can't imagine the toll that takes on you. I mean, you invest your heart and soul into it.

LUPONE: Yeah, it's very difficult. Because you're unemployed again. You were hoping for that paycheck and you're unemployed again and back on the unemployment line.

Patti LuPone

Patti LuPone

(Photo by Rahav Segev)

MW: Is there a point in a career where you gain a certain level of stature that you don't really worry that you're not going to be employed again?

LUPONE: Well, it depends on how much money you've saved. [Laughs.] Other than that, no. I worry about the show I'm about to do now. Will it run? I don't have anything other than the show. My calendar's been cleared for it, and if it doesn't run, I'm free as a bird for several months, which you don't want. You want to be able to work.

MW: What show is it?

LUPONE: It's called The Anarchist. A play by David Mamet.

MW: I can't imagine a Mamet show won't run. Is it a good piece?

LUPONE: Yeah, I think so. But I'm doing it, I'm not watching it. So it will be up to the audience to decide.

MW: What are you playing?

LUPONE: I'm playing the prisoner. Cathy, the prisoner.

MW: What kind of role is it? Can you say?

LUPONE: I can't really – I'm in rehearsal for it. It's an argument between a prisoner and her parole officer.

MW: Sounds interesting. When does it open?

LUPONE: Nov. 13 for previews, but Dec. 2 is the official opening.

MW: In the meantime, you're coming to Strathmore. What can we expect there?

LUPONE: Not a lot of show tunes. [Laughs.] Not a lot of show tunes. It's called Matters of the Heart, and it's with piano and a string quartet. It's a show we put together years ago, actually. It tells the story of the various aspects of love. I hope the audience likes it.

MW: Is there any reason they wouldn't?

LUPONE: You never know how an audience reacts.

MW: I can't imagine that. They're coming to see you regardless of what you're singing. I imagine they'd love it if you sang the phone book.

LUPONE: [Laughs.] Thank you. That's sweet.

MW: Seriously, you can start with the A's and work your way to the Z's. We'd just have to find someone to compose it. Which makes me wonder if you have a favorite composer? Is there a composer that you just adore singing?

LUPONE: All of them, really. But especially Steve Sondheim. First of all, he's produced, so you know you'll get a production. [His work is] very difficult to perform, and so in order to achieve his lyrics and his intricate melody lines you've actually accomplished something. But there are lots of composers that are wonderful – and wonderful to sing. I just wish the new ones – the ones that are not as famous as Steve – are allowed to get produced. It's a sad state of affairs when we have retreads of musicals, as opposed to supporting our young composers and lyricists and playwrights and growing with them. I know it's expensive, but take a chance for crying out loud. You know what I mean? That's the best way to say it.

MW: Over the past 20 years or so, have you sensed a difference in the way things are approached on Broadway?

LUPONE: Yeah, I think so. First of all, I really, really, really resent – first Giuliani, and now Bloomberg – what they've done to Times Square. It's just an arcade. I can't wait for it to go tawdry and dangerous again so we can get the streets back. It's just horrible what it has turned into. And one of the reasons it's upsetting is because there's no focus on the stage or the theater. It's people staring at themselves in the Jumbotron. I'm not sure people who go into Times Square anymore know that there are theaters on the side streets.

I think a tax should be levied on all of these major, major, major producers that however much money they make they have to take part of that money and support young playwrights and young composers. As long as there are producers that take their chances with material we'll be okay, but if the new idea is shut out, we're in big trouble. So, yes, Broadway has changed – a lot.

MW: Speaking to the actual physical makeup of Times Square, I agree with you. The last time I visited, I was mortified that there was a Toys R Us looming large in the midst of it. I went to school in New York the '70s and we used to travel uptown to Times Square all the time to play in the pinball arcades and to watch as the prostitutes mingled with the theater-goers in their furs as the shows let out. It was a dangerous area, but somehow it never felt threatening. Just interesting, unique and alive. Now it's just homogenized.

LUPONE: It's just horrible. Tourists are just stopping in the middle of the sidewalk. You want to shout, ''Sidewalk means walk!'' But the fact is that the producers are second-guessing the audience. They've come to New York to see theater. Don't think you are putting it on in a small community in Kansas. You are putting it on in New York City and Kansas has come to New York to see it. Have some courage!

MW: Do you think the courage is coming these days from regional theaters?

LUPONE: I do. And off-Broadway. I do, I do, I do.

MW: There are tons of theaters in our area that develop new works – Signature, Studio, Arena Stage. Would you ever consider playing one of those venues here?

LUPONE: If it's a good project, of course. Absolutely.

MW: Are you hearing this Eric, David and Molly? Okay, so the big question always is, "Is Broadway dead?"

LUPONE: No. Can't kill it. As long as kids are learning how to tap-dance in toe shoes in Florida, you can't kill Broadway.

It's the quality of material that's the problem. Art is the soul of the nation, so I'd really like to see more questions posed and ideas discussed onstage in our art than cookie-cutter or mindless stuff. Audiences are not dumb. Make them reach. They'd be very happy to.

MW: Speaking of art, there's been an interesting shift in popular culture. Television used to be regarded as the stepchild of the visual arts and cinema the pinnacle. Now, in a bizarre turnabout, television has actually taken over, in general, as the dominant art forms in terms of richness of drama and character development.

LUPONE: And daring. And courage. It's fabulous.

MW: Your show, Life Goes On, was one of the first to my recollection that actually took an approach similar to what TV dramas take now.

LUPONE: And it got canceled.

MW: It still ran for four years. In many respects your show was ahead of its time in the way it approached drama.

LUPONE: I agree with you.

Patti LuPone

Patti LuPone

(Photo by Ethan Hill)

MW: What was your experience like with it?

LUPONE: It was my first television experience and I had a hard time with the writers. I thought that they could have done better. I thought they were slightly cowardly at times when they could have been more courageous, that's all I can say. It's just my take on things. I'm a risk-taker.

MW: Who are today's risk-takers in your view?

LUPONE: Ryan Murphy is a risk taker. The people putting Homeland on are risk takers. I mean, why else do it if it isn't dangerous and you're not presenting ideas that really cultivate, stimulate, change somebody? What's interesting is, in the television world, there's too many people making decisions. You have studio executives, you have network executives, you have executives on the show. So there's a lot of people who have a lot of opinions. But if everybody's on the same page, then some of the product that gets out there can be powerful stuff.

MW: You've been cited by the press at times as being difficult. But wouldn't it be more apt to consider you a perfectionist?

LUPONE: My concern is for the audience – always. If I'm not a perfectionist, we're not doing the most we can to deliver to an audience.

MW: It sounds to me like you confront and challenge whatever it is you're working on.

LUPONE: Yeah, well, I would hate to be bored. And if I'm not bored, I don't think the audience is going to be bored. And I certainly don't want to bore the audience. My God, I've been onstage when audiences are bored.

MW: How can you tell?

LUPONE: Oh, you can tell because there's a lot of fidgeting, people leaving, you know. One of the most exciting things about live theater is the deafening silence. When there is a deafening silence, you know the audience is having a collective experience. They are on the stage with the actors. They are involved.

MW: Otherwise, they're getting up and walking out.

LUPONE: Yes, or texting. [Laughs.] Or doing something other than concentrating on the stage.

MW: What is it like to be on the stage and suddenly people get up and leave? What goes through your head?

LUPONE: It depends on why they're getting up and leaving. If it is a point of view on the stage that they totally disagree with, they have every right. If it is out of boredom, then we've failed. If it's a lousy production and lousy acting, they have every right to leave. They have every right to demand their money back, quite frankly. If it's because they came to the theater as an obligation to their wife and are just kind of self-absorbed, then please don't come to the theater. Do something else with your time. Go to a skating rink.

If they're not there to partake in the theatrical experience, they've wasted money and that's their problem, but it does affect an audience when people are not conscious of the other people in the theater. It affects everybody. Once those lights go out and the stage lights come on, it is a communal experience. And we've lost our public manners. Let's say a minority of people are living in their own little bubble without being aware of the people on their right, their left, their front and their back – and that may be true in life as well. But it's especially poignant in the theater because it's a place – it's like a church. Your eyes are trained on the stage, and you are listening to the storyteller, and any disruption is a disruption in the storytelling. If they're not involved because they don't like the story and they choose to get up and leave, good for them. They've made a point. But if it's because they're not there to start off with, don't come. Don't come to the theater.

MW: Part of the problem actually goes back to television. We're so used to consuming media in our own homes that we don't think of any communal experience the same way anymore. We have become consummate interrupters.

LUPONE: Are we that unconscious as a people? Are we that oblivious to the stuff around us? If that's the case, we're screwed. I mean, I can't imagine that people would behave that way in a church. Possibly they do. And possibly they behave that way in a museum. And any other place that requires respect for the people standing next to you, that requires silence.

We're living in a world that is tilted, and it's a very scary and sad and lost place. Look what happens. Those extremists who made that video. If they did have an idea of the ramifications and it was intentional, lock 'em up. I've always said there has to be a boundary to freedom because a total freedom is anarchy. And I think we're approaching anarchy. We're desensitized. We are all desensitized – well, desensitized or terrorized – and I am terrorized. I think there are people who are desensitized and who don't think about the consequences of their actions.

MW: What do you think is the cause of that?

LUPONE: Religion! [Laughs.] Religion is the evil. What else is it? I don't know. I don't know. I have no idea, except maybe it's the Internet. Maybe it's the anonymity of the Internet that allows one to express themselves and not think of consequences, or think that they'll get the result they want and not be held responsible. I really don't know because it's all so new. I don't know, I don't know, I don't know. I hope these guys are in some way punished for what has happened. And I don't know where you draw the line because yes, free speech – blah, blah, blah – but at the same time there has got to be responsibility. I know I'm contradicting myself, but I think we're in a really, really scary place and the world is tilted. I think we need a global time-out.

MW: Somehow we got from talking about audiences in the theater to –

LUPONE: Because I think it's all the same thing. You talk about people walking out of the theater, and I think that we have forsaken certain human qualities – and the one that I see is respect for one another. What I see over and over again in the theater is the self-entitlement and a lack of respect. And that can be applied to people who are irresponsible in a message that they put out.

MW: You have a son in his early 20s. Do you worry about what our world is headed toward for his future?

LUPONE: It's all I think about.

MW: In the best possible scenario, what do you want for him?

LUPONE: Happiness. And peace on earth, good will to men and understanding and respect for all cultures and religions. And his ability to learn and thrive.

MW: What do you want for yourself?

LUPONE: I want to be able to continue to do what I'm doing and not worry about it. And in the overall scheme of things, I don't want to be terrorized anymore. I really do wish our country would take a step backwards and go home. I've always felt America should be an isolationist country, but it's too late for that. We're not best friends with our neighbors. How about we become best friends with Canada, Mexico and South America and call it a day? Let's trade with them and just let everybody else deal with their own issues. I really wish America would come home.

MW: That's not very likely.

LUPONE: Well, we're going to have to bear the consequences of that, then.

MW: We can't just ignore the rest of the world.

LUPONE: I don't mean to not be interested in the rest of the world, but I don't think our military power should be wielded anymore. I think we should come home and if [the rest of the world] needs our military for help, for aid, for humanitarian effort, that's where I would put my strength. We have so much blood on our hands. We have so much blood on our hands.

You know what I think? Why aren't we the humanitarians? If we are the richest, most powerful nation, why aren't we the humanitarians? I've always thought the thing that makes the most sense in my mind and the thing that everybody around the world wants is our pop culture, our science and technology. Pop culture, and our science and technology. That is our strength.

We have been force-fed consumer products, and what we are hungry for is a new iPhone and the new iPad, and we don't have to concern ourselves – we're not hungry, we have everything, we're surrounded by our lovely things, and the minute we're not surrounded by our lovely things, we will be politically hungry. You see that all over the world.

You know, wherever I travel, I do not see the wealth that we have in this country. You see it in England and France, of course, but you do not see it in other parts of the world – and they are more politically astute in those countries. We've just lost it because I think somewhere along the line – I suppose to keep the masses down, I don't know what – we've been trained to want more consumer products.

I think that is probably why I want more guerilla theater, more political theater, because I do think – if ticket prices were much, much, much, much lower and you had more political playwrights espousing their ideas, any ideas, put 'em all out there, educate me – well, that's what theater is about. One aspect of theater. The other aspect is ''entertain me.'' But also educate me. We have turned into a bunch of cowards. [Some] producers have turned into cowards. And kind of rightfully so, because who knows who's got a bomb out there? It's just so fucking scary. It's a scary, scary, scary time, and I suppose putting a political idea on the stage would be equally as risky as taking a plane over to Algiers. However, no pain, no gain. No risk, no glory.

MW: You make some compelling points. We only have a few minutes left, so I need to ask you my obligatory gay questions. This is a favorite of mine to pose to straight celebrities. Do you remember the first time a gay person came out to you, what the circumstances were, and how you reacted?

LUPONE: He didn't come out to me because we were about 6 years old, but I knew Philip Caggiano was different. And I think I knew he was gay. But not gay in the way we use gay now. He was different. He was flamboyant. I was standing in his driveway and I looked at him and went, ''This guy is different. I like him.'' [Laughs.] So I was aware very early.

MW: What has your gay following meant to you?

LUPONE: It gives me credibility. Not that the straight people don't give me credibility, but I find that the gays are just more vocal.

MW: Finally, how do you feel about the things that have happened in the past year for gays in this country?

LUPONE: I think it's fabulous! As a matter of fact, I threw a wedding on my press agent when he got married to his partner. I said, ''I'm throwing you the party.'' Hon, it's just love. It isn't war. What have we been talking about here? We've been talking about war. It's love. How can anybody deny that? Love is what we need more of.

Patti LuPone performs Matters of the Heart on Friday, Oct. 5, and Saturday, Oct. 6, at 8 p.m., at The Music Center at Strathmore, 5301 Tuckerman Lane, North Bethesda. Tickets are $45 to $85. Call 301-581-5100 or visit strathmore.org.


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