It’s a little tough coming up with questions for Broadway icon Patti LuPone. Her startlingly candid 2010 eponymous memoir is so unabashed at first it seems she left no obvious career stone unturned.
Some called it pessimistic and lacking in joy. Others reveled in its no-bullshit tone that, some said, was uncanny in its ability to make readers feel they were sitting on a barstool with LuPone over several rounds of no-holds-barred career anecdotes. That’s how it feels interviewing her. During a nearly hour-long phone conversation from her South Carolina beach home the weekend of Hurricane Irene, LuPone is loquacious and chatty. She balks at no question and riffs and rants much as one imagines she does with her friends. She can be merciless and lacerating with the gauche and ill-prepared — this is a woman who does not suffer fools gladly — but today she’s quick to laugh, happy to go anywhere the questions lead with the same degree of candor she incorporated in “Patti LuPone: a Memoir.”
LuPone, 62, says her outspokenness is “just how I’ve always been.” It didn’t particularly come with time.
“I’ve always been very candid and yes, it’s always gotten me in trouble to some degree. I just always think it’s important to tell one’s truth. It is what it is. It’s a difficult business and it’s a difficult business especially for a woman.”
Might her career have unfolded differently had she the unfailing politeness of, say, a Debbie Reynolds?
“I don’t think anything would be different,” LuPone says. “Because then I wouldn’t be me. It’s who I am. It’s the way I was brought up.”
This leads to a little philosophy. She rolls with it.
Do you think about “what if?” Isn’t a bit of that implied in the cabaret act, dubbed “Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda” that she’ll perform Saturday night at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center at University of Maryland? (claricesmithcenter.umd.edu or 301-405-ARTS)
“It’s a futile way of thinking,” she says. “It’s just not who I am. It’s like [playwright] David Mamet says, it is as it is. The universe is unfolding. Why regret anything?”
LuPone admits she’s of the “everything-happens-for-a-reason” mindset.
The career slights have gotten easier the more she’s able to look back and trace the “pattern of my career.” The one constant has been surprise, she says. She long ago gave up trying to control it or determine its course. Almost for every disappointment there has been serendipity.
An example? She cites her chance to do “Sweeney Todd” in 2000, which started a chain of events that not only led to the 2005 Broadway revival of that show, but her chance to do several classic Sondheim roles with the Ravinia Festival over a six-year period that included Fosca in “Passion,” “Cora in “Anyone Can Whistle,” two roles in “Sunday in the Park with George” and, of course, Rose in “Gypsy,” for which she won her second Tony in 2009.
“I never thought in a million years, I would get to do that,” she says. “It never entered my mind. I hadn’t done Stephen Sondheim and had, by that time, kind of written it off and just figured that’s the way it goes. That led to the rest of my Sondheim roles and … by the end, I finally had my Sondheim canon. … That’s why I believe in destiny. If it’s to be, it will be.”
LuPone says the regret-tinged name of her act, which she’s been performing off and on for about four years, is meant to be taken whimsically, not as any big treatise on regret. The format is loose enough she and accompanist Joseph Thalken, can rotate material in and out as they wish.
“The beginning of my career, beginning with my childhood, that part doesn’t change, but the other songs we rotate a lot.” She calls director Scott Wittman, who’s gay, her “very, very dear friend” and says she’s “lucky to have him in my life both artistically and personally.”
With the business at hand — this weekend’s concert — duly addressed, LuPone is up for anything. She tackles a dizzying array of topics in our remaining moments.
She calls same-sex marriage in her beloved New York “loooooong overdue.”
“I’m thrilled to death and I’m sure I’ll be attending a lot of weddings,” she says. “This country is so insane sometimes, so tilted. I wish it would come back to its senses.”
That theater is so ephemeral and fleeting by nature doesn’t particularly bother her, she says. Despite last year’s book, she’s not particularly inclined to look back.
“I have all the cast recordings but I never put them on,” she says. “I have an archive and scrapbooks — that’s one of the things that made the book so much easier to do — … but I don’t even have a theater room really. I don’t go back and look. It’s a memory, a treasured memory, when I finish something. Besides, I can’t really look at myself. I’m not a big fan of me.”
She says having work-life balance, even in the arts, is important: “You have nothing to bring to the boards if you’re only living for the boards,” she says.
But does she care about her legacy since her greatest hits, so to speak, have been on the stage?
“Of course you care, but there’s plenty of stuff on YouTube. Besides, the memory of it is always better than the actual footage. You can’t really film a theatrical production adequately. Seeing them on camera just doesn’t do them justice.”
She admits she’s “had a beef for years” with big-name movie stars swooping onto Broadway for brief runs and special treatment that sometimes even wins them Tonys.
LuPone says for actors like her, who’ve made their career largely on stage, it’s highly frustrating.
“[The producers] will say, ‘Forget you, I can get so and so,’” she says. “But to do it well, you really have to have the chops for it, the years of training.”
It must be maddening too, when movie stars of dubious talent land film adaptations much more talented, but lesser known, stage stars originated, right?
LuPone says yes and no. She admits there are film “treasures” that can be “equally good, but other times the casting is really ridiculous.” It’s not just money, though. LuPone says some actors have talent that merely translates better to either the stage or screen as the case may be. The difference, largely, is projection, she says.
“If they have no talent and they’re in the movie musical, then yeah, of course I’m pissed off. But on stage you have to hit the balcony. The delivery is so much larger. Film is a much stiller medium. … People tell me I have a stage face. It’s too big for the camera, whatever that means.”
As soon as the words are out of her mouth, though, LuPone starts thinking of exceptions. She mentions international stars like Irene Papas and Anna Magnani who did well in film.
“You look at somebody like Irene and there’s no censure. We have a certain type in this country that just seems to be designated for film. It’s almost like the raw emotional power of a European actor is feared by Hollywood casting producers.”
As one would imagine, LuPone writes at length in her book about her experience on stage with Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Evita,” for which she won her first Tony. Curiously missing, though, is any mention of the 1996 film version with Madonna.
Yes, it’s true she was offered a cameo as Evita’s mother — LuPone laughs heartily recalling it — but it was for a previous incarnation of the film years before the Madonna version got off the ground. She claims not to have seen the Madonna version.
“I saw a little of it on the treadmill once,” she says. “It looked like a bore. There was no reason to see it.”
Broadway, she says, has suffered the same shortsightedness that also ails the recording industry and TV. Talent that doesn’t hit big right out of the gate nowadays is dead in the water.
“In the past there were producers who supported and nurtured young composers and lyricists, who developed them and stuck with them. I was able to grow with a lot of these young playwrights and the audience was able to grow too. Now Times Square looks like a tawdry Las Vegas and people don’t know what they’re looking for other than a chance to make a lot of money. … It’s the same thing with TV. I turn the TV on and just scream at my husband. It’s the most boring piece of shit and there’s more commercial time than there is dramatic time. Don’t even get me started on reality TV. It’s a bunch of coddling of stupid, ignorant people.”
While it doesn’t take much to get LuPone ranting and lamenting, neither is it hard to induce warmth and delight.
She’s thrilled to reunite with her “Evita” costar, Broadway legend Mandy Patinkin, for a joint show on Broadway this fall.
“It’s great,” she says. “Very rarely do you get to work with someone again. For the most part it doesn’t ever happen, at least for me. But with Mandy, are you kidding? I adore him. Hopefully we’ll sell.”