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Don't Cry for Her

Patti LuPone's Star Has Dimmed, But Life, and Her Many Roles, Go On

By Chip Crews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 6, 2005; Page N01


Does Patti LuPone have no secrets?

Even in the cold and cutting world of show business, hers is a career that would appear touchier than most. Consider: Her shining-future-of Broadway breakthrough in "Evita" (1979), her ignominious dismissal from the 1994 New York production of "Sunset Boulevard" -- both shows by Andrew Lloyd Webber, perhaps her least favorite composer -- and her latter-day status as an itinerant diva, racing from spotlight to spotlight in search of a permanent home. But no battle is too old or disappointment too deep for discussion. Whatever the topic, she's out there, and the words come flying at you.

_____In Theater_____
'Regina' Performance Info
Arts & Living: Theater

"Yeah," she acknowledges in a pensive moment. "I think it's more interesting when you are who you are. As opposed to who you think you should be."

It's an especially harried time for LuPone, 55, and she has very little time to be pensive. On Thursday she'll begin a four-performance engagement of Marc Blitzstein's "Regina" -- an operatic tale of southern familial warfare that's "the hardest thing I've ever done" -- at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. Next Sunday she'll return to New York, and the following day she'll give her third solo concert at Carnegie Hall. Two days of rest will follow, after which she'll begin rehearsals for a brief New York run in Stephen Sondheim's somber, vocally demanding "Passion" with Michael Cerveris and Audra McDonald.

Today she's focusing on Carnegie Hall, and she's invited us to have lunch, watch a little rehearsal and accompany her to a couple of fittings. As we arrive at the West Side rehearsal room, which is exactly large enough to contain her, 10 musicians, their instruments and a long table where five of her colleagues sit taking notes, she's seated on a stool and wrapping up the morning session.

So far the pressure doesn't seem to be getting to her. "This is all a test!" she crows after finishing "Who's Sorry Now." "If I pass, I get to go to Heaven and live in a beach house!"

Her patter in introducing that number, she tells the room, will address the fact that her grandmother shot and killed her grandfather. "True story," she says. "He crossed her and she plugged him. And she got off!"

There's no hint of violence in LuPone, but it will become clear today (and in a subsequent conversation in Washington) that she has some fiery genes at her disposal.

That and a whole lot of energy, which she's going to need. The day's schedule has gotten more complicated, she explains as the musicians head out to eat. NBC has called to ask her to tape an audition for a series pilot, so she has to pop over to Rockefeller Plaza in lieu of lunch.

"I don't know why I'm doing this," she says in the cab. The Los Angeles decision-makers "never look at them. They never look at the tapes from New York."

Although the network has said an assistant will be down front to escort us upstairs, no one is there. Finally, she makes a call ("I'm in front of the Godiva store") and a young intern appears. Leaving her behind, he slips over to obtain her security clearance.

"I'm here to get a pass for Patti LuPone."


The exchange is repeated, and then the intern leans forward and says intently, "She's a big Broadway star."

His pulse unraised, the guard asks, "How does she spell her name?"

The pass, which is issued to "Pattie Lupone," remains in the hands of the intern. But she's in.

LuPone appears to see no irony in her abrupt shift from queen of the rehearsal hall to hat-in-hand hopeful for what sounds like a non-starring role in a pilot. A part in a series, she says, is "the last great payday in show business." She should know: She had a four-year run on ABC's "Life Goes On," ending in 1993. She adds, "I've got a family to feed." (She lives in Connecticut with her husband, Matt Johnston, a cameraman whom she met while shooting the 1987 TV movie "LBJ: The Early Years," and their 14-year-old son, Joshua.)

Her character, she says, is the mother in an Italian family -- "sort of a Victoria Gotti type, Long Island Italian." Because the casting people aren't ready to tape her scene, she has a little time to reflect.

"Regina" -- part of the Kennedy Center's '40s Festival -- is a musical adaptation of Lillian Hellman's "The Little Foxes." The central character was played by Tallulah Bankhead onstage and Bette Davis in the movie. The 1949 musical, though later embraced by opera houses, folded after 56 performances.

"When 'Regina' happened, that was quite a shock," she says. "And I went, 'Oh my God, I'm the darling of the opera set. I can't get arrested in musicals" -- her voice turns to a conspiratorial whisper -- "but I'm the darling of the opera set." She breaks into laughter.

Regina, she says, is "a great part. But it's a tricky part. And playing her, hopefully I can nail it -- intellectually I know what I want to do. She's an eastern diamondback rattlesnake. A slow-moving southern belle, and then -- " Her hand shoots out to strike.

Tickets are selling very well.

"I'm the dodo bird of Broadway," she counters, laughing. "I'm practically extinct. 'There's a LuPone sighting -- quick, grab your tickets!' "

Nobody would have believed this two decades ago, though hers has always been a hard-to-classify career. LuPone earned a drama degree from Juilliard in the early '70s and appeared regularly throughout the decade on Broadway and elsewhere, in both musicals and straight plays by the likes of Chekhov, Mamet, Saroyan and Shakespeare. "Evita" received some of the sourest notices ever accorded to a musical megahit, but a megahit it was. At season's end both the show and LuPone won Tony Awards.

"She has a great set of pipes and she's a very exciting, audacious, energetic actress -- everything's close to the surface," says Hal Prince, who directed the production. "The feeling you get from her is that she loves acting and loves showing off. . . . She was in the show quite a long time. It was not a hard show to keep in mint condition, because she has the craft."

When her two-year run ended, she had surprisingly few offers and headed off to the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis to play Rosalind in "As You Like It."

"And I got ridiculed in the press for leaving 'Evita' and going to the Guthrie to do Shakespeare. And I thought, 'Well, but that's what I did before doing "Evita." ' I was going back to my roots."

In 1985 she traveled to London to originate the role of Fantine in "Les Miserables," winning an Olivier Award. And in the fall of 1987 she returned to Broadway in a popular revival of Cole Porter's "Anything Goes." Frank Rich opened his New York Times review with "Forget about the Colosseum, the Louvre museum, a melody from a symphony by Strauss -- Patti LuPone is the top."

"Anything Goes" is LuPone's last Broadway musical to date.

"It's kind of shocking," she says. "And roles have come and gone. Broken my heart. Just come and gone -- poof. . . . I mean roles I have wanted to play all my life. . . . It's heartbreaking, and then there must be a reason. And I have to just accept the reason."

She's speaking of destiny, but real-world factors have affected her musical theater career as well: The costs of mounting a production have soared, and as a result, fewer shows are being staged. The days when shows were tailored to the talents of certain performers are gone. And the handful of recent revivals she just alluded to have, for whatever reason, gone to other performers.

Suddenly it's time for her close-up. LuPone and a network functionary slip away to an office, where the scene is taped. In less than 15 minutes, she's finished.

Defining 'Diva'

Back at the rehearsal studio, LuPone immediately returns to her stool. She's in very good voice, her delight in singing is apparent, and she makes no effort to restrain a chronic case of Italian-hands -- waving, clutching, slapping her thighs -- as she moves from one song to the next. Seated next to her is orchestrator Jonathan Tunick, the gold standard of Broadway arrangers, and occasionally at the end of a number she leaps off the stool to embrace him and applaud his work.

The word diva has clung to LuPone for years, and if history is any guide, there will be a worshipful throng to welcome her back to Carnegie Hall. But she's ambivalent about the term.

"I got that I think from the role of Evita. And in one respect it's good, and in the other . . . It should be reserved for the opera world, because in fact that's where the word came from. But I'm thinking it's about doing extraordinary things with an ordinary thing -- you know, your voice. But's it's been -- J.Lo's a diva. The word -- Mariah Carey's a diva. It's just disintegrated. . . . How can you compare . . . Maria Callas, who was a true diva, who had the temperament and could back it up -- with J.Lo?

"I don't think of myself as a diva. I don't dress like a diva. I don't act like a diva except when I'm being threatened. . . . If they're referring to my talent, great. If they're referring to my temperament, I'm not happy. I don't like it."

Stories about her temperament have followed her for years as well.

"I know that I have a reputation for being difficult, which has plagued me since 'Evita.' And it really hurts. I don't suffer fools, that's for sure. But I've also been a woman in this business and more often than not surrounded by, as Sam Shepard put it, [jerks].

"I'll give you an example. I had the worst stage manager I've ever had in my career on 'Evita.' It was Beirut from my dressing room to the stage, and it was only 10 feet. . . . Things happened on 'Evita' that were inexcusable because of his lack of authority and lack of care. For six weeks we were backstage in the summer heat. In wool. With no air-conditioning. They can't air-condition the backstage of a theater. . . . And we were dying. And I said to him, 'Why don't you just go out to the hardware store and put up fans?' 'Cause kids were fainting on the changes. It was so hot.

"And it took me till I screamed, 'Where are the [bleeping] fans?' And the conductor heard me, so that means the first row heard me. It was during a performance, right after I came off from 'Rainbow High.' The conductor went out and bought the fans. I was ignored. . . . I actually screamed at this guy, 'Who has priority over me in this production?' The guy was [a jerk]."

Her account is persuasive, but you can imagine that a story like that has had other lives. Similarly, her nasty relationship with Lloyd Webber has provoked a lot of conjecture.

Although "Evita" offered her a much-coveted role -- and her interpretation became for many the definitive one -- she entered the project only reluctantly.

"I didn't like the music," she says. "And I thought Andrew Lloyd Webber hated women. . . . It was where [the score] was pitched. I thought, 'What are you trying to do -- kill us all?' Everybody who did it got knocked out of the part. In fact it's a terribly difficult part in those keys. I could sing it now in those keys, but I couldn't then. I got through it on sheer willpower -- and fear. Every night I went onstage panicked. If I hit the first D the wrong way, it would affect the rest of the night, which would affect the rest of the week. And how many D's are there? . . . And the part goes up to a G." She pauses. "Mean."

She's still thinking of Lloyd Webber, but her face brightens. "And didn't he look charming last night at the Oscars?" She cackles in delight. "All bloated!" The laugh subsides and she murmurs ruefully, "Forgive me."

Her saga with Lloyd Webber didn't end with "Evita," of course. In 1993 he brought her to London to star in "Sunset Boulevard" and also signed her to play the part on Broadway the next year. The British reviews were mixed, and the New York Times was unenthusiastic (the paper "nailed my coffin shut"). Meanwhile, Glenn Close had received raves in the Los Angeles production. In the end, Close played the part on Broadway. LuPone received a reported $1 million settlement.

"It ended disastrously," she says. "I operate on instinct -- totally on instinct. And I ignored my instincts on this one, on 'Sunset.' Because it was ugly from the very beginning."

A Pro on the Go

The rehearsal ends with LuPone hurling further praises at Tunick and the band and expressing the belief that a very special night awaits them at Carnegie Hall. Then it's time to pile into a car she's hired to whisk us downtown to the costume fitter's.

While the driver negotiates traffic, LuPone checks in with the family. She listens intently to her cell phone, and something tuneful can be heard on the other end.

"That's wonderful, Josh!" she says. "You're becoming a real musician!"

The conversation continues for a couple of blocks, and she concludes with more than one "I love you" and her latest ETA.

Upon arrival, she's greeted warmly by the costumers -- this stop is for "Regina" -- and then excuses herself to get undressed. But very shortly an observer is allowed in.

LuPone stands before a three-sided mirror, squeezed into a rather sadistic-looking corset with a long white petticoat. She stares at herself, looking very much the diva, as the first costume comes on.

She has pronounced ideas about the way she wants to look onstage.

"Is there too much in the sleeve?" she asks. "I'm starting to feel like my grandmother. It's just too matronly."

Later, offered her choice of jewelry, she chooses a brooch but adds, "Clean hands. No rings. Clean hands."

LuPone and the fitters banter familiarly, kidding each other and asking about each other's children. As she dons the next costume, she pokes her backside.

"Is that me?" she wails. "Holy [poop], it's me! Oh my God! Oh God! I'm too small for this [rump]!"

LuPone's sense of fun has been little-used on Broadway. "She's an inspired actress, and she can be very funny," says Jerry Zaks, who directed her in "Anything Goes," one of her infrequent musical comedies. "She's got a comic gift, and it's too bad it hasn't been called on. . . . My memories are absolutely totally positive. She was game, she wasn't afraid of being silly, and she was generous with the other actors."

That sense of fun found an unexpected outlet recently when she began selling some of her theatrical memorabilia on eBay. The idea arose when she moved to a smaller house and had to give up her "theater room." Items are put up for sale with commentary from LuPone.

One recent offering was an Andrew Lloyd Webber book ("I think I can part with it. Twist my arm!") that, she says, fetched a cool $15. God knows what her mother's 1950s cookbooks, filled with Cheez Whiz recipes, sold for. But other selections -- a "rendering" of her in "Sunset Boulevard," for example -- will bring something in the low three figures.

She even sold her high school report cards.

"Yeah. They're gone," she says in our follow-up interview. "What am I going to do with 'em? I know I was a lousy student -- I don't need to be reminded!"

Though LuPone's spirits remain high throughout the two-hour fitting, which concludes at 7:30, her mind never strays far from the task. In fact, all day it's been like that: Whether singing or working out a musical question with Tunick or answering questions about herself or talking to her husband and son or being fitted for a costume, she is focused.

"She's a pro," says one of the fitters admiringly. "She knows now is the time to solve any problems."

So it's back to the car. All that remains is for her to drop off her Carnegie Hall costumes at the home of a friend, head uptown for an hour's worth of makeup work and wig fittings for "Regina" and then begin the two-hour drive home to Connecticut. From all appearances, she's going to make it.

Ten Years Late?

During our later visit in Washington, we discuss the notion that maybe she was born too late by about 40 years -- after all, Ethel Merman had shows written for her, year after year.

"Ten years," she breaks in. "Ten years. I'm right in a pocket there. A void."

The subject of her contemporary Bernadette Peters comes up. Peters's last new musical opened 12 years ago.

"Well, she works, though," LuPone says. "She's played my parts. She grabbed the mantle. The Ethel mantle."

In recent seasons Peters has starred in Broadway revivals of "Annie Get Your Gun" and "Gypsy," Merman's two biggest successes. Prince says that when he heard "Annie" was being planned, "I called the producers, and I said, 'I think Patti LuPone would be just marvelous -- you didn't ask me and I'm not directing it -- but I know the material.' I didn't know Bernadette had been cast."

For LuPone, all that was tough.

"People compared me to Ethel Merman," she says. "I have that voice. And when I did 'Anything Goes' " -- another Merman show -- "that was the big comparison. And then the two Ethel roles that have gone down the pike have gone to Bernadette."

Ever been jealous of other people?

"Jealous of their opportunities," she says. "Not of people. Of their opportunities. It's heartbreaking when you're sitting at home." Very quietly: "It's really -- a drag. But not jealous of anybody. Because I'm who I am. I'm not that person."

Her face brightens. "I can look at it and be bitter and sour or I can go, 'But I'm at the Kennedy Center playing Regina in Marc Blitzstein's 'Regina.' . . . How did that happen? However it happened, I'm sure it is the culmination of everything that I've done to this point. So no regrets. The right stuff is the stuff you get."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company