NEW YORK —In “War Paint,” a feminist musical about makeup, Broadway’s Patti LuPone goes through 15 costume changes — one more than in her fabled turn in “Evita” — each ensemble more sublime than the next: fox stoles, opera-length gloves, a panoply of astonishing hats, an armory of costume jewelry, stones the size of pears.
Offstage, in her cozy dressing room, tricked out like an Eastern European bazaar, the actress sports what appears to be black sleepwear emblazoned with mechanic’s patches, and not a lick of makeup.
LuPone, a two-time Tony winner, is the theater’s grande dame in jammies. Tiny, yet epic.
In addition to playing Eva Peron, LuPone delivered indelible performances as Reno Sweeney in “Anything Goes” and Mama Rose in “Gypsy” (both roles once performed by Ethel Merman), Fantine in the Royal Shakespeare Company production of “Les Miserables” and Mrs. Lovett in “Sweeney Todd.”
Onstage, LuPone does only indelible. She does not work small.
“This is the easiest musical I’ve ever done. It’s pure joy. I consider myself incredibly lucky to have this role at my age,” says LuPone, 67, a graduate of the Juilliard School’s inaugural drama division class. The role of Polish-born cosmetics maven Madame Helena Rubinstein was created and couture-designed for LuPone’s protean instrument and talents, and she performs it in an accent as robust as pierogi.
Co-star Christine Ebersole, who plays Rubinstein’s insistently pink rival, Elizabeth Arden, is “champagne bubbles,” LuPone says. “You have to be sisters onstage because there’s animosity onstage. You have to walk through the stage door, and there has to be love between everybody, and there is.”
Director Michael Greif (“Rent,” “Grey Gardens,” “Dear Evan Hansen”) says, “We exploit the distinctions between the two actresses in the production. Christine is light. Christine is air. Christine leads with the mind, this incredible verbal facility. Patti is of the earth. She’s Sicilian. She’s playing a Polish peasant. Her performance is grounded. It’s from the gut.”
Rubinstein once noted, “I am extravagant in my anger, as I am in all things.” The same could be said of LuPone.
She nurses grudges like cognac. Can she let them go? “Nah! Why? They’re a lot of fun.”
In her addictive 2010 memoir, she admits to walking out of a production — for days. She names names. Do not invite LuPone and Andrew Lloyd Webber to dinner together anytime soon. “Sick,” she scoffs, “so insecure in his talent and desperate for Stephen Sondheim’s success.”
She once leveled a dressing room with a table lamp. Merely mention Webber’s “Sunset Boulevard,” her Waterloo, the revival playing blocks away starring Glenn Close, who abruptly replaced her 23 years ago, and LuPone offers a scorching, delicious and expletive-laced disquisition, her candor as astonishing as the voice. (“It’s a lousy musical. It was a lousy musical then.”)
“That’s gotten me in trouble my whole life,” she says, icing her knee, another injury for going full throttle onstage. “As a woman in a business, we’re not supposed to say how we feel. But I wouldn’t be me, nor would I be able to live with myself, if I didn’t.”
She bares her hurt, which further endears her to a legion of acolytes. Portraying Maria Callas, in the 1996 Broadway production of Terrence McNally's “Master Class,” seemed ordained casting.
“The career has been painful,” she says. “I knew I had talent from 4 years old.”
Yes, 4. Friends are incredulous it wasn’t earlier. “I fell in love with the audience. And I knew it was a gift,” she says. “Nothing stopped me, yet there were gigantic obstacles along the way.”
The biggest obstacle? “Me!” LuPone says, erupting in a guttural, sustained cackle. “I was my biggest enemy!”
She lacks a pause button. “Because I don’t hold back. Because I have a Sicilian temper. Because I count to 10 — and 10 isn’t enough. I should probably count to 100 and then walk around the block.” She smiles, her mouth as pliant as rubber. “But if I did that, I’d still come back and blow my top.”
Mandy Patinkin, her co-star in “Evita” and concert performances, says: “I’ve seen the polar opposite, which is a fragile eggshell. I was always touched by how fragile her heart and soul are. As an artist, Patti can show you this hot Sicilian and that fragile little girl.” A director’s job, he says, “is to get out of the way, let her feel comfortable, and let her fly.”
Jeffrey Richman, an executive producer of “Modern Family” and LuPone’s dear friend of four decades, says: “Patti’s a force of nature, and, in really the best sense of the term, a star. She has always been like this, kind of touched by the gods, crazy talented, one of a kind.”
“Evita” was launched in London in 1978, a smash with Elaine Paige, and was headed to Broadway. Known but not yet famous, LuPone prepped the audition with astonishing surety. The role was coveted by every actress with a dazzling set of pipes.
“Patti said, ‘This is the next thing I was supposed to do.’ She took it in such a destiny sort of way,” Richman recalls. “It was never mystical. It was the thing that’s going to happen.”
And it was the thing that happened. The performance transformed LuPone into a Broadway star. Later, she laments, she couldn’t land work for two years.
“No one would touch me. What they saw was this blond fascist tap dancer,” LuPone says. “I went into ‘Evita’ as a Juilliard-trained actor, and I came out as Evita.”
Which was a first. LuPone says: “They’ve never been able to typecast me because of my training at school. They tried to throw me out of Juilliard by throwing every conceivable role in my direction, which I succeeded in doing. So they trained a versatile actor.” LuPone is the rare actor who didn’t really care, at the time, whether she attended Juilliard. “I was having too much fun in New York,” she says.
For all the great work she landed — roles in David Mamet plays, an initial member of John Houseman’s Acting Company — “there were so many roles I didn’t get. Desiree in ‘A Little Night Music,’ Ruth in ‘Wonderful Town,’ Adelaide in ‘Guys and Dolls,’ Ado Annie in ‘Oklahoma.’ You’ll notice there were second-bananas, because many were comedic roles. For some reason, I was born with the ability to be a tragedienne and a comedian.”
LuPone scored small parts in movies (“Driving Miss Daisy”) and plenty of television, including Lady Bird Johnson in “LBJ: The Early Years” (during which she met her husband, Matt Johnston, a cameraman) but mostly guest appearances. Her only recurring starring role was four seasons on “Life Goes On” (1989-1993), about a family with a son with Down syndrome, another altogether unpleasant experience. Do not invite former TV husband Bill Smitrovich to the same dinner, either.
Recently, the television appearances have increased and become more choice, largely because of her rabid fan base among the show’s producers and stars: recurring roles on “Penny Dreadful,” two guest shots on “Girls,” a fundamentalist Christian on “American Horror Story: Coven” and Rabbi Shari singing “Remember That We Suffered” on “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.”
Earlier, she turned down an appearance on “Glee.” Creator Ryan Murphy “wanted me to play me. I told my agent: ‘I’m a working actor. I’m not Britney Spears. I’m not Cher. I’m not Madonna. I can’t Patti LuPone me out of the business.’ ”
The theater is where she thrives. LuPone is “vanity-free,” Richman says, but her “emotions are very raw.” When LuPone was young, he says, “she saw herself as Neely O’Hara from ‘Valley of the Dolls,’ hugely talented but massively f----- up, like Judy Garland.”
LuPone failed at messing up. She’s the mother of an actor son, Josh, and still with her husband. She’s at the stage where she has a dresser to help with all those costume changes and a driver for the two-hour trip home to Litchfield County, Conn., after performances. (She stays in Manhattan on nights before a matinee.)
“All the struggle and painful experiences have settled into, ‘I’m 67. This is good. This is comfortable. This is what I’ve achieved,’ ” Richman says. “Patti’s at a place in her life where being a Broadway legend isn’t the worst thing you can be in a career.”
“Patti’s dangerous. She takes chances,” Patinkin says. “You can rehearse a thousand times, and she can still surprise you. You don’t ever take a dangerous actress for granted.”
As though that would happen with Patti LuPone.