Patti LuPone on ‘Company,’ Stephen Sondheim and More
“Aaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhh, I’ll drink to that!” she belts onstage in Stephen Sondheim’s “Company,” as Broadway reopens. So. Will. We.,
Put Down Your Phone! It’s Patti LuPone.
“Aaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhh, I’ll drink to that!” she belts onstage in Stephen Sondheim’s “Company,” as Broadway reopens. So. Will. We.
Credit…Josefina Santos for The New York Times
Her friends say there is nothing more fun than hanging with Patti LuPone while she’s having a glass of wine.
That’s not true. There is something more fun: sharing a whole emerald bottle of Perrier-Jouet and dishing with Patti LuPone.
Feuds! Lovers! Temper tantrums! Dictatorial directors! Wrongs avenged! Madonna’s “dead” eyes! Andrew Lloyd Webber’s perfidy! And, of course, teary memories of Stephen Sondheim.
Last month, Mr. Sondheim, 91, died suddenly at home in Roxbury, Conn., just as he was about to come to New York to be celebrated at the openings of highly anticipated makeovers of two of his milestone collaborations: “West Side Story,” a movie directed by Steven Spielberg, and “Company,” the acidic musical about a terminally ambivalent Manhattan singleton. On Wednesday night, the Broadway lights were dimmed for the composer.
Two years ago, when the pandemic shut down Broadway during previews for “Company,” Ms. LuPone retreated to her basement in Connecticut, where she posted videos that went viral showing off her pinball machine, her jukebox, her Ethel Merman cassettes, her husband’s bong and her dance moves to “Hava Nagila.”
Now she’s back, picking up where she left off playing Joanne, the jaded, older friend of the singleton. When Ms. LuPone played the role in London before the pandemic, critics gushed and she won an Olivier. In this production, Bobby morphs into Bobbie, a woman whose friends want her to settle down, even though they concede marriage is a mixed bag.
As one of Bobbie’s pals sings in the high-velocity “Getting Married Today”: “What’s a wedding? It’s a prehistoric ritual/ Where everybody promises fidelity forever/ Which is maybe the most horrifying word I ever heard of.”
Bobbie is played by the lissome Katrina Lenk, who won a Tony in 2018 for her mesmerizing performance as Dina in “The Band’s Visit.”
“I think it’s more poignant to have a woman,” Ms. LuPone said, “because we get asked that question, ‘When are you going to get married? The clock is ticking. Eggs are getting old.’ Boys don’t get asked that question, especially when they’re 35, boinking beautiful women.”
Who better to mark this Broadway phoenix moment with than Ms. LuPone, the Long Island native who has been called “the goddess of the modern musical” by The Guardian? She is that very particular kind of animal, perhaps the last of the breed, a genuine Golden Age Broadway star, the kind that can turn a theater into a living room, throwing out an electric current that makes 1,000 people feel as if they are being spoken to, and sung to, individually.
As Joanne, Ms. LuPone raises a martini glass in her socko “Ladies Who Lunch” number, with its famed primal scream — “Aaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhh, I’ll drink to that!”
(Mr. Sondheim instructed the singer, who gets passionate about Republican political moves, to unleash her scream by thinking of how she feels when she reads a newspaper.)
The role of the salty, hard-drinking Joanne was originated in 1970 by the salty, hard-drinking Elaine Stritch, a Sondheim pal. As Alexandra Jacobs, a book critic for The New York Times, wrote in her biography of the actress, “Still Here,” Ms. Stritch always had her flask of Hennessy backstage when she was playing Joanne, the sort of wealthy Upper East Side woman who might drink vodka stingers and carry a bichon in her Birkin.
Ms. Jacobs wrote in The Times that while “Company” is not as well known as other Sondheim shows, it has acquired a cult status among Gen Xers and millennials, who appreciate the fact that it is “drier than a sauvignon blanc, more New York than the Yankees.”
Onstage, Ms. LuPone drinks water in her martini glass. But real bubbly is required to toast the lights returning to Broadway.
After a preview performance the other night, we met up and looked for a Times Square bar, but it’s hard now to find one that stays open after shows, or one at all, really. (“Company” opened Dec. 9 at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theater, and Jesse Green, a Times theater critic, called Ms. LuPone’s performance “perfectly etched,” in an otherwise mixed review.)
“McHale’s, Charlie’s, Sam’s, Barrymore’s,” Ms. LuPone said, reeling off the names of bars that have closed.
So we ended up setting up our own bar — complete with votive candles and vintage coupes — in a room at the Civilian on 48th Street. The small hotel is decorated as a homage to Broadway, with costumes and pictures from shows, so naturally we found a photo of Ms. LuPone that happened to be on the wall of our ersatz bar, a shot of her as Mrs. Lovett in “Sweeney Todd,” co-written by Mr. Sondheim.
Remembering Stephen Sondheim
The revered and influential composer-lyricist died Nov. 26, 2021. He was 91.
- Obituary: A titan of the American musical, Sondheim was the driving force behind some of Broadway’s most beloved shows.
- Final Interview: Days before he died, he sat down with The Times for his final major interview.
- His Legacy: As a mentor, a letter writer and an audience regular, Sondheim nurtured generations of theater makers.
- ‘West Side Story’: Does the musical, which features some of the artist’s best-known lyrics, deserve a new hearing?
- ‘Company’: The revival of his 1970 musical features a gender swap. Here is what Sondheim had to say about it.
I asked her if there was anyone she’d like to make into a meat pie, and she shot back, “Do you have to eat it?”
In her dressing room, Ms. LuPone keeps a typewritten note sent to her before the pandemic hit by Mr. Sondheim, who was clearly growing more sentimental: “Every now and then I’m brought up short by realizing what a wonderful singer you are. That’s apart from the acting and performing and the attention to detail. In any event, I just felt I had to put it in print. Thank you for enhanceing [sic] my shows — and everyone else’s for that matter, Love, Steve.”
Ms. LuPone choked up talking about it. “I just was so flummoxed by it,” she said, still referring to the composer in the present tense. “Steve doesn’t give compliments. I beg your pardon. Steve does give compliments, but they’re hard-earned. His notes can be devastating, which I’ve had several of.”
She got a bad note when she was playing Fosca in “Passion” at Lincoln Center; Mr. Sondheim berated her about her enunciation, saying all he heard was “monotonous mush.”
“I said in my head, ‘If it was anyone with less experience than me, they would have turned in their equity card,’” she said. “It was a dress down that — I was lost. That’s been my big downfall. I’m a flannel mouth. John Houseman called me a flannel mouth when I was in school.”
A Sondheim score “is not easy to sing accurately. It’s a challenge to interpret the lyrics as he intended them with depth,” she said with understatement. “That is a big accomplishment. Steve makes me better. I keep saying, ‘Who will make me better now that Steve is gone?’”
Some who worked with Mr. Sondheim thought that he was harder on Ms. Stritch and other women than on men, perhaps because of his dreadful relationship with his mother. He told Meryle Secrest, who wrote his biography, that after his father left for a younger woman, his mother was sexually inappropriate with him: “What she did for five years was treat me like dirt, but come on to me at the same time.” After that, Ms. Secrest said, Mr. Sondheim strived to maintain “a safe psychic distance” from women making overtures, “imagined or real.” (His domineering mother surely shaped his portrait of Rose in “Gypsy.”)
“He’s not hard on people that don’t threaten him,” Ms. LuPone said. “I think he was hard on me because — I don’t know. I can’t answer for him but he was hard on me. I’ve got stuff in my scrapbook, the mean stuff and good stuff.” She saves everything, even the hate mail she got after she said she would refuse to perform if Donald Trump came to a show.
The petite Ms. LuPone is routinely referred to as a towering legend, but in person she’s earthy, calling everyone from stagehands to fellow cast members to me “doll.”
One of the numbers in “Company” is “Being Alive,” and no one is more alive than Ms. LuPone, 72, who cherishes her fiery Sicilian temperament and her ability, as the writer Karen Heller put it, to “nurse a grudge like cognac.” But it’s easy to see the vulnerability threaded through the bravado.
She has her own vocabulary on Broadway: Her rhapsodic fans are called “LuPonettes” and when she publicly burns someone — from an arrogant composer, to a Hollywood star who descends on Broadway for a guest turn, to a littering or photo-snapping or texting audience member — it’s called being “LuPoned.”
When she does online forums with fans, she elicits comments like this one: “I wish Patti LuPone was my terrifying but beloved aunt.”
Ryan Murphy cast her in roles in “Glee” (causing his young cast members to go “gaga,” he said), “American Horror Story” and his “Hollywood” limited series.
“Patti has this insane, volcanic power within her body to sing like that,” Mr. Murphy said. “She is, to the American musical theater scene, what Meryl Streep became to the film world. There will never, ever, ever be another person like Patti LuPone who has that power.
“Some might think of her as a diva, but she’s really warm hearted and bawdy and thinks of herself as a broad. She says what’s on her mind. And she knows where all the bodies are buried.”
Her friend Joe Mantello, the acclaimed Broadway director and actor who worked with her in “Hollywood,” talked about her duality: “She understands that she’s a great star, she’s a legend. But there’s a part of her that also sees herself as part of Juilliard Group One, a working actress,” he said, referring to the first drama class at the school.
After “War Paint,” the 2017 musical in which she played Helena Rubinstein, Ms. LuPone swore she would never do another musical.
“I have two new hips and one new shoulder,” she told me. “Musicals are killers. They were breaking my body.”
But when she was offered the chance to do “Company” with the British director Marianne Elliott, who directed the Tony Award-winning 2018 Broadway revival of “Angels in America,” Ms. LuPone could not resist.
The singer is still afraid of Covid, and she had crying jags about returning to Broadway because “I just don’t want to do musicals anymore.” But she’s back belting, her mezzo-soprano voice still thrilling 41 years after she won her first Tony as Eva Perón in “Evita.” (She won a second Tony playing Rose in Mr. Sondheim’s “Gypsy” in 2008.)
And, despite the hip surgeries, she’s back dancing — in heels, no less.
“Did you see I tripped tonight?” she asked, adding merrily: “The next musical is in a wheelchair.”
I told her that her voice — what she calls “two tiny muscles” and what Mandy Patinkin calls “the two tiny rubber bands in your throat” — sounded amazing.
“I made a pact with the devil because, believe me, I’ve abused it,” she said. “In my entire life, I smoked, I took drugs, I blew out vocal cords. I had the vocal cord operation. It’s shocking to me that I still have a voice. I feel like Ethel Merman.”
At the preview, the audience was primed to see their Patti again. They got excited before the show started, merely listening to a recording of her voice ominously warning everyone to turn off their phones. (Ms. LuPone famously snatched a phone from an audience member during a 2015 performance at Lincoln Center, after the woman would not stop texting.)
“Musicals are treacherous animals,” Ms. LuPone said, talking about all the backstage drama and sniping. “Hits can go south faster than flops. In hits, people become entitled. In flops, you’re holding on for dear life.”
‘A Burden and a Blessing’
She said that this final act of her career is a lot easier than clambering up to Broadway.
“I went through emotional abuse because it was the thing to do to get a performance out of somebody,” she recalled. “I never had the casting couch. They said, ‘Get out!’ They never said ‘Come in.’ I never went through any kind of sexual harassment. No, it was mental and emotional harassment.”
She has said that she could be her own worst enemy, letting her temper fly.
It would happen in taxicabs, she said. If she thought drivers were cheating on the meter, she would do battle, jump out without paying and yell a raunchier version of “Don’t ever mess with a New Yorker!”
Mr. Patinkin, who played Che to her Evita, backed up her tales of pugilistic prowess.
When they were on the road doing a concert tour, she once came in with a black eye. She explained that a guy in the parking lot had stolen her space; she had “mouthed off,” and he smacked her.
“But you should have seen what I did to him!” she kvelled to Mr. Patinkin.
“She doesn’t pull any punches,” he said. “She gives it to you right on the chin.” It doesn’t sound like a metaphor.
“I’ve gotten in trouble since I was a toddler for questioning,” Ms. LuPone said. “I got in a lot of trouble in school. When I got out of Juilliard and got into the professional world, there was some weird behavior. Mean stage managers, lousy agents that didn’t protect me. I was completely alone in ‘Evita,’ I had to fight the battles myself.”
She has talked about Hal Prince, the director, bullying her, as other British members of the cast tried to prod her to do the part as it had been done in London by Elaine Paige, to which she replied: “Shut up.”
“It was like a battlefield from my dressing room past the stage management to the stage,” she said. “It was Beirut. I was safe onstage and I wasn’t even safe on the stage because I couldn’t sing it, so I was in fear every minute.”
Ms. LuPone may have felt as if she was in a war zone, but her co-star felt as if he was in heaven.
“You’ll never find a better partner to be with onstage, she’s just absolute magic,” Mr. Patinkin said. “I’ve never felt safer with anyone. She could throw a dagger right between my eyes and I know it would stop one millisecond right before it hit my forehead.”
“If you feel a little tired or worn out, if something has happened to you,” he added, “she’ll pick you up and make sure you’re alive.
“Patti is so sensitive, she sings like a child, very truthfully. She can’t let certain feelings go, which is a burden and a blessing. She fights through it all and gives everything, until there’s nothing left in her.”
As she sipped champagne and nibbled on prosciutto, Ms. LuPone looked like she had plenty more in her.
“I have scars,” she mused. “And why are we called ‘bitches’ or ‘difficult to work with’ when we’re simply asking for what we need?” It infuriates her, she said, because it is men who are using those labels.
“Apparently, I was persona non grata in California after ‘Evita,’ because everybody heard I was difficult in New York. It’s like, ‘Wait a minute, you want to know why I was difficult?’ No, it’s just, ‘You were difficult so you’re on the Life’s Too Short list.’ I’m saying this for every woman and guy that goes through that. Your talent will out. Your talent will carry you, if you stick to it and honor your talent.”
In the wake of #MeToo, she noted, abusive bosses get the hook.
“There’s no more bad guys left in the world,” she said with a sly smile. But her black humor is still intact, so she added that, for her show, “We had to go through two days of sensitivity training. I wanted to kill myself.”
She played Norma Desmond in “Sunset Boulevard” in London, before it came to Broadway. In 1994, when Andrew Lloyd Webber fired her and replaced her with Glenn Close, she wrote in her memoir, “I took batting practice in my dressing room with a floor lamp. I swung at everything in sight — mirrors, wig stands, makeup, wardrobe, furniture, everything. Then I heaved the lamp out the second-floor window.”
She sued him and used the $1 million she won to build a pool at her Connecticut house, now christened the Andrew Lloyd Webber Memorial Pool.
“The only thing we didn’t do is the police drawing on the bottom of the pool,” she said, laughing.
After decades of trading insults, she says simply that Mr. Lloyd Webber is “a sad sack.” Her irritation at Ms. Close still simmers. And then there’s Madonna: In 2017, she told Andy Cohen: “Madonna is a movie killer. She’s dead behind the eyes. She can’t act her way out of a paper bag.” She added, for good measure: “She should not be on film or stage.”
When we left the theater, Ms. LuPone said we were exiting through “the Madonna door,” called that because when Madonna acted there in David Mamet’s “Speed-the-Plow” in 1988, she made a quick getaway by this door to try to avoid the throngs outside.
“That’s when she had that body, in that period when she was staggeringly beautiful,” Ms. LuPone said. “I couldn’t look at anything else but her body. I couldn’t hear what she was saying. It was just like, ‘Wow.’ She did have presence onstage in that respect, when she came onstage with that body.”
I asked Ms. LuPone if it smarts to leave every night by the Madonna door, given that Madonna got the Eva role in the movie.
“I always thought that Judy Davis would have been stunning in the movie, and get somebody else to sing it — get Marni Nixon,” she said, referring to the ghost singer for Natalie Wood in “West Side Story” and Audrey Hepburn in “My Fair Lady.”
“I want to see somebody that’s going to be electrifying and Madonna is not an electrifying presence on camera,” Ms. LuPone continued. “She’s just not — not for that score, which is insane.
“When Mandy and I did it onstage, thank God we had training from Juilliard, so we were able to connect the dots dramatically, because there really wasn’t anything there.”
I asked about her husband, Matt Johnston, whom she met when he was a cameraman on a 1987 TV movie in which she portrayed the young Lady Bird Johnson. (Mrs. Johnson told her, “Evita was a bird of paradise, and I’m just a little mouse.”) How has the star stayed married for so long in showbiz?
“Because Matt gave up show business,” she said. “He became Mr. Mom and a farmer, and he is egoless. He understands what this is that I have to do, and he supports it.” They have a son named Josh, 31, a filmmaker.
I was curious about her seven-year romance with Kevin Kline, which got off to a fractious start at Juilliard.
“We were at each other in the very beginning,” she said, “and then one day in art history class, we were just all over each other.”
And did it really end, as she wrote in her memoir, when Mr. Kline collided with “a chorus girl in Boston while he was doing ‘On the Twentieth Century.’”
“Well, it depends on who you ask,” Ms. LuPone said mischievously. “I wanted to move to an apartment that had doors because I was in a tiny little apartment on 21st Street. Kevin thought that was a commitment.”
But she still treasures the telegram Mr. Kline sent her on opening night of “Evita”: “InEVITAble!”
When I left her outside her New York apartment at 2 a.m., I felt very awake and caught up in the Patti of it all.
“Bye, doll,” I called out.
“Bye, doll,” she sang back.
Confirm or Deny
Maureen Dowd: You chided Neil Patrick Harris for not knowing what he was doing in rehearsals for your limited “Company” run at Lincoln Center in 2011.
Patti LuPone: True. We had 10 days. He came in and he didn’t know anything.
You once played a vengeful ghost who haunted a laundromat and lived in a dryer.
Your ideal “Ladies Who Lunch” outing would include Eleonora Duse, Sarah Bernhardt, Edith Piaf, Patti Smith and Bette Davis.
You started your career as a toddler with a Marilyn Monroe imitation.
Yes. My mother used to make me come out when I was 3 or 4 and go like this (pursing her lips).
You have a long rider attached to every contract that you think of as a scrapbook for every mistake you’ve ever made.
Exactly. What’s in the dressing room. What my transportation is. Just to make sure I’m not stressed out when I get there. I learned from Ryan Murphy to ask for “portal to portal.”
As Helena Rubinstein said, “There are no ugly women, only lazy ones.”
I do think that’s true.
It was intimidating to sing “Ladies Who Lunch” at Stephen Sondheim’s 80th birthday party 10 feet away from Elaine Stritch.
No, I felt honored. I started singing the line “Does anyone still wear a hat?” and I looked straight at Elaine, who had a hat on, to pay homage. Elaine always said very wise things to me. She was a lovely mentor and a lovely friend.
At Juilliard, John Houseman was just as frightening as he was in “The Paper Chase.”
He was tough and scary. I got in an elevator with him once in 1969, 1970. I said, “Hi, Mr. Houseman.” He turned to me and said, “Louise Bernikow says you’re the most illiterate person she’s ever met.”
You sang “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina” better than the senior George Bush.
Can I tell you something about Barbara and George? I did a performance at the East Wing when they were in the White House. And the next time Matt and I went back, we were in the line and I said, “We got pregnant the last time we were here!” At the Willard.
By happenstance, you sang at Ryan Murphy’s wedding, which was so private, he didn’t invite any of his friends.
I was singing in Provincetown, and I ran into Ryan. So I came to see him come out of his room and sang “Here Comes the Bride” and threw rose petals in his path.
You were jealous when Madonna performed in leather and a mesh teddy at the Boom Boom Room during Pride Week.
I can’t think of anything funny about Madonna.