From a humble beginning being dubbed “flannel mouth” by the esteemed John Houseman at Julliard, to being honored in February by the Drama League at their 27th All-Star Gala, Patti LuPone’s career has landed her squarely in the “Broadway icon” category. She’s performed Sondheim, Cole Porter and Lloyd Webber. She has more signature songs than most of her peers. LuPone’s credits extend beyond the stage to films, opera and television appearances, and last year, she added publishing to the list with her memoir.
Patti LuPone brings her iconic voice and equally iconic personality to Fort Worth April 5 to perform with the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra for A Broadway Gala Featuring Patti LuPone at the Bass Performance Hall. Before she makes her way to Texas, where she hopes to at last see a “gen-u-wine” cowboy, LuPone took the time from taking care of her ailing Labrador to talk to TheaterJones about her career, the on-again-off-again remake of the Gypsy movie and how she feels about the term “diva.”
TheaterJones: First of all, how is your dog?
PL: Oh … well. She’s 13-and-a-half years old, you know, and she has a urinary tract infection. I knew something was really wrong. We had to get her to the vet, which is an hour away.
Tell us about your concert on April 5 with the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra. What can we expect?
It’s 24/7 showtunes.
On your website, it says that the show you’re doing is called Coulda Woulda Shoulda. What’s that about?
Coulda Woulda Shoulda played that part. It’s songs I wanted to sing from the very beginning of my career. Some of them are boy parts; some of them are songs I sang as a kid in school productions.
You’ve played so many roles in your career, which was your dream role realized?
So many of them: Rosamunde in The Robber Bridegroom, Evita, Fantine in Les Miz, Rose in Gypsy, Reno Sweeney [in Anything Goes]. The most difficult were Evita and Mrs. Lovett [in Sweeney Todd], and then the opera roles. The challenging ones are not always the most rewarding character, but they are the biggest challenge, and they stand out because of the work involved.
You have two Tony Awards, the first one in 1980 for Evita and the second, 20 years later …
Twenty-nine years later!
Ok, 29 years later for Gypsy. What did each of those Tonys mean to you at the time?
For Evita, it was an achievement. It was about conquering the part, the most challenging part I had played. If I hadn’t won, it would have been a failure. With Rose, I didn’t choose it, I was told that I would play that part. It had been only five years between revivals, so expectations were high. Both awards were “thank Gods.” Both were big reliefs. The thing is, it’s political, and we forget that. It’s a campaign, not an award on merit. I’ve heard producers say that the way the Tonys work is that first they vote for themselves, then against the competition, and then for who is deserving. I was equally relieved when I won both.
Which of your many signature songs could you sing forever?
All of my signature songs. People expect me to sing them, and I don’t want to let people down.
You’ve had the opportunity to perform Mrs. Lovett in two different Sweeney Todd stagings: One in concert with a 75-piece orchestra and John Doyle’s chamber piece. Which one was your favorite?
I loved them both, but performing it in concert, it’s hard to get lost in old London. With the John Doyle piece, it reeked of atmosphere and danger. We entered that world when we entered the stage. I’m the first one to suspend disbelief, but with the John Doyle staging, I really could immerse myself in the role. As an actress, that’s what you want, to be transported, to lose yourself. So, I preferred the John Doyle version.
In your memoir, you didn’t include anything about experiencing 9/11 or Noises Off, which was in rehearsal during that time. Why?
It just didn’t fit in. Yes, 9/11 happened when I was working on Noises Off, but when I wrote about it, it was just a few sentences, not big enough for a chapter. I mostly was appalled that our producers wanted us to continue rehearsing. To write the book, I was literally going through my scrapbooks, and no stories came out about that. There were some poignant moments, but not enough for a whole chapter.
You are often referred to as a “diva.” How do you feel about that term?
I don’t like it. It belongs in the opera world. It means the height of artistry, and some, like the beloved Maria Callas, developed a reputation, but I don’t like it. All of the battles I have fought on stage have been about the show, not myself. The term is reserved for high art, and I just don’t like it. Does it mean you’re brilliant or a pain in the ass? Plus, it’s overused now.
What do you do to escape?
I don’t need to. I wipe my feet at the door. I don’t take my personal life to the theater, and I don’t bring my professional life home. I sleep a lot, I guess. I’m just a regular person. I’m a wife and a mother. I keep a household. I cook, I do laundry, I clean. OK, so I don’t clean. But I prefer my life to be my life. I finish my work on the stage. I get to the theater two hours before, so I’m the first one there, and I am also the first one to leave after the show. I don’t forget to live my life. I’m as fond as my life as I am my job.
Do you have any guilty pleasures?
Guilty pleasures? What are guilty pleasures?
Well, my guilty pleasures are reading People magazine and watching the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills …
Well, I read People magazine, but that’s not a guilty pleasure, that’s keeping up on gossip! Wow…there are so many of them! Ha! I feel guilty about everything. I’m a Catholic, but I’ve given up the guilt.
Your memoir’s last chapter was about playing Rose in Gypsy, but that has not really been the end of the Patti LuPone story. What’s the next chapter?
I am at the age now where I’m often not the star. And I wonder what’s next, too. I have no idea. I like the surprise element.
Any thoughts on the Barbra Streisand Gypsy remake that’s off and on again?
Doesn’t that tell you it’s not going to happen? Arthur Laurents told me the three actresses he had in mind for the role, and of the three, Streisand was the best choice. I think she’s the best choice.
Do you think it will ever happen?
I hope it doesn’t─ha! Movie musicals aren’t done well anyway. There’s no time for applause for the numbers. They aren’t shot correctly─you need to see the dancing. If Streisand gave herself over to the part…singing “Rose’s Turn” is all about giving up control and discovering it every time. I think Streisand is very in control. She would be like, “I’m going to fart, and everyone’s going to hear it!”
One last question: Do you still pick up the tuba now and then?
Irene is missing! She went on two tours with Sweeney Todd, and she didn’t come back! I chose to play tuba to meet boys you know, at band camp.
Enjoy your visit to Texas!
I want to see a “gen-u-wine” cowboy. Every time I have been to Dallas, it’s been like Silicon Valley. There’s nothing Texas about it. I’ve heard of this place…Billy Bob’s?
Yes! Billy Bob’s is the world’s largest honky-tonk. That’s where you can see cowboys and two-steppin’, and they have a mechanical bull. You can also get some good Mexican food in the Stockyards.
Well, then that’s where I need to go.
If you happen to see a wandering tuba named Irene, you can return her to LuPone at Bass Hall on April 5. Unless, of course, she’s in the Stockyards stalking cowboys.