Patti LuPone was only four years old when she realized she belonged on stage, and she started by entertaining family members in her Long Island living room.
LuPone won her second Tony Award for Evita, which she initially described as merely “noise from Britain.” Although she has enjoyed tremendous, long-term success, she talks candidly to Alec about blows to her career and ego.
Alec Baldwin: This is Alec Baldwin, and you’re listening to Here’s The Thing from WNYC Radio.
According to the online urban dictionary, today’s guest has become a verb. 'To LuPone' is ‘To give an outstanding theatrical performance, to make an audience revel in open-mouthed awe at your unparalleled brilliance.’
Patti LuPone has 26 Broadway credits to date and has won two Tonys; one for "Evita" and one for "Gypsy." In London, she originated the role of Norma Desmond in "Sunset Boulevard," and Fantine in "Les Miserables," for which she won an Olivier award. She’s worked in film and on television, most notably as the mom on the ABC drama, "Life Goes On."
Before all this success, Patti was in the first class of the Drama Division at Julliard in 1968, which seems like a reasonable place to start dreaming of a career in the theater, but Patti LuPone’s story really begins even earlier.
Patti LuPone: I knew when I was a kid that I had a Broadway voice. I wanted to be a rocker, because I grew up in that era of transistor radios at the beach. You know, the Rascals-
Alec Baldwin: What music? The Rascals.
Patti LuPone: The Rascals. We started in the ‘50s, Little Anthony and the Imperials. I mean, all through the ‘50s and ‘60s and ‘70s. I knew I didn’t have a rock voice though. I knew I had a Broadway voice.
Alec Baldwin: Why?
Patti LuPone: This is all instinctual behavior, completely instinctual behavior. And my mom listened to opera and my dad listened to jazz.
Alec Baldwin: What did he do?
Patti LuPone: He was a principal of an elementary school -
Alec Baldwin: On Long Island.
Patti LuPone: On Long Island in Northport, and my mom was a housewife, a homemaker.
Alec Baldwin: How many kids in your family?
Patti LuPone: Twin brothers and me, you know, typical, in a ranch house on Long Island. Right? Typical.
Alec Baldwin: I know the drill.
Patti LuPone: Yeah, exactly. And I was enrolled in dance at four years old, and I fell in love with the stage. But that wasn’t really the first inkling of some sort of connection to the stage. My mother used to troop me out in front of guests to do my Marilyn Monroe imitation, and I don’t even know how I came up with this, but I would come out, they’d laugh, and I’d go, ‘Oh, this is cool.’
I was pretty astute when I was very, very young. So I started dancing and I fell in love with the audience. And so the performance aspect started very, very young in dance. When Juilliard happened-
Alec Baldwin: How did it happen?
Patti LuPone: Well, my brother attended the Dance Division of the Juilliard School and told me that they were starting a Drama Division. I actually had moved into to New York City, and was auditioning for musicals and working, and I just wanted to be in musicals and hang out in New York City and party. And I auditioned and I got in.
And what happened in the four years—the course of the four years of the Juilliard School—I fell out of love with musical, and in love with classical theater, and I was actually trained as a classical actress. So, we did -
Alec Baldwin: With a lot of other great classical actors.
Patti LuPone: - no musicals. Yes. Kevin Klein, David Stiers, David Schramm, Marilou Risotto, and then of course the classes below me have gained more recognition than my class did. We were the very first class.
Alec Baldwin: But that girl from Northport who’s doing Marilyn Monroe impersonations in the ranch house with your family, what’s that like for you, that transition to be in that very heady, sophisticated environment?
Patti LuPone: It was tough for me, because I was not a favorite at school. My best friend, who I met in the first year, Nancy Nichols, was a favorite, and I was not, but Nancy and I would always pal around together and make trouble. But Nancy would get the roles, and I would not. And that went on for several years.
I think it was only my third year when I realized that they were trying to throw me out of school. And what they did—they couldn’t throw me out because they didn’t like my personality. But what they did was threw every conceivable role in my direction to make me fail as an actor. But what happened was -
Alec Baldwin: Why do you think they did that? Did they feel you didn’t belong?
Patti LuPone: They didn’t like me. Yeah, they didn’t like me, or they—you know, I didn’t get cut. Every year students got cut. We started with 36 -
Alec Baldwin: It was a weeding program, where they wanted to thin out the herd over the years.
Patti LuPone: Totally. We ended up with 17 of the original 36 in the fourth year. I never got cut. So I’m confused as to why that actually happened, because why didn’t they just cut me? Possibly because every role I played, I succeeded in. But what they did was they trained one actor in my class in versatility, and the rest of them were pigeon-holed as—life will pigeon-hole you into the -
Alec Baldwin: The ingénue.
Patti LuPone: Exactly. The soubrette, the leading lady, the character woman. But I went back and forth, back and forth, back and forth, which taught me that I could.
Alec Baldwin: There were no boundaries.
Patti LuPone: No, and if you look at my history, I’ve done more plays than I’ve done musicals. But because, I guess, the voice is a powerful instrument. Do you know what I mean? And it’s an American cultural event, the American—the musical, not the Broadway musical.
Alec Baldwin: But also the music that you have performed, when someone is as successful as you, and I’ve said this to people who have careers in music beyond the theater, as leading actresses in the theater. Music distinguishes things because it’s a product you can consume anywhere. You know, your career goes to another level when I can drive in my car, and listen to the soundtrack from "Anything Goes."
Patti LuPone: Right. Gee, I never thought about that. Yeah.
Alec Baldwin: I can be on the beach, and I can listen to the soundtrack from "Sweeney Todd." Music performers will always have the upper hand on actors, but you were saying how you—the versatility thing, where you were almost forced to embrace this versatility to survive, and you graduate from that program. The first class graduates what year?
Patti LuPone: 1972.
Alec Baldwin: And where do you go?
Patti LuPone: John Houseman. So in our third year, he presented a season to the prominent people in New York theater, and critics. And Mel Gussow was the one that said—Mel Gussow was a second string critic for The New York Times, and he was the one that said, ‘Why break this company up? Why not form a permanent acting company?’ - which was John’s cue. And when we graduated, he handed us our Equity card, and four years—we stayed for four years—of touring the country, performing classical plays in true revolving rep, which is a different play every single night.
So we got even more training, because in our first year, we lost several bookings because we didn’t know how to tour. We didn’t know how to maintain a performance. We only did three at Juilliard. And we had no idea what happened on the fourth. And that sounds crazy, but we lost-
Alec Baldwin: Do you think this acting company idea and the touring was what Houseman had up his sleeve the whole time, when he instigated the Juilliard program?
Patti LuPone: No, I don’t think so. The training was intense, and emotionally intense, psychologically intense, physically intense, but there was one production where the company formed an invisible circle of support around each other, and that was his—he saw the ensemble. I remember—it was—Boris Tumarin’s production of "A View From The Bridge." Oh, I could cry now thinking of it.
It was an extraordinary powerful experience to be a student actor, but in a professional mindset, and I remember our curtain call, and the pride, and the power, and it was an amazing moment that changed the course of all of us. And we understood what ensemble meant, and we understand what support meant, and we understood the power we had as individuals and as actors, and John saw that in his actors. There’s been a couple of experiences that I’ve had that I’ve—it’s that same ensemble mentality.
See, that’s the other thing—I have to interject here. When I left Juilliard and left the acting company, and then, of course, landed musicals—we all did, by the way. David Stiers did, Kevin did, Mandy did. We all ended musicals. But there’s only a couple times where I felt I had that kind of ensemble, and one was "Les Miserables" in London, because it was the Royal Shakespeare Company actors, and the other was "Gypsy," where every actor owned their part, big or small, and gave themselves to the play every single night. The other one was "Sweeney" too, because—and our stage manager said in "Sweeney" that we acted more like a band than a bunch of actors.
Alec Baldwin: Right. I love that feeling. So the acting company thing lasts for how long? You did it how many seasons?
Patti LuPone: I did it for four years. Nobody goes in for four years anymore. We all did it for four years, and I thought about it the other—I don’t know why we stayed, except we thought—I’m sure we all went, ‘We are not going to be able to play these parts in real life.’
Alec Baldwin: And it was back in a time when they were the very last vapors in the air here in New York of the old way. And the old way was you went downtown and you carried a spear for Joe, or you carried a spear in the park, and there was an apprenticeship in the theater, and if you didn’t have cred in the theater, Raul and Chris Walken, and Sigourney, and you and Kevin and everybody—everybody who were the princes and princesses, and Mandy of the theater in New York, that’s where you headed. So when you finished the acting company, and you’ve decided, you’ve done enough. It’s four years, which was atypical of people then, where do you go then?
Patti LuPone: We came home. Kevin and I came home, and-
Alec Baldwin: So you’re with Kevin?
Patti LuPone: Yes.
Alec Baldwin: Kevin and you [Laughter] – Kevin and you are a couple.
Patti LuPone: For seven years. We broke up, we got back together, we broke up, we got back together, we broke up, we got back together.
Alec Baldwin: Can you imagine the children you would have had with him? Good God in Heaven. They wouldn’t have a theater big enough to house that person’s ego and talent.
Patti LuPone: So we both came home, and Kevin went off and did a play, and I had auditioned for, and didn’t get, "The Baker’s Wife," the Stephen Schwartz musical, "The Baker’s Wife," based on Marcel Pagnol’s "Le Femme du Boulanger," but I got a telephone call from David Merrick’s general manager, Helen Nickerson, and to ask if I was free, because they wanted me to come out to L.A. to replace the leading lady, and I wanted to do this musical so badly. So I went out, and I did my first big gut-wrenching, rip out of your body, squish heart, most horrible-
Alec Baldwin: Vulnerable.
Patti LuPone: - experience of my life, "The Baker’s Wife."
It was an unbelievable disaster and we were on the road for six months.
Alec Baldwin: What made it so, to the extent you can say?
Patti LuPone: That’s the big question. It is a great idea. It’s a great film. It had Stephen Schwartz music. It had Jo Mielziner’s last sets. Jennifer Tipton did the lights. Theoni Aldredge did the costumes. David Merrick was producing. It had all the potential to be a smash hit, and it got progressively—I joined two days after they opened in L.A., and it got progressively worse for six months.
Alec Baldwin: And you knew it while you were doing it.
Patti LuPone: No. I thought it was going to be okay. But I didn’t realize—nobody realized what was really going to happen to us, and it.
Alec Baldwin: What did happen?
Patti LuPone: Well six people were fired. The show never got better. David Merrick came out—one of the most theatrical moments I’ve ever had in my career, was David Merrick showing up in San Francisco. We were performing in San Francisco with no director. We were told to stay after the show. They assembled us on the stage, and there was—it was not lit, except for the ghost light. David Merrick showed up and stood in front of the ghost light, so he was totally backlit. Couldn’t see his face, only saw the outline of a long coat and a bowler hat, and proceeded to ask us to go into rehearsal for nothing, so that we could save this wonderful show.
It was so dramatic, because he’s incredibly dramatic. And so, in the light of day, everybody went, ‘What?’ We had just gotten out of rehearsal for nothing. We were in rehearsal every single day, performing at night for six months. And what we rehearsed that day went in that night, only to rehearse the next day, and that stuff would come out, some new stuff would go in, that was not better than what we had just taken out.
Alec Baldwin: You were in a laboratory.
Patti LuPone: [Laughter]
Alec Baldwin: You were in Dr. Frankenstein’s laboratory.
Patti LuPone: People were dying. The rats were dying. The rats were losing air.
Alec Baldwin: You were killing a lot of rats there.
Patti LuPone: Oh my god. It was so horrible. There’s an expression there, Larry Gelbart’s expression, ‘If Hitler were alive today, his punishment should be to send him out on the road with a musical in trouble.’
Alec Baldwin: [Laughter] I did a movie once, and the movie was going really badly, and said, ‘This is as if the government made movies.’
Patti LuPone: [Laughter] I’ve always said, ‘There’s a fine line between a hit and a flop.’ And you don’t what it is. You don’t know why it is a hit, and you don’t know why it is a flop. If it’s really terrible, you know right off the bat, and you’re not going to take the job. But if it has the potential to be a hit, and ends up being a flop, you can’t figure it out.
Alec Baldwin: So you do this show, and when you come out of that, what’s the lesson for you? Did you—was there something you said to yourself, ‘Never again am I going to’-
Patti LuPone: No. I went into a depression for nine months. I was on valium to sleep for the six months, and I went into a valium depression for nine months. Gained 40 pounds, woke up, went ‘What the hell just happened?’ And I couldn’t say-
Alec Baldwin: Why do you think that is? Like, you care a lot. There’s nothing casual about you. There’s nothing amateurish about you. You’re very serious, and you’re very dedicated, and you’re very hard-working, along with being very talented. And you feel these wounds. Why do you think that is? Why did it affect you so much?
Patti LuPone: Well, our business is subjective. It’s all subjective. You know what I mean? You talk to anybody from "The Baker’s Wife," and they can remember it as if it was yesterday, and there’s blood spilled, and we became blood, a blood family. I just saw Timmy Jerome, who’s in "Phantom" now, and we see each other. What we recall is that bonding in that horrible experience, and we can talk about it as if it was yesterday.
I think it’s because it happened to us. Of course, it happened to the creators, but they’re not on stage. We’re on stage succeeding or failing in front of an audience. We’re on stage being judged by the audience. We’re the messengers.
Alec Baldwin: We’re the ones who take the hit. We’re the ones who take the hit.
Patti LuPone: We take the hit all the time. And this was really abusive. It was just horrible. I woke up one morning and my face was filled with what looked like whiteheads. The entire face had raised bumps on it. I didn’t know what it was. I went to sleep, woke up, and the entire face—maybe it was from the valium. I have no idea. Things were happening to us, physically happening to us.
Alec Baldwin: And when does the sun come out for you? When does the sun come out for Patti LuPone career-wise?
Patti LuPone: I think when I go back to work with David Mamet. I go back and work with David. I go into-
Alec Baldwin: What do you mean go back?
Patti LuPone: David and I did a play in Chicago. Was it after "Baker’s Wife?" Was that—I’m trying to keep it straight.
Alec Baldwin: What play did you do with him first?
Patti LuPone: The very first play I did with him was a thing called "All Men Are Whores." Kevin, Sam Tsoutsovas, and I did it at Yale Rep for one night. I said, ‘Hey Dave. We opened and closed in New Haven.’ And New Haven used to be one of the circuit—when you took a show out of town, your first stop was New Haven, and it was a big deciding factor. So we opened and closed in New Haven.
Alec Baldwin: We bombed in New Haven.
Patti LuPone: We bombed in New Haven. Well, and from there he gave me a play called "The Woods."
Alec Baldwin: What happens when you do "The Woods?"
Patti LuPone: Well, I go back to what I was trained for, and I go back to an honest environment, pretty much.
Alec Baldwin: And you’re back to the circle of trust.
Patti LuPone: Yeah.
Alec Baldwin: Everything feels right. This is more like it.
Patti LuPone: And it’s a risk. It’s a big risk. Every time I work with David, I learn so much as a human being, as an actor.
Alec Baldwin: What year was that approximately?
Patti LuPone: I think 19—late 1976—77.
Alec Baldwin: So you had a relationship with him for 35 years.
Patti LuPone: Yes, well we met him—yes, yes. And I will drop everything to do a play by David. Everything. I don’t care how risky it is. I learn so much from David, and I instinctually have the Mamet-speak. That’s something that I know how to do, his rhythms, and I think it’s because, as someone said, I cut my teeth on David—David’s words, starting with "All Men Are Whores," and "The Woods," and "The Water Engine," and "Edmond."
I had finished "Evita," and I went down to the Provincetown Playhouse at the opening of "Edmond," and I said, ‘Why couldn’t I have been in this?’ in the back of my head, and not two weeks later, I got a call from Gregory Mosher and David saying, would you replace Linda? Linda is a Chicago actress, and she wanted to go back to Chicago-
Alec Baldwin: And she was playing what?
Patti LuPone: The wife. She came on it. She was at the beginning, that’s it. That’s it.
Alec Baldwin: In the beginning, and she’s gone.
Patti LuPone: And then she visits him in prison.
Alec Baldwin: The maid broke the dish or whatever it is.
Patti LuPone: Exactly.
Alec Baldwin: ‘I’m leaving you.’
She says, ‘What do you mean you’re leaving? Of course we’re leaving. We’re getting dressed.’
‘No, no. I’m leaving you.’
Patti LuPone: You know this. Oh, you know this one.
Alec Baldwin: Are you kidding? I begged Mamet to give me the rights to do the movie, but he gave it to Bill Macy.
Patti LuPone: And so I joined the company, and my agent was so furious with me. He said, ‘This will hurt your negotiational ability.’ And I went, ‘For what? If anybody in the business knows who I am, they know that this is where I came from, before I did Evita.’ And they did not want me to go backwards. They didn’t want me to go to The Guthrie to do Rosalind in "As You Like It," but I was able to work with Liviu Ciulei, a great Romanian director who just passed, God rest his soul, in his internationally famous production of "As You Like It," at the Guthrie.
And I was raked over the coals by the critics. One critic said basically, ‘What was "Evita" doing here?’ And it was difficult, as you say, to straddle that, but I kept doing it because I was given the opportunity to do it, and I wasn’t going to say, ‘No. I have to wait for the next "Evita" part to come along.’ If I waited for the next "Evita" part to come along -
Alec Baldwin: You would have waited ten years.
Patti LuPone: I’d still be waiting.
Alec Baldwin: Right. Is "Evita" a the next big thing for you? Is "Evita"—my recollection-
Patti LuPone: I’m trying to think. I did Stage Directions-
Alec Baldwin: - "Evita" is the big thing. "Evita" is the thing that changes your life.
Patti LuPone: It is. That was 1979, but in between-
Alec Baldwin: How does that happen?
Patti LuPone: I audition. Joanna Merlin is Hal Prince’s casting director, and of course-
Alec Baldwin: Hal directed.
Patti LuPone: Hal directed, and as I said earlier, all of those people had come to see this acting company at Julliard—this ensemble.
Alec Baldwin: They were aware of you, the casting people.
Patti LuPone: They were aware. Yes. And so I was brought in for a preliminary audition, and then I was told to make myself free—make sure that I made myself free for the final callback. And as I understand it, Hal wanted to cast actors in the role, the roles, as opposed to just musical theater people. So I think that’s one of the reasons why I got in there, because he knew—they knew I was an actor.
In between, there were several plays. There was Stage Directions by Israel Horovitz. John Glover, Ellen Greene, and I down at The Public, while Meryl’s doing-
Alec Baldwin: Yeah. You’re doing everything you can to scratch that itch of yours, and not become a star? No, I get it. Yeah. No, I get it.
Patti LuPone: It was the available work.
Alec Baldwin: We’re about to talk about the moment when perhaps, one of the greatest musical stars of the last 50 years, is born on Broadway.
Patti LuPone: What a compliment. Thank you.
Alec Baldwin: So let’s talk about the moment this happens. Hal Prince wants people who can act and sing, and you go to the—make yourself available to the final callback, and what happens? How do you feel when you’re in that room?
Patti LuPone: Well, I was very mad because I was actually shooting 1941, and there was a little issue about letting-
Alec Baldwin: Spielberg’s movie.
Patti LuPone: Yes. About letting me go. And the producer said, ‘If you’re not back tomorrow or the next day, you’ll never work in Hollywood again.’ So I left Hollywood with those words ringing in my ear, and I woke up in New York to the 1978 blizzard, where there were like two feet of snow on the ground.
Alec Baldwin: Couldn’t get back to L.A.?
Patti LuPone: I couldn’t get back to L.A.
Alec Baldwin: Did they fire you?
Patti LuPone: No. Christopher Reeve got me on the plane. I only missed three hours of shooting. When they said, ‘How’d you get here?’ I said, "Superman."
Alec Baldwin: "Superman." [Laughter]
Patti LuPone: I did. It’s absolutely true.
Alec Baldwin: That Juilliard camaraderie.
Patti LuPone: Exactly. So I went to the final callback, but I was really mad because I didn’t want to do this musical. I didn’t like the music. I thought -
Alec Baldwin: Which one?
Patti LuPone: "Evita."
Alec Baldwin: You didn’t like it?
Patti LuPone: Uh-uh. No.
Alec Baldwin: What specifically? You’re a smart woman. What specifically didn’t you like?
Patti LuPone: Well, I didn’t like—I heard "The White Album," the Julie Covington, David Essex, Colm Wilkinson. Very rocky, weird music, but it rocked out a lot. I thought, ‘What’s the matter with me? I’m a rocker. I want to be a rocker.’
Alec Baldwin: Right. Here’s your chance.
Patti LuPone: It was really, really high. It didn’t grab me. I mean I grew up on Rodgers and Hammerstein. I grew up on Jule Styne, Meredith Willson, Stephen Sondheim. This was not a musical to me. This was noise from Britain. Do you know what I mean? It wasn’t - it just didn’t—ugg.
Alec Baldwin: So how did you go out there and do it?
Patti LuPone: I went out and, in the final audition, I was wet from my knees down. I was wearing sneakers and jeans, not knowing it was going to snow. I was so stupid; I didn’t look at the weather report. I went out there and I blasted, literally blasted through, "Rainbow High," "Buenos Aires," and "Don’t Cry For Me Argentina." And there were tears in my eyes, apparently. There were tears of rage. Certainly not tears of—and I left, and I got a call on the set.
I made it back, and I got a call on the set in the wardrobe, I mean in the makeup trailer. And they said you’ve got the part. And I started to cry again, because I had promised David that I would reprise "The Woods" at The Public Theater, with Ulu Grossbard directing.
Alec Baldwin: [Laughter] What I love is that you’re going to blow your Hollywood film career, to go do a musical you don’t even like. And then that, when they offer it to you, you’re not sure you’re going to take that, because you got to go do another little Mamet play.
Patti LuPone: Well, I had been trained to be an actor, and I thought my responsibility was to act at every possible opportunity, and especially good opportunities.
Alec Baldwin: Keep working. If it’s worthy material.
Patti LuPone: Put—ply your craft, if it’s good material. And David and I forged a friendship and a bond, and I didn’t want to let him down. David and I became really, really good friends. David lived on 20th. Kevin and I lived on 21st street. He’d come over all the time for breakfast. We’d walk around. We’d go do antiquing.
Alec Baldwin: I’m going to start calling you Al, by the way, because you keep changing the subject.
Patti LuPone: [Laughter]
Alec Baldwin: What happened with Hal?
Patti LuPone: I don’t mean -
Alec Baldwin: How did Hal get you to do that material, and it became what it became?
Patti LuPone: Well, no. I knew I had to do it. I cried because I knew that I would have to—I couldn’t do "The Woods," and I had to do "Evita," because I knew I wanted to work with Hal, and I knew that it would change the course of my career.
Alec Baldwin: You knew going in that it was going to be a hit.
Patti LuPone: There was so much hype before.
Alec Baldwin: Had they done it in London?
Patti LuPone: Yeah.
Alec Baldwin: So it was a big hit in London.
Patti LuPone: Huge hit in London.
Alec Baldwin: And you’re going in the American cast. It was a huge hit in London, so you knew this was a big opportunity for you.
Patti LuPone: And there was hype, you can’t believe. That was my first indication that this was going to be a tough experience, because it was—I went, ‘How am I going to get around the hype?’ It was the first musical that I was aware of, that had so much pre-opening hype.
Alec Baldwin: The modern way.
Patti LuPone: Not even buzz. You know, not word of mouth. Hype. Media hype. And it was created, of course, by Really Useful, by Andrew’s company. Do you know what I mean? That’s how he operates. And it was frightening. And I had no vocal technique.
Alec Baldwin: So now this thing is all hyped up. You’ve been through everything you’ve been through. You’ve had some good times, and some tough times, and you’ve worked hard, God knows four years in a row with Houseman and that company, and you step out for the Broadway opening, the opening of "Evita." What was that like for you? How did that evening go?
Patti LuPone: I had the flu.
Alec Baldwin: Perfect. Of course you did.
Patti LuPone: Yeah. And I threw up in the sink, before I sang "Don’t Cry For Me Argentina." I’m sure it was a combination of—I got, I got extremely bad notices opening in L.A., and extremely bad notices opening in San Francisco. And Hal came to me and said, ‘We’re going to laugh about this in 20 years, Patti.’ They pulled the entire company together, and he said, ‘There was an article coming out in Suzy Knickerbocker’s column the next day that I was going to be fired, and that Actor’s Equity was waiting to clear Elaine Paige to take my place.’ And this was in the newspaper -
Alec Baldwin: She’s a Brit.
Patti LuPone: Yeah, she’s the one that originated it in London. I’m dealing with all of this press of me being fired, and me not being able to sing the part. And still going on for my -
Alec Baldwin: And throwing up in the sink.
Patti LuPone: Well, that was opening night.
Alec Baldwin: So you go out and do the opening, and what happens?
Patti LuPone: Bad reviews again. Actually, they weren’t bad. They dismissed Hal. This was an innovative, this was an innovative concept, an innovative production. They dismissed Hal, and they barely touched on Mandy, and me. And that’s worse when you’re ignored. It’s one thing if they’re passionate and you’re bad, and passionate when you’re good, but when you’re ignored. And Mandy and I at one point, I said, ‘You want to go out for a drink?’ He said, ‘Yeah.’ And we were on 52nd, I think, that’s where the Broadway Theater is, and we walked down 8th Avenue, and simultaneously we burst into tears.
I mean, we worked hard in those parts, and then to be ignored, is tough. And then of course, nine months later they give us the Tonys.
Alec Baldwin: When you win the Tony, was it any vindication for you at all? Or was it just -
Patti LuPone: Oh, of course. Oh my God.
Alec Baldwin: It was. So you felt good. When you won, how did you feel?
Patti LuPone: Oh yes, such a relief. It was such a relief. Such a relief, because really, if you read my-
Alec Baldwin: Did it wipe everything away?
Patti LuPone: No, because I was still performing, and still scared out of my mind every night. I envied Mandy, because Mandy was just all over the place. He didn’t have a problem singing it, so he literally—he told me, he told me something the other day. We were talking about "Evita," and he said, ‘Well, Hal told me to go’ He wanted me over there, and I said to Hal, ‘How do I get there?’ He said, ‘I don’t know, just get there.’ And so, that’s where—he does a jete across the stage. And I went, I would see it every night, going, ‘Why is Mandy doing that?’ And it was because Hal told him to get there-
Alec Baldwin: Get over there. He didn’t care how.
Patti LuPone: -and he pointed. He didn’t care how, so Many put it in and it became part of his performance. And so, I suppose in that respect, Hal gives the actor freedom, but I didn’t have that freedom, because I was so tied up in a knot, because I didn’t think I could sing it.
Really, when you, in a rehearsal period—you know this. You have to do it over and over and over again. So you’re not hitting that D in "Screw the Middle Classes" once. You’re not hitting that G in "Screw the Middle Classes" once; you’re doing it over and over again. I didn’t have vocal technique to know that I didn’t have to hit those notes every day. I didn’t have vocal technique. I got it during the run by—from a kid in the chorus.
Alec Baldwin: Who?
Patti LuPone: David Vasberg. I came off stage in L.A.-
Alec Baldwin: He gave you tips.
Patti LuPone: They got him a piano, and put a piano in my dressing room. He worked with me an hour, every single day before the show. He would come to me and work, out of the goodness of his heart.
Alec Baldwin: David Vosburgh. Where is he now?
Patti LuPone: David Vosburgh. He’s in Ohio. He’s a Director of Opera, but he would give me a vocal technique. He would warm me up. And the difficult thing was to apply what he had just taught me that night, because I would do one thing right. Something else would go disastrously wrong. But at least I was getting a technique to sing that part. He saved my job, and they knew that, and they paid him.
Alec Baldwin: Now you say, when you talk about this, you talk about the tension, and the anxiety, and the fear, and you don’t really want to necessarily be doing "Evita," because you got another David play, and this and that. When did it start to become fun for you?
Patti LuPone: Oh, "Anything Goes" was a ball.
Alec Baldwin: Okay, so talk about that. Why?
Patti LuPone: Oh, because of the material, and because of the cast, and it was hysterical.
Alec Baldwin: Who directed you?
Patti LuPone: Jerry Zaks. And Jerry did a great job of directing.
Alec Baldwin: And he’s tough, demanding.
Patti LuPone: Yes he is, but however, these were the way musicals used to be written. You’d have a joke coming, and then a couple of gorgeous songs. The material was so ripe, and so beautiful. If I was in a bad mood, all I had to do was hear that ‘Ba, bum, bum, bum, bum, bum, baaaadaaaadaadaaa.’ And ‘Okay, I know where I am tonight.’
Alec Baldwin: Exactly.
Patti LuPone: Just looking at the audience and seeing tears of joy from laughter. The only thing we are as actors are messengers. That’s all we are. Correct? We are delivering the playwright’s intention through the concept of the director. And I come on stage, if I feel confident in the role, then I give it away. I give it away anyway, but it’s all about them, so I have to go out there and love them.
And I do, and I think they see that. They can relax with me, because they know I’m giving it to them. I’m not—there are some actors that don’t want to be on stage, and you know that.
Alec Baldwin: Well, it’s funny you say that, because you just nailed it. Because Patti LuPone, to me, is a woman who comes out there, and the first thing she does is she’s like you know, ‘How’s everybody going?’ Like a little moment, like a nightclub singer. Like ‘How you all doing tonight?’ Without saying ‘How you all doing tonight?’ Like just connect them, let them feel like, ‘There’s no place else we’d rather be, is there, than here right now?’
Patti LuPone: Well, I think our responsibility is to relax them. You’ve been in an audience. I’ve been in an audience where we’re worried for the performer, and then we’re not having the experience. They’re paying a lot of-
Alec Baldwin: And if I’m worried for the performer, and they should be worried for her, then I’m worried for me, because I want to get the F out of there. Yeah.
Patti LuPone: Hello. Our responsibility is the minute we hit the deck, is to relax the audience. And that is what is called command.
Alec Baldwin: How long did you do "Anything Goes?"
Patti LuPone: Fifteen months, I think, fifteen. Oh, I laughed my ass off in that show. We had such a ball.
Alec Baldwin: And the same thing is this idea that someone said to me, ‘Why do you like doing the theater?’ Even now, did you get it—a lot of actors do it for a period, and you get it out of your system. I said, ‘You know the one thing I’ve never gotten out of my system, is if the play is the right play’, I said, ‘I go to work at 6:00. I like to get to the theater early.’
Patti LuPone: Me too.
Alec Baldwin: ‘And kind of drain the day out of me’, and then I got out on stage and I said, ‘You know what I love?’ I said, ‘I know exactly what I’m going to say. I know exactly what the other guy’s gonna say, for the next two and half hours.’
Patti LuPone: [Laughter]
Alec Baldwin: ‘And I know how exactly how people are likely going to react.’ I said, ‘How often can you say that in your life, that you know exactly what’s going to happen?’ And it’s a good thing for the next 2 and ½ hours of your life. I never get tired of that.
Patti LuPone: No, and it’s magical. It’s magical. You said drain the day out. Drain the day out to have a magical night. Do you know what I mean? Really, to have an experience with a group of people. Do you know what I mean? Not just your fellow actors on the stage, but people that leave the theater going, ‘Oh my.’ I mean, I’ve done that. I’ve walked out of a production going, ‘Oh my. What street are we on?’ We’ve been transported. We’ve been taken away. We’ve drained the day out of our life. And we’ve experienced something that has changed us. That’s another thing I love about our profession, the arts. You can do that in the movies too.
Alec Baldwin: Now, as a woman, as an actress, who is known for a raft now of these heavy-duty powerful musical roles, was there another one that I’m missing between "Evita" and "Anything Goes?"
Patti LuPone: I did "Oliver-."
Alec Baldwin: In London.
Patti LuPone: No. "Oliver" here, "Les Mis" in London.
Alec Baldwin: Who were the leads in-?
Patti LuPone: "Oliver," Ron Moody, and Graeme Campbell, God rest his soul. Ron Moody was reprising his role as Fagin. Yeah, he was great.
Alec Baldwin: Beautiful song.
Patti LuPone: Gorgeous song. Gorgeous song.
Alec Baldwin: "As Long As He Needs Me." One of the most beautiful songs in all of the musical theater.
Patti LuPone: Oh, my god, yeah. He wrote a great score. And then I went to London and did "Les Mis."
Alec Baldwin: So "Les Mis" you did only in London. Why?
Patti LuPone: Yes. Well, and this—because I didn’t want to do it—well, it’s a reason that I have questioned my entire career. When I was at the Barbican rehearsing—the Barbican was, then, the Royal Shakespeare Company’s London home. It felt so much like being in the hallways of Juilliard. It was a maze, the rehearsal rooms. I just felt like I was at Juilliard, and Trevor actually said to me, ‘If anybody belongs in this production, or with the Royal Shakespeare Company, it’s you Patti’, because Michele Saint-Denis was an artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare company.
Michele Sundany was one of the cofounders, and an artist director of the Drama Division of the Juilliard School. So I came full circle. Two different countries, but I had come full circle in training.
Alec Baldwin: How were the notices for you when you did "Les Mis" in London?
Patti LuPone: I don’t even remember, but I won an Olivier award for Fantine. So I have no idea-
Alec Baldwin: But everybody that I know that saw you do it, said that you were breathtaking in that role. So there was no desire you had -
Patti LuPone: This is what happened. Two weeks after we opened at the Barbican, I came off stage in my barricade uniform, because I was in the barricade scene, and I went ‘I can’t do this in New York.’ It was an instinct. ‘I can’t do this in New York.’ And I went to the stage door to drop off a name to the stage door man, with Cameron Mackintosh, the producer, besides RSC.
He was standing there, and I said, ‘Cameron, I can’t do this in New York.’ I was the only American in the company. He said, ‘I know. The part’s too small.’ I said, ‘No. That’s not it.’ I said, ‘This is my company.’ I realized, when I came off the stage, is that I was in the perfect theatrical environment, in the perfect play with the perfect cast. And I didn’t want anything to touch that memory. And I made it -
Alec Baldwin: It would be different in New York.
Patti LuPone: Totally. It would be a reproduction of this production. And I didn’t think that I would be-
Alec Baldwin: Interesting.
Patti LuPone: I’ve never known whether I made the right decision or not, but-
Alec Baldwin: What did you do after that?
Patti LuPone: "LBJ." I came back to do "LBJ-"
Alec Baldwin: Now, talk about film in your life now. Because in and around all of your historic career in the theater, what is going on for you film-wise?
Patti LuPone: Nothing, and I wish it did.
Alec Baldwin: Not nothing. I mean what -
Patti LuPone: But minor, but I don’t why I don’t get cast, or I don’t why that—and now it’s probably too late, because I’m one of those women that are too old for Hollywood. Or maybe I’m coming into my film career now. I don’t know why it didn’t happen, but it didn’t.
I did "Driving Miss Daisy," and Alfred Uhry was responsible for my casting in that. I did-
Alec Baldwin: What’s the best experience you had making a film?
Patti LuPone: All of them, working, especially working with the Australian directors, Bruce Beresford and Peter Weir. I did -
Alec Baldwin: What did you do with them?
Patti LuPone: We did "Witness" with Peter Weir, and I did "Driving Miss Daisy" with Bruce Beresford.
Alec Baldwin: Did you ever work with Lumet?
Patti LuPone: Very little. I had a tiny, tiny little part in something, I can’t remember what it was, but I thought ‘Oh my god, I would have loved to have worked with him.’
Alec Baldwin: Who were the stars?
Patti LuPone: I don’t remember the whole experience. I was—literally, I had one tiny scene and I can’t remember if it was a movie or, I can’t remember.
Alec Baldwin: Television series?
Patti LuPone: Could have been a television series, but I can’t remember that.
Alec Baldwin: No, what about-?
Patti LuPone: Oh. "Life Goes On" for four years, and then you know guest spots here and there, but it’s odd that I haven’t had that opportunity.
Alec Baldwin: You probably did have that opportunity, but you passed on it. Correct?
Patti LuPone: No, I don’t think I got -
Alec Baldwin: Didn’t the chance to do a television series come your way?
Patti LuPone: No. It’s interesting. I’m a hard sell, Alec. I’ve been cut at the studio level on auditions in California, because they didn’t believe I was—I could do this or that. It’s like I’m a hard sell in California. I’m a hard sell in movies. I’m a hard sell in T.V. You know? I’m always a hard sell.
I could tell you a story right now, but I can’t. I’ve been asked to audition for a musical, and it’s 25 years since I’ve auditioned for a musical. When does it stop?
Coming up, Patti LuPone talks about the most painful loss of her career, her subsequent illness, and how she recovered from both. This is Alec Baldwin. You’re listening to Here’s The Thing from WNYC Radio.
Alec Baldwin: Here’s The Thing is supported by The Venture Card from Capital One. Cardholders get two miles per dollar spent on every purchase, every day. What’s in your wallet? More at www.capitaloneventure.com.
This is Alec Baldwin and you’re listening to Here’s The Thing. Patti LuPone originated the role of Norma Desmond in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s "Sunset Boulevard" in London. She was set to move with the show to Broadway, until she found out she was being replaced by Glenn Close. To say she was devastated is an understatement.
Patti LuPone: You know, there’s always going to be some kind of stuff going on in a musical. That’s just the nature of a musical, but it was a great company. We had a great time. It was the exterior information that was coming to me that was very painful. I mean, clearly when I didn’t get the reviews Andrew wanted me to get, I was on the chopping block. But I didn’t find that out until after Glenn Close opened in New York, and Vincent Canby gave her this review against my bad review. It means I’m getting standing ovations in London, and there’s nothing about me in the press in London, because I show up every night. I’m turning in my performance -
Alec Baldwin: It’s working.
Patti LuPone: Yeah, but Andrew wanted something else, and the way they got me out was—the way they were going to get me out was to have me quit, because of the barrage of negative publicity. And my agents and the lawyer said ‘Stay on stage.’ And I don’t know if it was worth it, because it was really painful information.
Alec Baldwin: And you did.
Patti LuPone: A month before I closed, I got a telephone call from my agent. I’m in the dressing room getting ready for the shower. My agent called, and said, ‘Are you sitting down?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ He said, ‘You’ve been fired. Glenn Close is replacing you in New York.’ And I went—and I got up and had batting practice in my dressing room with a floor lamp, and left. They could hear me crying and screaming. And the company came up, and the company manager, and I said, ‘I’ve been fired.’ I said, ‘I’m leaving. I’m going. Bye. I can’t take this anymore.’
And people said, ‘What would you do if you saw Andrew again?’ I said, ‘It’s not what I would do. It’s what my husband would do.’ Because whatever I had to absorb, I then took out on my husband when I came home. And that was like, I went into therapy, I was on Prozac. It was a long healing process, because I had to absorb it, and there was no place I could release it, because I had to perform every night. But that company was extraordinary and we had a great time. We had a great time.
Alec Baldwin: So after that, you do "Sweeney."
Patti LuPone: Then the next musical I do is "Sweeney."
Alec Baldwin: With?
Patti LuPone: John—well, then it’s 2000. This is interesting. I come home beat up emotionally and also physically. I find out through a routine eye examination that I am in the middle of detached retinas in both eyes. There’s like 400 shots of laser in one eye, 250 in the other eye. Kevin Anderson gets into a life-threatening motorcycle accident, and Bob Avian, the choreographer, comes down with a really, really, severe case of I don’t know if it was shingles or something. So three of us are manifesting illness at the end of this experience, which was so bad.
So I take time to heal. And I do a movie. I do bits and pieces. But the next big thing that comes, comes on the heels of breast cancer. They said, ‘Do you want to play Nellie Lovett in "Sweeney Todd," with a New York Phil, Bryn Terfel playing Sweeney?’ I went, first thing I said to Steve, ‘No.’ Because I’ve never been cast in a Sondheim musical. They said, ‘Yes. He gives us approval.’ I said, ‘Of course I’d do’, but this is a year earlier. Within that year, I find out that I have breast cancer, and what happens is I deal with it. There’s nothing else I can do, but deal with it, and go through radiation. And on my last day of radiation start rehearsal for "Sweeney Todd" and the New York Phil.
Alec Baldwin: Jesus. One for the Phil.
Patti LuPone: Yes. The quintessential New York moment. The New York Philharmonic on a New York stage in a New Yorker’s production, and that was an unbelievable experience.
Alec Baldwin: Now, let’s talk about Mamet’s last play. So here your last venture in New York is you with your old buddy. So he calls you. He’s got the play and he calls you.
Patti LuPone: I called him.
Alec Baldwin: You did?
Patti LuPone: I saw November, and I saw, after the play I saw his wife Rebecca Pigeon. I said, ‘Rebecca, I’m hitting David up for a play. It’s too long. It’s too long that we’ve worked together.’ And I wrote him a letter, and I said, ‘I don’t want our relationship to end with The Old Neighborhood.’ I said, ‘Let’s do something.’ And then he called me and he said, ‘Do you know who Kathy Boudin is?’ And I did but I didn’t. And then he started to tell me about he was thinking about writing a play about The Weathermen, or the anarchist.
And I went, ‘Oh cool.’ Then I found out—this was last year, and then I found out that the play was being done in London, and I went, ‘No. No. No, man.’ I said, ‘I have to play this part.’ And I wrote to him, and said, ‘Is the part that we were talking about?’ I said, ‘They don’t want me in London, because they don’t want me in London. But can I do it in New York?’ And he called me and said, ‘Screw London. Let’s do it now.’ So that’s how that happened. I knew it was a risk, but I always take a risk with David. And I will-
Alec Baldwin: Had you been directed by David before?
Patti LuPone: Mm-hmm. A lot. More often than not.
Alec Baldwin: So you were comfortable with him in both aspects.
Patti LuPone: Very, very.
Alec Baldwin: And we talked about—because I came and saw you that last performance, and we talked about how the financing and the financiers themselves, have changed a lot, which is if they don’t get those results very, very quickly, they jump. They put the parachute on and they jump.
Patti LuPone: That’s right. This was a risky play, and you know what? Broadway should be what Broadway is supposed to be, which is a vehicle for every idea. And I also am frustrated with the producers that have made gobs of money. They should have a levy taxed, a tax levied against them. They should open a black box theater. They should support all the new playwrights, and composers. There should be a great deal of support. Art is the soul of a nation, and our art is not being supported -
Alec Baldwin: Being fed.
Patti LuPone: Or developed. Yes. And it’s very, very, very depressing. It’s very depressing. If I go back on the stage in New York, I’m gonna find out who the producers are and who their partners are. And I’m gonna sit down and talk to them and I’m gonna find out what their marketing campaign is. What their marketing, you know.
Alec Baldwin: You need some answers going in.
Patti LuPone: Yes. Definitely. And I wanna pay and play, which you don’t have pay or play on Broadway, you don’t have that. But I, they don’t think we take the risk with them. We most certainly do, actors do.
Alec Baldwin: Well we book out. The pay or play concept is in films is important because we book out. And sometimes you’ve got to take a deep breath and go, ‘Maybe I shouldn’t care so much.’
Patti LuPone: I don’t know whether that’s true, Alec.
Alec Baldwin: It’s tough not to.
Patti LuPone: It would reflect in your performance. Do you know what I mean? I think that you can see when people care and when—and audiences can see when they don’t care.
Alec Baldwin: Because you seem like someone in the years I’ve bumped into you, run into you, known you, known you better, you seem to care the exact same amount as you used to.
Patti LuPone: I love what I do, and I love the audience, and I love the fact that I get to do it, and I love, I love our craft very, very, much, and it’s a noble craft. We have a responsibility to it, and to the audience, and to the playwright, and to the message. I won’t ever care less.
Alec Baldwin: Next month, Patti LuPone will go on a national tour with her concert entitled Faraway Places. This is "Hymn to Love" from the CD of the same name. Her book, "Patti LuPone: A Memoir," is now available both in hardcover, and as an e-book.
Alec Baldwin: So the last thing I want to say to you is a comment, and a question embedded in a comment, and that is—and I want to say this as carefully as I can because I don’t want to get myself in trouble here on public radio.
Watching you perform, Patti, sometimes it’s like having sex with you.
Patti LuPone: What a compliment. Oh Alec.
Alec Baldwin: It’s like a sexual experience. It’s like sex. When you do what you do, it’s like—and when you’re done, I almost get this feeling like you’re looking at me personally, looking at me going, ‘You really enjoyed that, didn’t you? That was good for you, wasn’t it?’
Patti LuPone: Sweetheart.
Alec Baldwin: Do you realize—my question to you is do you realize the effect that you have on people? Do you know? When you come out there, can you feel how much they’re digging what you do? You must be able to feel it.
Patti LuPone: I don’t know if—I don’t go out there going, ‘They’re going to dig me.’ I go out there and I do know that the people that have come to see me, know that I have them in mind, and that I already have them on my side. They know that I’m doing it for them. It could be a persona. It could be a body language thing. But they know that I know they’re there, and the difference is when actors don’t acknowledge the audience, the audience can’t come. When an actor acknowledges the audience, then you can have a moment of ecstasy.
Radio Announcer: This is Alec Baldwin. Here’s The Thing comes from WNYC Radio.