Patti LuPone on the Verge of Another Opening

  • Share
  • Read Later
Walter McBride / Retna / Corbis

Patti LuPone performing at Avery Fisher Hall in New York City

She played Eva Perón in Evita, Reno Sweeney in Anything Goes, Rose in Gypsy, Mrs. Lovett — and the tuba — in Sweeney Todd. One of the first alums of Juilliard's drama division, she's performed on stages across the U.S. and around the world. Now Patti LuPone, who just released her eponymous memoir, is back on Broadway for Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, a new musical based on Pedro Almodóvar's 1988 movie of the same title. Previews begin Oct. 8, and if the show is anything like her earlier experiences, it'll make an entertaining next chapter in her memoirs.

How are rehearsals for Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown going?
It's a really great experience thus far — knock on wood. Looks like it's going to be something that people have never seen before. The music's great, the script is funny and moving. We're doing our best right now! Technical [rehearsals] are hard.

Having won Tonys for Evita and as Mama Rose in Gypsy, did you find the roles equally challenging?
Yes — in different ways, though. Evita was very, very difficult to sing. I was 30, had no technique, and nobody was there to help me through it. The vocal production of that score was incredibly difficult. And for Gypsy, the physical energy I needed. Both of them were incredibly difficult roles for different reasons. You just have to figure out how to do it. I've never been one to sort of cave.

Was either show more rewarding than the other?
I think Gypsy was more rewarding. I guess because audiences knew me and appreciated the ability. When I was a kid, audiences really didn't know me. My applause used to dip after Mandy [Patinkin]'s. It was depressing. Every night you'd go out there, and your applause dips, and you can hear it dip.

Several times in your memoir, you mention the importance of coming to a character on your own rather than imitating someone else's performance. How do you make your mark on a role when you're not originating it?
The only thing I've ever done in that respect is read the script. For instance, I didn't see a scattered Mrs. Lovett [in Sweeney Todd]. And I saw Angela [Lansbury], and that performance blew me away. But when I read it, I didn't see that. I didn't see Ethel Merman do Reno Sweeney [in Anything Goes], and I didn't see Ethel Merman play Madame Rose. You just come to it fresh, read the script, and the individual's imagination takes over. It's not intentional that I don't play them like they have been played. It's just that I'm a different person.

I was surprised to read at one point that you didn't particularly like the music in Evita. What's it like singing a song you don't like?
Eventually I liked it. While I was learning it, I started to understand how the music applied to the plot and the script, and it made sense. But on first hearing, it was so alien to me. There were no musicals written like that.

Your experience with Sunset Blvd. provided fodder for two chapters — everything from being the first to play the musical's Norma Desmond, in London, and then finding out you're fired ... Is there anyone you dislike more than Andrew Lloyd Webber?
No. And it's not even that I dislike Andrew — how do I say this? There's just some people in your life that you'd rather never have in your life. So he's one of them. There've been actors that I've worked with that I've never wanted to work with again, but they don't take up that much space. Andrew takes up a lot of space, because it was a long experience, and it was a long recovery. [Sunset Blvd.] was a great experience until it was a terrible experience. Everybody worked so hard to put the musical on, in the name of and for Andrew Lloyd Webber. And he was ungrateful.

You don't shy away from sharing some of your angrier moments, including laying waste to a dressing room. That actually happened?
Yeah. Well, when people are hinting at your firing for months and months, and then it happens, what are you going to do? I mean, I'm a Sicilian. I went into a — it was devastating, because I didn't find out from anybody. I found out from America, from Liz Smith's column, my agent. What would you do? Go on? Would you say, O.K., I have to go on tonight? I was in my dressing room getting ready to go on. I just picked up the floor lamp and started wrecking everything in the outer room.

Ghosts make a few appearances in your memoir, and in one chapter you recall making the renowned Arthur Laurents go through quite the routine to counteract the bad luck he'd brought about because he'd mentioned the Scottish play [Macbeth] . Why do you think theater folk are so superstitious?
I have no idea. I do know there's ghosts in theaters, and nobody's denied it. Agents don't deny it. Nobody denies it, you know, going, "You're crazy." Part of the lore, part of the lore.

It wouldn't be the same without it, right?
No! It'd just be a boring office. It's not an office place. It's a place we gravitated to because we've got vivid imaginations. All of us, including stagehands.

You spent four years on the series Life Goes On. Do you have any desire to do TV again?
Oh yeah, I'd love to. I'd love to do situation comedy — it's the best job in show business.

Do you have any advice for aspiring actors?
To study, to really understand what it is they're responsible for as an actor, and develop their body and develop their brain and develop their voice and speech, and develop their mental capacities. It's not easy being an actor, and having said that, everybody's an actor. Do you know what I mean? Paris Hilton's an actor, which is kind of scary. But if you want to honor your craft and yourself, strive for the nobler instincts.