Photograph courtesy pattilupone.net
Gotta sing, gotta dance, gotta act! From Evita to Fantine, Norma Desmond to Mrs, Lovett, Patti LuPone has inhabited some of theater's most recognizable characters. Now the Queen of Broadway is making her L.A. Opera debut in Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny. Just don't ask about those high notes
I have been a Patti LuPone fan since I was 16 and popped an Evita cassette into the stereo. I'd never heard a voice as huge and enveloping; she was a soprano, a mezzo, and a belter all in one. Her singing could be as soothing as a bubble bath or as explosive as cannon fire. I saw LuPone on Broadway in revivals of Anything Goes and Sweeney Todd. I saw her in London in Sunset Boulevard. I went to her cabaret shows and attended her every Hollywood Bowl concert. I hung a signed Evita poster in my office. While Broadway stars were shrinking behind cat whiskers, phantom masks, and Disney puppets, Patti LuPone was larger than life. The stage, no matter its size, was her natural habitat, and she dominated it with an intensity and dynamism I've never seen equaled. A few years ago, well into my final week of pregnancy, I saw LuPone at the Cinegrill. After the show I decided to introduce myself. She was gracious and funny—not a diva. "You're having a boy!" LuPone blared out in that big, brassy voice as I approached. I didn't know what I was having—turns out she was right—but I called my husband on the way home to report our exchange like a giddy schoolgirl whose favorite teacher just told her she liked her sweater.
"Did you name him Patti?" LuPone asks when I recount the story. She snaps her head back, sending her brown shag flying, and launches into the "Ha! Ha! Ha!" that punctuates so many of her sentences. "Here's to your kid," she says, raising a glass of chardonnay. We are having dinner in La Jolla at a new three-level restaurant called Jack's. LuPone has flown in from Connecticut, where she lives in a log cabin on ten acres with her husband and their 16-year-old son, to perform at a benefit for the La Jolla Playhouse. We are here to discuss Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht's Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, which opens at the L.A. Opera on February 10. (The show runs through March 4.) She hasn't appeared in a full-scale production in Los Angeles since Evita premiered here in 1979. In Mahagonny, LuPone plays Leocadia Begbick, whom she describes as "the mayor of a philistine city ruined by alcohol and money." She will be costarring with the soprano Audra McDonald, whom LuPone calls a "goddess." The opera will be directed by John Doyle, who last season oversaw the brilliant restaging of Sweeney Todd in which LuPone starred as the demonic baker Mrs. Lovett. That production's success reignited her career.
Mahagonny, she says, is intimidating. She just began singing opera two years ago, and before dinner she was text messaging McDonald about the show's uncomfortable keys. "It's sung on the edge of the highest part of my voice," says LuPone. "It just sits on Fs and Gs, and you can't belt opera. I'm scared to death. These opera people come with the score learned. They have it down, man."
Fifty-seven years old, LuPone stands just over five feet and has deep brown eyes, a protruding "Italian nose," as she puts it, and an expressive mouth that seems controlled by an invisible fishhook. Her smile sometimes reads as a smirk, sometimes a sneer; it is equal parts disarming and mischievous. Evita opened on Broadway to scathing reviews, but the audience still showed up, and what drew them from their Manhattan co-op or Tenafly colonial was LuPone's oomph. In a 30-second commercial for the show that anyone living in New York at the time remembers well, LuPone stared into the camera with crazed eyes, broke into that sneer, and dared the viewers to come experience "just a little touch of star quali-tyyyyyyy!" She played to packed houses for the better part of two years.
Before Evita, LuPone was not known primarily as a singer. She had toured the country with the Acting Company, which she cofounded with fellow graduates from Juilliard's drama division, including her then boyfriend, Kevin Kline. It was Kline who pushed her to audition for Evita. "I didn't like the music," she says. "I heard the concept album, and the first thing I said was 'Andrew Lloyd Webber hates women.' It was just too high." She ended up winning the Tony for Evita and went on to originate Fantine in Les Miserables and Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard in London; she did not follow either show to its New York opening, though. That was her choice for Les Mis and famously not so for Sunset, when Lloyd Webber dropped her in favor of Glenn Close. She has appeared on Broadway in such productions as Anything Goes, Master Class, and Noises Off, but she hasn't originated another musical role there since Evita.
LuPone was poised to become the next Ethel Merman, but her timing was off. "You had Cole Porter writing for Ethel—that doesn't exist anymore," she says. "Somewhere along the line the desire to inform, educate, and transcend an audience got squelched in exchange for the ability to make money." Of the current spate of Broadway shows, which are marketed with T-shirts and interchangeable leads, she says, "They don't even entertain, they just deaden the soul and burst an eardrum." That is why she is "totally flipped out" about Mahagonny. "This is the cresting of my career. I'm on the verge of the other side, and I'm suddenly getting all of these interesting offers."
A host interrupts our conversation and asks how we like the food. "It stinks," LuPone jokes. "Good, good, excellent," he says. "I said it stinks and you didn't even hear me," she tells him. He apologizes. "You have a quiet voice," he tells the woman who played Eva Peron.
LuPone has acted in films and on television—playing Harrison Ford's sister in Witness, Adrien Brody's mother in Summer of Sam, Lady Bird Johnson in the miniseries LBJ: The Early Years. She spoofed herself in an episode of Will & Grace in which the Broadway-obsessed character Jack covets a tuft of her hair to complete his "diva wig" (he's already clipped Bernadette Peters and Betty Buckley). She spent four years as the mom of a son with Down's syndrome on Life Goes On. "At first I went, 'Wheee! Money!'" she says of landing a part in the series. "But the hour-long television show has got to be the worst job in show business. You have no life." Except for Evita's brief run here, it was the only time LuPone lived in Los Angeles. "I love California, it's so beautiful. I don't know why I didn't end up here. Wait, I know why—look at me," she says. She is wearing no makeup and is dressed in jeans and a pale blue Indian smock; fighting a cold, she is wrapped in a bulky jacket made of colorful strips of fabric. "I am grit. I am from the streets of New York. I am not from sun-kissed California. Everyone is so blond and so tall and so skinny. I just walk around thinking, 'Fucking hell, I'm going on a diet now. Yesterday.'"
At this, a parade of blond, tall, skinny women in tight jeans and stilettos floods the restaurant. "Who are these people?" LuPone asks. "The bar is too high here. I am not kidding. You've got to have your head in a boob vibe to survive out here." She came to L.A. for pilot season a couple of years ago. "You get to the audition and see these children running the meeting. It was like, 'Wait a minute, I don't have to prove this to you anymore.' I said, 'Never again.' It doesn't mean I don't want a TV show, but I can't come out here and beg for one. I thought I'd be farther along than I am now. Everybody that starts out has to have an inflated outlook in order to survive the rejection and the difficult moments. It's a hard-assed business."
LuPone squints through her glasses. "Wait, I've got to know if that's a girl or a guy," she says. She assesses two taut and tan women who look like tennis pros at the table behind us as transsexuals. "Holy fucking shit!" LuPone says. "Maybe they're all transsexuals. My eyes are going like this," she says, grabbing her glasses and zooming them in and out on the trannies. "I'm not even listening to you anymore," she says, before belting out another "Ha! Ha! Ha!"