She won the Tony Award for Andrew Lloyd Webber's Evita, the Olivier for her work in both Marc Blitzstein's The Cradle Will Rock and Boublil and Schönberg's Les Misérables and some of the best reviews of her career for the Tony-winning revival of Cole Porter's Anything Goes, but it is Stephen Sondheim who has provided Patti LuPone with five seasons' worth of challenging roles — at Chicago's Ravinia Festival — leading to what may be the pinnacle of her theatrical career in the current, astounding revival of Sweeney Todd.
"The difficulty [of Stephen's work] is the challenge — the music and the lyrics," LuPone recently told me by phone, as she was making her way from her home in Connecticut to her new home-away-from-home, the Eugene O'Neill Theatre. "There's a very deep emotional well in the characters — there's truth and laughter and pain. Technically, it's the complexity, and emotionally, it's where you can go with those parts."
Those parts have included Desirée Armfeldt in A Little Night Music, Fosca in Passion, Yvonne in Sunday in the Park with George, Cora Hoover Hooper in Anyone Can Whistle, and — the role that began it all — Mrs. Nellie Lovett in Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler's Sweeney Todd. LuPone first assumed the guise of the pie-maker extraordinaire — opposite the Sweeney of George Hearn — for a weekend of Sweeney concerts in May 2000. And, anyone who thought LuPone was wonderful in those Lincoln Center evenings — thrillingly belting out the Sondheim score while offering a comical, sinister, yet touching portrayal of the ill-fated Lovett — will be astonished by the completely different interpretation that she is currently offering on Broadway. I've witnessed several Lovetts in various Sweeney productions throughout the years, but LuPone is the first to completely shatter the mold created by Tony winner Angela Lansbury, providing an equally viable Lovett worlds apart from the one audiences have become accustomed to ever since Sondheim's masterpiece debuted in 1979. LuPone's current Lovett is not only comical, sinister and touching, but she is also sexy, saucy, and a tuba-toting ensemble player.
"I think I'm happiest in an ensemble," LuPone admits. "I've always thought the entire picture was far more interesting than an individual in a spotlight with figures upstage in the darkness. I think there was a question as to whether I would be able to accept being in an ensemble, and I always harken back to, 'Obviously, they have forgotten where I trained.' That was my training — ensemble training. When I talked to [Sweeney director] John Doyle — they flew him out to Portland, Oregon, when I was doing Matters of the Heart — [and] I think he heard that. He heard 'repertory company' and 'tuba,'" she adds with her trademark, infectious laugh. "He heard those two things. I told him I [spent] four years with Juilliard and four years with the Acting Company [with] the same group of actors." In fact, LuPone credits Doyle — the British director whose idea it was to mount Sweeney as though it were the delusions of an inmate in a psychiatric asylum with his fellow inmates playing all the characters (and all the instruments) — alone with the show's success and the thrilling performances that are currently being delivered eight times a week on the O'Neill stage. "Truly, the difference between shows gelling and shows lasting and shows actually deepening and doing what they're supposed to do over a long run and shows not doing that is the director. It's all up to the director, and John said some unbelievable things to this ensemble. Two weeks into the rehearsal, I looked at Michael [Cerveris], and I said, 'It's worth it to move to Newbury, [England], just to work with him.' And he said, 'Don't think I haven't thought it.' None of us knows what will happen after this, after we leave this experience. . . . You also look at the kids who are making their Broadway debuts — they are starting at the absolute pinnacle."
The award-winning actress also has nothing but praise for co-star Cerveris, who has appeared with her in several of the Ravinia Festival Sondheim productions, including an acclaimed staging of Passion, which was subsequently mounted in New York and telecast live on PBS' "Great Performances" series. "Working with Michael," LuPone says, "is the easiest that an actor could hope for. For some reason we connect, and I can't tell you why. There is a safety net, and there's no safety net. There's danger on that stage, and there's also, 'Do what you want — I'm right there in it and for you.' Audra [McDonald], Michael and I formed a little triumvirate at the Ravinia Festival, and possibly those fast, intense concert versions — where you're putting on a musical in ten days — created a bond [and] the ability to communicate faster. I feel the same way about Audra, [but] the difference is Michael's a guy. There the male-female thing. But I would do the same thing for Audra, but Michael is my leading man, [and] Audra's my sister. Michael was her leading man, too, but I don't know whether she thinks of him as her ultimate leading man, but I do think of Michael as my ultimate leading man."
One of the many pleasures of this not-to-be-missed Sweeney is the chance to watch LuPone play a series of instruments, including the much written-about tuba, which provides a great visual gag. When asked how it was decided which instruments she would play, LuPone answers, "I told them that I played the tuba, and then they asked if I would do percussion, and I said, 'Sure, whatever you want.' I never say no, you know me! I was in the music department in the Northport Elementary, Junior High and High School — in all of the choruses and in the orchestra. When I got to the high school, the high school band used to go to these band camps in the summertime for two weeks to learn marching routines. And it was very sexy. And I thought, 'Hmmm, how do I get in here?' I have to play an instrument, and then I thought, 'What's the most ridiculous instrument I could play?' And it was a tuba. . . We'd march all day long, and then things would happen at night. It was a lot of fun!" LuPone reconnected with the tuba this past summer, studying with a teacher in Connecticut, and now eight times a week she joins her nine fellow cast members to create an entire onstage orchestra. "It's [an] incredible [sound on the stage]. I really listen every night. I let the show take me away, and it's unbelievable. I'm in heaven. I'm so happy."
Although LuPone is onstage for the entire production, she finds the role less draining than those with plenty of backstage time. "I think when you go offstage," she says, "and wait and then come back on, you expel a whole lot more energy than being onstage and being occupied the entire time. This exhilarates me. I am not tired by this at all. We're [also] in a smallish house, [and the director] doesn't want us to bang it out there. He wants it intimate — an intimate interaction with the audience and each other. . . . So, being occupied and onstage the entire time and following the story is much easier than making an exit and having to gear up to have to come back onstage."
This summer, LuPone will have a go at her sixth Sondheim — albeit one with music by Jule Styne — when she finally gets the chance to portray that stage mother of all stage mothers, Mama Rose in the Ravinia Festival's mounting of Gypsy. "I am excited [about playing Rose]," LuPone relates, adding, "I hope that they employ a lot of good Chicago actors as well. I wouldn't trade Audra and Michael for anybody in the world. I love playing opposite them. But, for instance, for Louise, I hope they employ a Chicago actress, and for Tulsa. I hope they get some really fine Chicago actors in there because we've worked with lots of fine Chicago actors in the Ravinia Festival, but they deserve the leads [in this upcoming production]."
But, for now, LuPone is more than content delivering what may be the greatest performance of her stellar, musical theatre career in this gritty, spellbinding and often riotously funny production of Sweeney Todd. "What a way to come back to the Broadway musical stage," LuPone concludes. "Lucky, lucky me. Steve [Sondheim] sits in my dressing room. He rewrote lyrics, and I feel like I'm in an original show. . . . What I have said forever is that audiences are desperate for an emotional connection. They don't pay that kind of money to walk into a theatre and not have an experience. And they have been robbed of that experience by the overproduction of our shows. And John has stripped this down so that the actors are telling the story and the audience can hear it. . . . There's a real camaraderie [among the cast], and I am thrilled to death. I am telling you, this is a great group of people and an incredibly talented group of people."
[Sweeney Todd plays the Eugene O'Neill Theatre, 302 West 45th Street. Call (212) 239-6200 for tickets.]
Alice Ripley will star in two free readings of three musicals by Side Show's Bill Russell and Adrift in Macao's Peter Melnick on Dec. 5 and 12 at the Rubicon Theatre Company in Ventura, CA. The 7 PM evenings will feature excerpts from Patter for the Floating Lady, A Bad Spell and The Last Smoker in America. Sheryl Kaller will direct a cast that also includes David McDonald, Julie Dixon Jackson and Nick Cearley. The Rubicon Theatre Company is located at 1006 E. Main Street in Ventura, CA. For reservations for the free event, call (805) 667-2900. Ann Harada, who plays Christmas Eve in Avenue Q, is currently taking a leave of absence from that Tony-winning musical to shoot a featured role in "Feel," an independent film written and directed by Matt Mahurin. During her absence from Q, her role is being played by Sala Iwamatsu. Harada will return to the Golden Theatre Dec. 24. "I will be back in Q just time in time for Stephanie [D'Abruzzo]'s last show on — of course — Christmas Eve," Harada told me earlier this week. "I couldn't not do that show, and the shooting schedule cooperated!" Harada will make her own exit from the award-winning musical in 2006. Her final performance as Q's wisecracking therapist is set for Feb. 26.
This past summer's concert production of South Pacific — starring Reba McEntire as Nellie Forbush and Brian Stokes Mitchell as Emile de Becque — will be broadcast on PBS stations around the country in April 2006. The "Great Performances" production is set to debut in the New York City metropolitan area on WNET/Thirteen on April 26, 2006. The one-night-only presentation of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical at Carnegie Hall also boasted Lillias White as Bloody Mary, Jason Danieley as Lt. Cable, Dylan Baker as Commander William Harbison, Conrad John Schuck as Captain Brackett, Alexander Gemignani as Stewpot, Tom Deckman as the Professor, Alec Baldwin as Luther Billis, Alexio Barboza as Jerome, Alex de Castro as Ngana and Renita Croney as Liat. For more information visit www.thirteen.org or www.pbs.org.
And, finally, there are still a few tickets left to what promises to be an exciting night, the Dec. 5 Secret Garden all-star concert, which will benefit The Joey DePaolo AIDS Foundation and Camp TLC. The 7 PM evening at Manhattan Center Studios Grand Ballroom (311 W. 34th Street) boasts a cast that includes Michael Arden as Dickon, Laura Benanti as Lily, Celia Keenan-Bolger as Martha, David Canary as Ben, Sara Gettelfinger as Rose, Max von Essen as Albert, Steven Pasquale as Archibald Craven, Will Chase as Dr. Neville Craven, Jenny Powers as Claire, Deborah S. Craig as Alice, Matt Cavenaugh as Lieutenant Shaw, Ben Magnuson as Major Holmes, Shonn Wiley as Lieutenant Wright, Barbara Rosenblat as Mrs. Medlock, Reshma Shetty as the Ayah, Nehal Joshi as the Fakir, Struan Erlenborn as Colin Craven and Jaclyn Neidenthal as Mary Lennox. Tickets, scaled from $50 $150, are available by calling TicketCentral.com at (212) 279-4200.
Well, that's all for now. Happy diva-watching! E-mail questions or comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.