Mother. Wife. Actress. Singer. Chicken farmer. Who else could this describe but the Olivier and Tony Award-winning burst of energy Patti LuPone? It's been 16 years since I first took notice of that "Evita" gal as a sixth-grader in Ocean Township, New Jersey. I can still remember hearing that voice for the first time: a soaring instrument that can induce chills, tears and ultimately amazement in its listeners.
Since then I've been fortunate to witness her string of wonderful performances: the broken dreams of "Les Miz's" Fantine; the sassy spunk of "Anything Goes's" Reno Sweeney; the first-ever musical Norma Desmond--a vulnerably crazed and ultimately heartbreaking performance in the world-premiere production of "Sunset Boulevard" in London; and a comical turn as the over-sexed Vera Simpson opposite Peter Gallagher's "Pal Joey."
Recently over breakfast at the Westside Diner, a humorous yet thoughtful LuPone spoke to Playbill just as she was preparing to begin rehearsals for her "Patti LuPone on Broadway," which began a six-week engagement October 5 at the Walter Kerr Theatre.
Prior to LuPone's departure for London two years ago, "Patti LuPone: Live"--the sold-out concerts that enchanted audiences at Los Angeles's Westwood Playhouse--first came to life. It was during her final year as Libby Thatcher on ABC's "Life Goes On" that the actress discovered how much she missed live performance and hooked up with director Scott Wittman, whom she credits with the form and the fluidity of the concert.
"Every day that I had free time on `Life Goes On' we'd listen to music," she said. "And he saw the shape of the show by the music that I was emotionally responding to. Then, he threw in other music, and that initially made up the first act," an eclectic mixture that includes songs from composers Kurt Weill, Irving Berlin, Stephen Sondheim, Cole Porter and others. The second half of the program is an overview of LuPone's musical theatre history: the songs her fans have come to expect--show-stoppers like "Don't Cry for Me Argentina" and "I Dreamed a Dream." To keep her interpretations fresh, LuPone explains that she works the same way she does in a theatrical part, an answer that incorporates her view of an actor's role: "I think if you work correctly as an actor, when you get to any given moment in a story, it's the first time it's happening to you; and in a play, it's generally the first time it's happening to the audience. And the actor's job is simply to impart, to deliver the message."
Although she loves to perform--"I do this because of the joy I get, and [the L.A. concerts] were a joyful experience for all of us, the seven musicians onstage, the four guys that I sing with"--LuPone speaks candidly about her dislike of the business side of show biz but adds that "living where I live, with my husband and my son and the chickens, helps to keep everything sort of in proportion . . . I think about my son, and if anything happened to him I would simply die. I can't think of anything happening in show business that would create that sort of agony."
It was during her run in the acclaimed revival of "Anything Goes" that LuPone married cameraman Matt Johnston onstage at the Vivian Beaumont Theater. She credits her husband, a "remarkable man," with keeping things in balance during the difficult period after she was denied the chance to re-create her Olivier-nominated performance in "Sunset Boulevard" on Broadway. "[Matt] is the ballast of our life and family," she points out while also adding with a laugh, "I thought I could get beyond the whole ordeal except my son tortures me every day humming [the 'Sunset' tune] `The Lady's Paying'!"
LuPone's first New York engagement after "Sunset" was last spring's City Center Encores! production of "Pal Joey." For anyone who witnessed those performances, it was evident that a much-loved star had returned home, and, fittingly, one of Broadway's leading ladies was greeted with a lengthy and moving ovation. Asked about the wave of love that poured out from the audience to her, LuPone admits, "It was hard not to cry. After all I've been through, it was extremely healing. And then to be able to play that role in that environment in that house of love . . . Everybody in it was an inspiration." And, now, she is ready to tackle her latest role: Patti LuPone, live and in concert.
LuPone began singing in clubs during her time in "Evita" and says that "I found I performed better as 'Evita' when I discovered how to perform live as myself. There's no mask." Given LuPone's many successes, it is surprising to learn that she has, at times, questioned her technique as a singer--although she now relates, "I think I'm singing better because I'm understanding how to sing. I'm finally figuring out how to do it right. For me, singing is the hardest thing I do. It's the most natural thing I do and technically the most difficult thing for me to comprehend."
So, what would the talented LuPone want people to think when they hear her name? She thinks, smiles, then jokes: "[That] she knew a lot about nothing and a little bit about chickens! I have a flock of six: Foghorn/Leghorn, Marilyn, Rita, Eartha, Skidmore and Fanny. I have me some fab girls." Broadway's got itself one fab girl, too.