“One of the major benchmarks in my career was the first time I performed with the New York Philharmonic. I was doing my first Sondheim role, in Sweeney Todd—with the New York Philharmonic, a world-respected orchestra. It was a phenomenal moment in my life and in my career.”
It’s Patti LuPone on the phone from London, where she was starring in a wildly successful—and boldly innovative—production of the Stephen Sondheim–George Furth musical Company as a glamorous, no-nonsense Joanne, for which she earned an Olivier Award. She’s no stranger to the role: in the New York Philharmonic’s 2011 Spring Gala production of Company, her rendition of “The Ladies Who Lunch” practically seared the gilt off the walls of David Geffen Hall. LuPone was having a wonderful time in London (Company’s limited run ended March 30), but she was most excited to talk about performing with the Philharmonic again, this time as the star of the 2019 Spring Gala on May 16. The evening is built around not only her legendary theatre career, but also around her enduring relationship with the Philharmonic.
“I’ll be singing pretty much all of the show tunes I’ve ever sung, plus some new stuff,” she says of the Gala concert. So it’s safe to expect “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina,” a song LuPone has been identified with since winning a Tony Award for Evita in 1980—and with which she stopped the show at the 2018 Grammy Awards. LuPone has quite the show-tune portfolio to choose from: she’s given indelible performances in hit productions of Anything Goes, Les Misérables, Sunset Boulevard, and Gypsy (Tony No. 2), and she continues to experiment with new musicals like the recent War Paint. She has an affinity for Kurt Weill, and she discovers unexplored depths in the Great American Songbook. LuPone has some surprises in store for her upcoming Philharmonic appearance, an evening conducted by Patrick Vaccariello, directed by Scott Wittman and written by Jeffrey Richman, for which she’s invited Michael McElroy and the Broadway Inspirational Voices as well as downtown cabaret diva Bridget Everett to join her as special guests.
Several career high points have happened with the New York Philharmonic, starting with Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd in 2000. “I turned around, and I looked at that orchestra and thought, ‘How did I get here?’ ” she recalls. “I really hold musicians of that caliber in extremely high esteem. I started to think, do I really deserve to be here? I grew up when Leonard Bernstein was the maestro of the Orchestra, and that kind of artistry and commitment and passion inspired me—and intimidated me.” As an acting student, she continues, “I used to gaze out of a window at Juilliard across at Lincoln Center, hoping that one day I would work there. So when I performed with the Philharmonic, and at Lincoln Center Theater and New York City Ballet, it made me feel that the years of hard work and training were rewarded by being able to ply my craft there.”
At the Philharmonic LuPone went on to play The Old Lady who hilariously asserts, “I Am Easily Assimilated” in the Orchestra’s 2004 staging of Bernstein’s Candide. At Sondheim: The Birthday Concert Gala in 2010, LuPone shared the stage with a bevy of theater goddesses, among them Elaine Stritch, who had introduced “The Ladies Who Lunch” in Company’s original production. LuPone made the song distinctly her own just a few feet away from the formidable Stritch, who was seated onstage. Was LuPone nervous? “No,” she says with a laugh. “Elaine and I were friends. She was an incredibly generous woman. There was never a question, should I be afraid to sing? I was celebrating Steve’s birthday, and I was asked to sing that song. What I thought of, because Elaine always wore hats, was to shoot her a look when I got to, ‘Does anyone still wear a hat?’ That took her by surprise.”
Direct, thoughtful, and funny in conversation, onstage LuPone has an instant rapport with audiences that is rare. “Making that connection with an audience is why we do it,” she says. “We’re simply the messenger for the playwright or the composer and lyricist. It’s our job to connect with an audience and tell the story.”
Robert Sandla is editor-in-chief of Symphony, the magazine of the League of American Orchestras.