Those lucky enough to catch the limited New York engagement of Gypsy this past summer — the first production of City Center's Encores! Summer Stars series — knew they were witnessing something special. Not only did the musical boast direction by one of its original creators, librettist Arthur Laurents, but it also starred Tony and Olivier Award winner Patti LuPone as the indomitable stage mother Rose, a part the Juilliard graduate seemed destined to play ever since she burst forth on the Broadway scene thrillingly portraying roles as complex and demanding as Eva Peron in Evita and Reno Sweeney in Anything Goes.
LuPone's fans had waited years for the actress to get her shot at the role that had been created by the late, legendary Ethel Merman and subsequently played to critical acclaim by Tony winners Angela Lansbury, Tyne Daly and Bernadette Peters. Those fans filled the cavernous City Center nightly, and when LuPone made her entrance running down the aisle shouting, "Sing out, Louise!," the roar from the audience was deafening.
"That was unbelievable," LuPone recently admitted. "At the first preview Arthur [Laurents] said, 'Now don't expect this every night,' and we had it every night," she laughs. LuPone is currently receiving the same greeting in the Broadway production of Gypsy, which officially opened at the St. James Theatre on March 27.
About the City Center-to-Broadway transfer, LuPone says, "I'm thrilled to death. This was an extraordinary company, and the fact that everybody was secretly praying that this would move to Broadway and everybody was available — minus Nancy Opel, which is sad, but she's replaced by the very brilliant Lenora Nemetz [as Mazeppa] — was great. It's fate." LuPone is joined onstage at the St. James by Broadway veteran Boyd Gaines as the beleaguered Herbie and two-time Tony nominee Laura Benanti as the wallflower-turned-world-famous-stripper Gypsy Rose Lee. And, the Mrs. Lovett of the recent Sweeney Todd revival has nothing but praise for her co-stars. "Just trust in each other, trust in the director, trust in the material and then you can leave everything alone," she says. "Laura and I have great trust with each other." Benanti returns the compliment: "Patti is one of — maybe the most generous person I've ever worked with. She's so smart and so committed and so kind and generous onstage — and funny! Everything is a positive, everything is from a positive place. She's just an amazing person, and watching her is truly a master class in acting."
About her Herbie, three-time Tony winner Gaines, LuPone adds, "I am just so crazy about Boyd. My performance wouldn't be my performance without him. Or Laura. You're not alone out there. If there is another actor onstage that can support, transport you, illuminate, there's nothing like it. That is the ecstasy and the joy of theatre for me. I am blessed with two and then followed by an entire company of really focused [actors]."
Unlike Gypsy's long-suffering June and Louise, LuPone, it should be noted, was not the daughter of a stage mother. In fact, she says with a laugh, "My mother once famously said to my brother [actor–director Robert LuPone], 'I wish you wouldn't flit from job to job!'"
LuPone, however, believes she is able to bring Rose so fully to life because the musical is "a mother's lament, and I'm a mother." It is partly due to her own son, Josh, that Gypsy is now being enjoyed on this side of the Atlantic.
"I have one more year of my son living at home," LuPone explains, "which he doesn't even do! He's at boarding school, but it's in the same state at least. I did not want to go to London for a year while my son was in school in America. I expressed that."
That said, LuPone would eventually like to bring her Rose to London audiences. "I'm still hoping that it goes to London at some point and that I'm involved with the London production."
LuPone's performance — as exciting vocally as it is emotionally layered — is funny, moving and especially riveting in the showstoppers that end each act: "Everything's Coming Up Roses" and "Rose's Turn." About the former, LuPone says, "Rose has just been blindsided by June's departure, but she's a survivor. Arthur said that he didn't want Tyne [Daly] to cry, Arthur didn't want [Daly's successor] Linda Lavin to cry, he didn't want anybody to cry. And he's right. That is an admission of defeat. Rose can't do that. You've got another act to play, and the character can't go there at that point. They have to keep moving forward. She has to survive. She's holding that family together." LuPone does admit, though, that even without the tears it's during "Everything's Coming Up Roses" where "you see this woman starting to fall apart."
As for "Rose's Turn," the monologue-in-song where Rose finally gets the chance to spew out a life's worth of frustrations, she says there is "even more anger and confusion." LuPone's gut-wrenching performance of the showstopper is so emotionally raw one wonders about the effect on its performer. "It's cathartic," she says, "[and] it's draining too, but [during the City Center run] I didn't go home and go straight to bed."
Rose, LuPone concludes, "wants the best for her kids regardless of whether they want it or not. She loves her children, and she is fiercely protective and desires only the best for them…but they're her desires."
And how does LuPone feel about returning to the eight-show-a-week Broadway schedule? "It is grueling," she says, "but it is a great discipline, and I have the muscle for it. It's the only thing I know, really."