DIVA TALK: Celebrating Sondheim with Tony Winner Patti LuPone

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12 Mar 2010

Patti LuPone
Patti LuPone
Ethan Hill
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This month we celebrate the 80th birthday of Stephen Sondheim by speaking with several of the women most associated with the work of the award-winning composer-lyricist. This week we chat with Tony and Olivier Award winner Patti LuPone, who was Tony-nominated for her performance in the 2006 Broadway revival of Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler's Sweeney Todd, and who won her second Tony for her work in the Sondheim-Jule Styne-Arthur Laurents Gypsy. LuPone, who will soon film a new TV pilot with former Gypsy co-star Laura Benanti, spoke by phone from Chicago, where she and Mandy Patinkin were performing the critically acclaimed concert An Evening with Patti LuPone and Mandy Patinkin.

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Patti LuPone had already won a Tony Award for her passionate, breakthrough performance in Evita and an Olivier Award for her work in the London productions of The Cradle Will Rock and Les Miserables, but a role in a Stephen Sondheim musical — a lifelong dream — had somehow eluded her grasp.

"I remember I auditioned for Bernadette [Peters]' replacement for Sunday in the Park, and didn't get it," LuPone recently told me by phone, "and I remember [Sondheim] coming down the aisle and saying, 'I don't want any belting.' And I thought, 'Oh, dear!,'" LuPone says with her trademark laugh that seems to burst forth as easily as the magnificent vocals that have been bewitching audiences for years.

She was also almost part of the original cast of Sondheim and James Lapine's Into the Woods. "I was offered the Witch, but I wanted to play Cinderella, and I actually auditioned for Cinderella," LuPone says with a laugh, "[but they said], 'No we still want you to play the Witch.' And then, of course, what happened was negotiations broke down. . . . [even though I had] said, 'Yes, I'll play the Witch.' . . I did Anything Goes instead, but … we were in negotiations."

The dynamic talent needn't have worried. LuPone would go on to star in six Sondheim productions at the Ravinia Festival in Illinois as well as two acclaimed Sondheim Broadway revivals, earning a 2006 Tony nomination for her work in the John Doyle-directed Sweeney Todd and a 2008 Tony Award for her role as that indefatigable stage mother Rose in the Sondheim-Arthur Laurents-Jule Styne classic Gypsy, which was directed by librettist Laurents.

LuPone says she first met Sondheim during her run in Evita, but it was in 1989 at a dinner at the home of choreographer Bob Avian "where we really bonded and got to know each other." And, she credits Ravinia Festival president Welz Kauffman, the former artistic administrator of the New York Philharmonic, with starting a Sondheim journey that would culminate in two of the high points of her staggeringly successful stage career.

"When Welz Kauffman was with the New York Phil . . . he wanted to celebrate Sondheim from [ages] 70 to 75," LuPone explains, "so he initiated this celebration with Sweeney Todd with the Phil [in 2000] . . . and it [would star] Bryn Terfel [who would later be replaced by Tony winner George Hearn] and me. And when my agent called, I'll never forget this, I went, 'You're kidding me!' because … I thought it was unlikely casting. It's not a role you would associate me with. I mean, when you think of Nellie Lovett, I don't think you immediately think of Patti LuPone.

"It was Welz's idea and Welz took it to Steve and then to [conductor] Kurt Masur," LuPone continues. "I don't know who thought there should be a Broadway presence, not just opera singers, in this particular celebration. But the Broadway presence was Audra [McDonald] and me and Neil Patrick [Harris] … I had heard that Steve knew I had been offered the role and approved. And then that was the beginning of my association, I would guess, with the roles that I've played at Ravinia."

Patti LuPone in Gypsy
photo by Joan Marcus
Those roles include Nellie Lovett in Sweeney, Desiree Armfeldt in A Little Night Music, Yvonne in Sunday in the Park With George, Cora Hoover Hooper in Anyone Can Whistle, Fosca in Passion and Rose in Gypsy.

Discussing the process of learning a Sondheim score, LuPone says, "Well, each aspect of Steve's writing is equally as difficult — the lyrics are complicated and the melodies are intricate … And, as I've always said, learning the music becomes infinitely easier when there's a marriage between the lyrics and the music, and that is always the case with Steve. So, it's easier to learn his music than it is other people's music. That does not mean it's easy. I've never, and I've said this ad nauseam, sung 'God, That's Good' correctly. There's a section that [Mrs. Lovett] sings with Sweeney — each of the three passages is different and the notes are very close together, and I've never gotten it right!"

LuPone says she has had the pleasure of working directly with Sondheim both at his home in Connecticut as well as at Ravinia. "He's there pretty much for everything that we've done at Ravinia, either at the rehearsal or at the performance . . . and his notes are invaluable. He was the one who told me I was swooping, and of course, I didn't know I was swooping up to the note, not hitting the note dead on. . . It became clear to me that I didn't have the confidence to hit the note head on. I didn't have the confidence to know that I would be on pitch in the interval.



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