DIVA TALK: Celebrating Sondheim with Tony Winner Patti LuPone

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Patti LuPone
Patti LuPone (Photo by Ethan Hill)

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.

Patti LuPone in Sweeney Todd

She was certainly on pitch, however, for Sweeney Todd, both at Ravinia (directed by Lonny Price) and later on Broadway (in the Tony-winning John Doyle staging). It was in the latter where LuPone managed to shatter the mold created by Tony winner Angela Lansbury, providing an equally viable Lovett worlds apart from the one audiences had become accustomed to ever since Sondheim's masterpiece debuted in 1979. LuPone's Lovett was not only comical, sinister and touching, but also a sexy, saucy, tuba-toting ensemble player. And, did I mention that she also thrillingly belted out the Sondheim score? "Oh, God! I'd pick it up again and play it tomorrow," LuPone says about the role of Nellie Lovett. "The music is spectacular, and the lyrics. . . There's just something so deeply Greek tragedy about it, and it's deeply theatrical and deeply musical and deeply passionate." She says that the Doyle production has "never left me. It was great, it was frightening — it was wonderful to watch the audience look at us in horror," she laughs. "You know, it was like a horror movie they were watching — it was pretty great."

It would be just a few years later when the Juilliard graduate would tackle the role she seemed destined to play ever since she burst forth on the Broadway scene: Rose in Gypsy at Ravinia. In fact, her performance was so powerful at the Illinois venue that word of mouth sparked demand for a City Center mounting and, soon after, a full Broadway production that would earn LuPone a second Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical.

It is understandably too difficult for LuPone to single out a favorite Sondheim song, and her favorite Sondheim show may surprise those who have savored her work at Ravinia and later on Broadway: "I love Pacific Overtures! I told Steve that. I saw him last night. I said, 'You and Hal Prince!' I love Pacific Overtures, I love Sweeney, I love them all. . . . I don't know what it is [about Pacific]. It's 'Pretty Lady,' it's 'Chrysanthemum Tea' — it's a visceral reaction. I'm not an intellect, I can't pull apart why he's great. I just know how I react to it. I love them all. Mandy [Patinkin] and I are singing a lot of Steve's songs in [ An Evening with Patti LuPone and Mandy Patinkin], and I've sung a lot of Steve's songs [elsewhere]. He elevates the singer, he elevates the actor, he elevates the musician."

When asked about Sondheim's legacy, LuPone exclaims, "Oh, my God, will anybody ever achieve what he's achieved? What is his legacy? I don't know — I can't, I don't even want to think about that! I just find him to be a deeply romantic, deeply intellectual man with a tremendous heart."

Patti LuPone in Passion

And, what is the nicest comment Sondheim has made to the actress? LuPone pauses and answers, "He said, 'You can be in my musicals any time.' It was after a Ravinia performance … I cannot remember which one it was, but he said, basically, I got his stamp of approval. . . . And, I thought, 'I have been waiting to hear that for my entire life!'" LuPone said she would love to again tackle the role of Fosca in Passion and wouldn't mind a go at Joanne in Company "because I do sing 'Ladies Who Lunch' [in concert]."

I'll drink to that!

Well, that's all for now. Happy diva-watching! E-mail questions or comments to agans@playbill.com.