ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: Patti LuPone in Provincetown; High Flying, Adored!
By Seth Rudetsky
A week in the life of actor, radio and TV host, music director and writer Seth Rudetsky.
Greetings from the high seas! Actually, from the Hudson River. I'm on The Broadway Cruise and as I type this we're leaving the pier at 53rd Street and 12th Avenue. Goodbye burning hot sun of New York City! Hello burning hot sun of Bermuda. I'm here with Juli, James, his mom and my mom. Into cruising? Check out news about the August 2013 Playbill Cruise – Broadway On the High Seas; I'll appearing on it with Howard McGillin and Patti LuPone from Lincoln Center Theater's Anything Goes reuniting! But on my mind for this week's column is another excursion — my two-day trip to Provincetown with Patti LuPone.
It was one of the most amazing experiences of my life. It all began when I was 13 years old. My friend, Allen Hahn, got me two albums for my Bar Mitzvah; the soundtrack to "All That Jazz" and Broadway cast album of Evita. I distinctly remember sitting on the couch in the den, opening up the two (!) record set, taking out the included lyrics and listening to it for the first time. It's so weird when you first hear it ("…to inform the people of Argentina, that Eva Peron, spiritual leader of the nation, entered immortality…") but after non-stop listening sessions, I became obsessed. I loved the music/lyrics/performances but it was Patti's singing that riveted me. The tone and power of her voice and, most importantly, the incredibly high belting. I had never heard a woman belt an E, F and then a G! Unbelievable! Of course, my mother continued her tradition of only taking me to see Broadway shows after the original stars had left so I eventually saw Evita starring someone else. Not just the replacement, mind you…the replacement's matinee cover. My point is, my dream has always been to hear Patti sing my favorite Evita songs live. A dream I thought was 30 years too late to ever happen.
Cut to: I asked her to do my Broadway Series at The Art House in Provincetown, MA, and she said yes. Her three shows immediately sold out, so we added a fourth. I told her it was going to be a casual show consisting of me interviewing her and then running to the piano to play. I mentioned that I wanted her to sing some Evita songs and she seemed game but we wound up not rehearsing anything in New York because she got sick during her acclaimed run at 54 Below. Also, I knew she had to perform her show with Mandy after the Provincetown gigs so I knew she couldn't push herself. I thought maybe she'd haul out "Don't Cry For Me, Argentina," but would limit her belting. Yet, a few days before the gig she emailed me and wrote that we should rehearse a few songs, just for fun. She said we could run through "Rainbow High" and then she added: "And let's try 'High Flying, Adored' just to see if I can still hit that note. What is that note?" (FYI, the sustained note is a D and then it goes up to an E, but I didn't want to tell her in case it freaked her out.) Well, I showed up for a quick sound check and nervously took out "Rainbow High," worried she'd tell me to forget it. Not only did she not say that, she suggested we lead into it with "High Flying, Adored" since that's how it is in the show. Really? Both songs? Was my dream about to come true? I thought I'd give her an out in case she wanted to save her voice, so I tentatively asked, "Original key?" Instead of asking to try it a few steps down, she shrugged and said, "It's the only key I know." Brava! I started playing the vamp and Patti launched into both songs. With all the top notes. She had certain inflections that are so uniquely hers that it took me right back to listening to her sing those songs on my record player all those years ago. I was literally holding back tears as I was playing because ever since I was a kid, I'd always dreamed of one day hearing Patti sing these songs live. Now, not only was I hearing her sing them, I was playing them for her! It was more than I ever expected.
Well, we had two shows the first night and Patti said we had to do the Evita songs at the second one. Why? Because Ryan Murphy (who created "Nip/Tuck" and "Glee" and is a big Evita fan) had gotten married that afternoon and was, naturally, spending his wedding night at Patti's show. We did both songs and the audience went crazy. Before the songs, I played a recording of her singing the "Rainbow High" modulation ("I'm their savior!!!") from the original cast album and then compared it to Madonna singing the same section in the film. Let's just say, it didn't compare favorably. When Patti finally sang that part of the song live, she got full out applause in the middle of the number. So thrilling!
After that performance ended, she did the requisite "I'm pretending the show is over, but I'm coming back to do an encore" chestnut. She did a fantastic "Don't Cry For Me, Argentina" and we exited. The theatre is pretty small and once you leave the stage, you have to walk outside. We were standing outside the theatre and chatting for a minute and suddenly Patti became the Broadway version of "The Bionic Woman." She cocked her head to the side because she was hearing something. A cry for help? A kitten caught in a tree that needs rescuing? No. Something more important. She looked at me and said, "They're still applauding." That's right, even though we were completely out of the theatre, she was able to use her supersonic hearing that is acutely tuned to cries of "Brava!" and "Encore!" After she heard it, she looked at me with a mischievous smile and said, "Do you wanna do B.A.?" Yes! I was so excited because "B.A." is Evita talk for "Buenos Aires"! That's another song she hasn't done in around 30 years. Yet again, she did it in the original key and killed it! So good! After the show, Mark Cortale (who runs the Art House) saw Ryan Murphy and asked him if he liked the show. Ryan responded with, "Are you kidding? It's like crack." True 'dat!
Patti was so forthcoming. The interviews were as exciting for me as the songs. She talked about the bad experience of doing Oliver!, which was on Broadway but directed by a British director. First she started off by telling the audience, "Let's get this out of the way; Americans can't do Shakespeare and the Brits can't do musicals. Over and out!" Blimey! She told us that there was an associate director who came over before rehearsals and cast the show. Then the director showed up for the first day of rehearsal and within a few hours fired the little boy who played Oliver! Patti also un-fondly remembered "As Long As He Needs Me." First of all, she wanted to sing it in a higher key because Georgia Brown had such a low voice. The music director, however, refused to raise the key so she sang it with a Bea Arthur flair. After the show opened, she met Lionel Bart (who wrote the whole show) and he told her that she could have sung it in any key she wanted! Yet again, blimey! She also recalled the staging of the number which went completely against her instincts. As she was singing the incredibly exciting ending section, the director wanted her to back up and as she held the last note, he asked to her exit the stage. She said, "So…when the song is over, you don't want me onstage to get applause?" Answer: "That is correct." After telling the story, she got up and sang the entire song in a higher key than Georgia Brown and stood center stage the whole time. So satisfying!
We talked about Gypsy and she remembered that Arthur Laurents was very into giving line readings to the cast. She, Laura Benanti and Boyd Gaines were concerned because they wanted to put their own imprint on their parts. Patti said that Arthur finally let them explore their roles and allowed them to develop their own interpretations. I so agreed with what she said about line readings, which is that a lot of directors think "if it ain't broke, don't fix it." Meaning, if a line always works a certain way, keep it that way. I've done a lot of Broadway shows where replacements have come in and tried to make a role their own and, in doing so, lost tons of the laughs because they want to do it their own style. However, she feels that an actor shouldn't just imitate the inflection. He/she has to understand what the line means and what the character's motivation is when saying it so even though the ending result the actor comes up with might sound exactly the same as the initial line reading, the actor has to have meaning behind it to make it truly work.
The most exciting thing happened the final night. We finished the show and did the requisite encore. We walked out of the theatre and I kept one ear to the stage because I hoped there'd be the demand for one more song. There was a ton of applause so Patti went back and did "Buenos Aires." We took our bows, Patti and I left the theatre and went back to our (shared!) dressing room. I turned my back as she got into her casual street clothes and waited for James to knock because I knew he wanted a picture. I kept checking outside the dressing room for him to appear. The third time I looked out I saw Shelley, our excellent sound person, come out of the theatre. The dressing room is on the ground level and she was exiting the tech area so she was at the top of a long flight of stairs. She looked at me with a "what do you think" face. What did I think about what? How the show went? The weather? I looked back with a "what?" face and she yelled down: "They're still clapping!" That's right! In all the time it took for Patti to exit the theatre, walk to the dressing room and completely change out of her outfit, the audience was still clapping! I got her out of the dressing room and she went back for a third encore. So, after the fourth show she did "Blow, Gabriel, Blow," "Buenos Aires" and finally "Don't Cry For Me, Argentina." And this time, during the part when she breaks down and can't sing anymore, the audience suddenly started humming just like the Evita ensemble does during the show. It sounded beautiful!
There's so much more to tell, but I have a cruise meal to overeat at. So peace out and I'll write to you next from dry land!
(Seth Rudetsky is the afternoon Broadway host on SiriusXM. He has played piano for over 15 Broadway shows, was Grammy-nominated for his concert CD of Hair and Emmy-nominated for being a comedy writer on "The Rosie O'Donnell Show." He has written two novels, "Broadway Nights" and "My Awesome/Awful Popularity Plan," which are also available at Audible.com. He recently launched SethTV.com, where you can contact him and view all of his videos and his sassy new reality show.)
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