She won a Tony Award for Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s Evita, Oliviers for her work in Marc Blitzstein’s The Cradle Will Rock and Boublil and Schönberg’s Les Misérables and some of the best reviews of her career for the revival of Cole Porter’s Anything Goes, but it is Stephen Sondheim who has provided Patti LuPone with five seasons’ worth of challenging roles—at Chicago’s Ravinia Festival—leading to what may be the pinnacle of her career in the current, astounding revival of Sweeney Todd.
“The difficulty [of Stephen’s work] is the challenge—the music and the lyrics,” LuPone recently explained as she was making her way from her home in Connecticut to her new home-away-from-home, the Eugene O’Neill Theatre. “There’s a very deep emotional well in the characters—there’s truth and laughter and pain. Technically, it’s the complexity, and emotionally, it’s where you can go with those parts.”
Those parts have included Desirée Armfeldt in A Little Night Music, Fosca in Passion, Yvonne in Sunday in the Park with George, Cora Hoover Hooper in Anyone Can Whistle and—the role that began it all—Mrs. Nellie Lovett in Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s Sweeney Todd. LuPone first assumed the guise of the pie-maker extraordinaire for a weekend of Sweeney concerts in May 2000. Her sensational performance in those Lincoln Center evenings—thrillingly belting out the Sondheim score—was but a forerunner to the astonishing and completely different interpretation that she is currently offering on Broadway. LuPone’s Lovett is the first to completely shatter the mold created by the role’s originator, Angela Lansbury, providing an equally viable Lovett worlds apart from the one audiences have become accustomed to ever since Sondheim’s masterpiece debuted in 1979. LuPone’s ill-fated Mrs. Lovett is not only comical, sinister and touching, but she is also sexy, saucy and a tuba-toting ensemble player.
“I think I’m happiest in an ensemble,” LuPone admits. “I’ve always thought the entire picture was far more interesting than an individual in a spotlight with figures upstage in the darkness. I think there was a question as to whether I would be able to accept being in an ensemble, and I always harken back to, ‘Obviously, they have forgotten where I trained.’ That was my training—ensemble training. When I talked to [ Sweeney director] John Doyle, I think he heard that. He heard ‘repertory company’ and ‘tuba,’” she adds with her trademark infectious laugh. “I told him I [spent] four years with Juilliard and four years with the Acting Company [with] the same group of actors.” LuPone is quick to credit Sweeney’s success to Doyle, the British director whose idea it was to mount the musical as though it were the delusions of an inmate in a psychiatric asylum with his fellow inmates playing all the characters (and all the instruments). “Truly, the difference between shows jelling and lasting and actually deepening and doing what they’re supposed to do over a long run—and shows not doing that—is the director,” she says. “It’s all up to the director, and John said some unbelievable things to this ensemble.”
The award-winning actress also has the highest praise for co-star Michael Cerveris, who appeared with her in several of the Ravinia productions, including an acclaimed staging of Passion that was subsequently mounted in New York and telecast live on PBS. “Working with Michael,” LuPone says, “is the easiest that an actor could hope for. For some reason we connect, and I can’t tell you why. There is a safety net, and there’s no safety net. There’s danger on that stage, and there’s also, ‘Do what you want—I’m right there in it and for you.’ . . . I do think of Michael as my ultimate leading man.”
One of the many pleasures of this not-to-be-missed Sweeney Todd is the chance to watch LuPone play a series of instruments, including the much-written-about tuba, which provides a great visual gag. When asked how it was decided which instruments she would play, LuPone answers, “I told them that I played the tuba, and then they asked if I would do percussion, and I said, ‘Sure, whatever you want.’ I never say no, you know me! . . . . [My] high school band used to go to these band camps in the summertime for two weeks to learn marching routines, and it was very sexy. And I thought, ‘Hmmm, how do I get in here?’ I have to play an instrument, and then I thought, ‘What’s the most ridiculous instrument I could play?’ And it was a tuba!”
Ghostlight Records has just released LuPone’s latest solo recording, the hauntingly powerful "The Lady with the Torch," and this summer she will have a go at her sixth Sondheim—albeit one with music by Jule Styne—when she gets the chance to strut her stuff as Mama Rose in the Ravinia mounting of Gypsy. But for now, LuPone is more than content delivering what may be the greatest performance of her stellar musical theatre career in this gritty, spellbinding and often riotously funny production of Sweeney Todd.
“What a way to come back to the Broadway musical stage,” LuPone concludes. “Lucky, lucky me. Steve [Sondheim] sits in my dressing room. He rewrote lyrics, and I feel like I’m in an original show. . . . There’s a real camaraderie [among the cast], and I am thrilled to death. I am telling you, this is a great group of people—an incredibly talented group of people.”