Mother and Son: Patti LuPone and Joshua Johnston Talk the Past and Future of the Acting Company and The Cradle Will Rock

Playbill.com chats with mother-and-son acting team Patti LuPone and Joshua Johnston about their onstage teaming in the one-night-only benefit concert The Cradle Will Rock.

Patti LuPone
Patti LuPone (Photo by Ethan Hill)

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Two-time Tony Award-winner Patti LuPone will return to her Olivier Award-winning role of the Moll in Marc Blitzstein's The Cradle Will Rock May 19. The one-night only concert will benefit the Acting Company, of which LuPone was a founding member and with whom she first played Moll Off-Broadway in 1983.

This time, around Cradle is a family affair as LuPone will be joined onstage by her son, 2013-14 Acting Company member Joshua Johnston, as well as her cousin Johann Carlo.

Playbill.com chatted with LuPone and Johnston about the upcoming benefit performance and both of their tenures with the Acting Company.

Josh, growing up with your mother as Patti LuPone, when did you know that you wanted to be an actor? Josh Johnston: I always loved being backstage; I've been doing that since Sunset Boulevard in 1993. The summer of 2002 when my mom was doing A Little Night Music at the Ravinia Festival, she said, "You should come out. It's like the largest outdoor concert hall in America. You'll have so much fun here as an eleven-year-old. You'll run around the park." Lonny Price, the director, said to her one day, "We have a line if Josh wants to say it in the show." I'd acted up until then but this was the real deal, and I was only eleven. I remember I was nervous saying the line in rehearsal, but then opening night I saw 3,000 people under the canopy of The Pavilion theatre, and that was it, right there. I really loved it.

And Patti, you knew that he had the bite?

Patti LuPone: Well... (laughs) All I knew was that he had some sort of discipline. When we were in rehearsal, I saw Josh playing catch with a stagehand, and I thought, "He's gonna miss his cue." His cue came up and there was Josh, and I went, "OK, he knows what he's doing on his own." You know, you're bit or you're not bit. I guess it's a hard thing to describe or to understand. It's really quite personal. I don't really know what Josh's experience is in that respect, I know what mine was, and you don't necessarily wear it. It's an internal thing. So I didn't really know whether this was something that Josh wanted to do except I knew that he was having fun at Ravinia.

Josh, your mom has spoken about the training she got at Juilliard, and then touring with the Acting Company. Is that what led you to the same exact company?

JJ: (laughs) It's funny, [after] all her admonishments of, "You must be disciplined and you must be good," I would just shout back, "Shut up Mom, I don't wanna hear that!" But I found out what they were doing this year. I gave it an audition and things have worked out so far. We actually ended our tour today.

LuPone and Johnston
Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

This is not one of the regular productions of the Company. It's just a one-night only special event.

PL: It's a benefit for the Company. Margot has asked me on several occasions if I would help. Margot was John Houseman's administrative assistant at Juilliard and then the executive producer of the Acting Company when I was a member and kept this company going for — I think it's in its 41st year... That's amazing to have a repertory company in existence for that period of time. Margot's partner Lois suggested we do Cradle and I thought it was a great idea. I would love next year to do The Robber Bridegroom, but first we're doing Cradle, and I don't know what Lonny's going to do with it. I know that I'm going to want to do it the way I did it. I'm not going to defy Lonny but those of us that did it before remember how John directed it.

You did it a few times, because it was not during your regular Acting Company tenure. It was kind of like a reunion in the 80s, right?

PL: Yes, it was an alumni production.

I know you did it in New York and London but didn't you also tour with it then?

PL: We went to Ravinia. We played Ravinia in the 70s too. The Acting Company did The Robber Bridegroom.

At the Pavilion?

PL: In Martin Hall, I think we did Cradle in Martin Hall as well. For us that was a very interesting experience because it's a very rich performing arts center.

And a very left-wing musical.

PL: Exactly. We played to a horrified house of rich people. They were stunned. It was amazing. It was like it was the wrong play to bring there. (laughs)

And was that John Houseman onstage at Ravinia doing that monologue about the original opening night of The Cradle Will Rock at each performance?

PL: Yes.

LuPone and Kevin Kline in The Robber Bridegroom for The Acting Company
Photo by Robert M. Lightfoot III

Wow. I knew who he was as a kid, just from Silver Spoons. I would think he had that sort of iconic value to any audience.

PL: Yes they might have known who John Houseman was and they might not have. Well, the opening night story is pretty amazing anyway. When we played New York and John did that speech, his description of that opening added so much to the way we did it.

But when you were doing it in New York, was it received well?
PL: That was amazing. John said that he had never seen an audience like that before. And it was at the American Place Theater and what it was was theatre students that had never seen The Cradle Will Rock and old lefties. It was an amazing audience. I don't know who will be coming to this. I'm sure there will be supporters of the Acting Company. Hopefully the ticket price will not be so outrageous that students of the theatre that have never seen Cradle will come to see it.

You guys must have a unique perspective on the entire existence of the Acting Company? How has it changed since Group 1?

PL/JJ (shouting in unison): The bus, the bus, the bus!!! PL: They have the rock star bus. We had a school bus.

JJ: Day one, my suitcase was packed, I'm sure I was bright-eyed and Mom said "Make sure you get a double seat on the bus." The bus came and it's a rock star bus. There are 12 bunk beds, there's a satellite TV and it's just top of the line. Those double seats that she was telling me to vie for — that was not an issue.

PL: Yeah really. But you know, I think 41 years later nothing really changes when you enter a theatre. Correct me if I'm wrong, Joshua — they still do the ten o'clock matinees for the students.

JJ: No. How about try 8 AM.

No way.

JJ: Oh yes. 8 AM performance of Hamlet. In full. For the students... It's student matinees sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts.

Patti, did you do 8 AM matinees when you were in the company?

PL: The training is rigorous, the discipline is rigorous, and it's key to maintaining a career. It develops a toughness and a muscle that's necessary.

Patti LuPone (seated), with Mary Joan Negro and Mary Lou Rosato, in The Three Sisters for The Acting Company
Photo by Diane Gorodnitzki

JJ: Mom said that she still applies a lot of the training she learned in the Acting Company to her work onstage today. There's only so much you can learn in a theatrical textbook before you have to put it into practice and being with the company maintaining a long run, constantly changing venues, stages, learning where the dressing rooms are, playing to different houses in different parts of the country where some things may hit harder than other places. Everything that was only a theory to me was put into practice.

Maybe you can say something for people that aren't familiar with the idea of repertory theatre. For example if you're in the cast of Hamlet and in the cast of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, are all the same people in exactly both shows and do you necessarily have a big part in one and a small part in the other/ How is that all broken down?

JJ: Our year was a little unique in that sense because Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead takes place in the same place and the same characters are used (as in Hamlet). Each actor played the same character in both shows. Hamlet played Hamlet, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern played each other, etc. Myself and maybe one or two other people were the exceptions in that I played Osric the foppish character in Hamlet, but I played Alfred the young boy in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead which sort of gets a little extra attention. But as far as repertory theatre goes, Hamlet gets a little bit of a break in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, and the secondary characters step up, so everyone does get their time to shine onstage. That was really helpful in the company.

What about with plays that don't necessarily fit together like Hamlet and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead?
PL: We did six plays a year and we had 21 actors. We did alternate and we didn't alternate. We were the guinea pigs. It was still the beginning of this company and there were favorites, there were pigeon-holed actors, there was a bit of resentment in the company as well as celebration. I mean it wasn't always the happiest company — we were together for four years — but that just goes with the territory. I don't think there's ever a company that's going to be brilliantly happy for its entire run. It's just normal. When the cast lists went up there was disappointment for sure.

And that was all right while you were on the road, right? There was no personal space to go away and cry over that? PL: The biggest test that our company went through was the second year of the company. The first year we took our plays from third and fourth years of Juilliard and toured those. But we had to come up with a new repertoire for the second year of the professional company, so we had to rehearse two to three plays in a month together. So the cast lists went up and we were in residence at Saratoga Springs at the performing arts center. And there were tears and there was bitterness and there was elation and there was confusion and there was you gotta be kidding me — a lot of that. (laughs) John had his favorites. We commiserated with each other and we competed with each other and we celebrated each other. We did the three C's.

Did you all stay the same four years and leave together?

PL: Yeah, my class from Juilliard stayed together for four years, They brought in some new actors into the company as needed but then 11 of us left in the fourth year. It was the end of that era, the end of that eight years of those actors together. It's extremely hard to work that hard, and we were a family for eight years in a very, very close situation.

JJ: You're taking a group of strangers and putting them on a bus and in hotel rooms together and telling them, in a month of rehearsal, to create chemistry and produce multiple plays in rep. After the show, your private time is limited. But at the same time there are those venues where the crowd absolutely goes wild and there are those days off and memories form you'll have for the rest of your life.

Johnston and LuPone at the Company premiere
Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

It sounds like a reality show.

JJ: They should put some hidden cameras in the bus. That would sell.

Josh, do you plan to stay past this season?

JJ: I don't know what's next for me. I had a pretty magical season with the company, we did Hamlet and Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead and you can't really think of a more perfect repertory in the Western canon. I had so much fun with the actors that I shared the stage with that I think for now I will not be auditioning again next year. That's not to say that in the future I may not want to come back but I'm still fresh out of college. With a season with the Acting Company under my belt, I'm moving to New York with the hopes of pursuing a career there.

Moving beyond the experience of the Acting Company, Josh you've had this very inside view of your mom's career, a rare perspective for a young actor. What are the other things you think have affected your goals for yourself as an actor? JJ: What I've grown up with is the life of a star. I saw The Old Neighborhood, Noises Off, Sweeney Todd and Gypsy, and my mom was one of the stars of the show. I know the star dressing room and I know that mentality and that's not really what the profession is. Constantly reminding myself of that is something very important to know about this profession, it is very difficult...

PL: It's difficult for me as a star. It has never been easy for me regardless of my status in the business. It's as difficult for me, Josh, as it is for you as a novice. You know every day — I didn't mean to interrupt you — but I really had to interject because every day there is rejection still for me.

Do you feel like the stakes are higher because of your status, like there's greater potential for disappointment?

PL: No. I think it's equal. It feels exactly the same, whether I'm being rejected at 20 years old or rejected at 60 years old. It feels exactly the same. And I don't know what the stakes are. I'm still being rejected. What are the stakes?

LuPone with Laura Benanti and Boyd Gaines in Gypsy
Photo by Paul Kolnik

What would you hope that Josh would learn from the perspective he's had on your experience?

PL: I've said to myself and to my closest friends that I hope he doesn't go through the pain that I've gone through in this business. I hope that he has a luckier journey than mine and I hope that, in fact, if he does have any kind of hardship in this business that he just toughens his skin and it doesn't defeat him emotionally or psychically. It's a brutal business and there are only a blessed few that are anointed. And then the rest of us have to do what we have to do to get work.

What's the wisdom to the tough skin? In the moments when you have been able to laugh it off and you've thought, who gives a crap, what gave you that strength?

PL: I'm not there yet. I did turn a corner where I did say I don't give a crap because I'm so disappointed in what Broadway has turned into and in what Bloomberg did to Times Square. There's no focus on the theatre at all anymore; it's on the jumbo-tron in the Hershey's museum. So it's really, really depressing to me that serious theatre can't exist on Broadway anymore because we don't have any producers that support work that enlightens an audience. It's mindless drivel for the most part, and it's very depressing to me to see that. I'm sort of made to say I don't give a crap to protect my feelings. I could never really get over it. I love the theatre. The thing one has to do is to separate it. It's a subjective business so it's hard to say don't take it personally. But if you can intellectually go, don't take it personally while you're being rejected — which is you being rejected, not your book or a composition or a painting. It's hard, it's very hard. I find that if I have a solid life if I can look out into a beautiful environment and put theatre and my profession in its proper place, then the blows are lessened.

Josh, hearing her say that, here's your mother who's at the top of the heap in this profession: How does that inform you, when you're setting your sights going into it at the beginning? JJ: I take it just as advice. Yes, she's at the top of the heap but that's not my career trajectory.

PL: He'll have his own journey.

JJ: It's going to be a different journey, no matter how it ends up and where it works out or if it doesn't.

Johnston with Paulo Szot at the Cafe Carlyle
Photo by Monica Simoes

Let's talk about that. Josh, what are some roles either in plays or in anything that you would dream about doing?

JJ: (laughs) Doing Hamlet for ten months, I fell in love with the way that the man playing our Hamlet portrayed him. I've never seen Hamlet done quite that way. Yes, I've seen the Olivier movie and the Kenneth Branagh movie, but I was really taken in with his performance. Hamlet is the cream of the crop for the male actor. I love the part and its complexity, that would be fascinating and an incredible challenge eventually. I love Noel Coward, I would love to play Elliot in Private Lives. I would love to do a Chekov play even if I'm a fly on the wall in the scene, but that's fantasizing and I don't actually fantasize quite that much about roles I would want to play.

You sound like your mother.

JJ: That's not really how it goes. I'll take the next job as it comes and we'll go from there.

How about projects for you guys to do together? Josh you say Hamlet — Patti, there's a part for you in that. Is there anything you guys can imagine costarring in? PL: I don't think that way. You know me: I'm lazy, I'm in bed, this is my favorite place to be. (laughs) One of my oldest friends in the world... we were talking, and he says "Oh Patti, you've got two speeds, 150 and rest." (laughs) I don't think about what is the role I want to play next. The surprise of my career is much more interesting. I'm going back to LA Opera because I've been asked by the composer to play this role; who would have thought in the first place I would be doing opera? So at this point it's more interesting to have the patience to wait and see what does come in, what destiny does, even though the roles that you do want to play go floating by or you sit unemployed wondering where the hell the next job's coming from. The ones that come in that are the ones that are supposed to, so I don't look, I'm not looking, I can't. I never get the parts I look for anyway.

Flipping it around, is there a part that either of you would like to see the other one play?

PL: I don't know that many plays for young kids. I'd like to see Josh in a modern play, something that's his age. I'd like to see him get into one of the companies around town and play something age-appropriate. Something that his experience can speak to.

What about musicals? Josh, do you sing?

JJ: I do, yes. My diploma from Ithaca College says bachelor in fine arts in Acting, not Musical Theatre, and we did have a Musical Theatre program and I was in musicals at school. [The] first professional theatre I did, thanks to a little nepotism of course at Ravina, were musicals.

We've got The Cradle Will Rock to look forward to now and Josh, who are you playing?

JJ: I'm playing Bugs who is the muscle behind the man.

Do you guys have any interaction in the script?

PL: No. The only person the Moll interacts with is Larry Foreman and the druggist, so I'm working with two of the guys that I worked with before.

JJ: Have you ever sang "Nickel Under Your Foot in any of your--

PL: In concert? No, It doesn't quite land.

You did it at the Westwood Playhouse.

PL: I did it at the Westwood Playhouse. Okay. That was how many years ago?

Twenty-one years ago.

PL: Holy sh*t, time flies don't it?