DIVA TALK: Chatting with Drowsy Chaperone's Jo Anne Worley Plus the Patti LuPone Gypsy

By Andrew Gans
20 Jul 2007

Question: What's that role like to play?
Worley: I find that role, for me, a very easy fit. I was doing that role when I was younger than the girl who played my Gypsy Rose Lee. The grown-up daughter — she was older than me. So you're either kind of right for it or you're not. But I have found through the years, obviously and thank God, I have been able to get into it, under it, and enjoy it that much more. Before I was really just doing it, but now I can do it. . . . I really love doing the "Turn." If you would ask what would be the favorite part of that show, it would be "Rose's Turn," and the end of Act One, too. . .

Question: Did you have a mother who pushed you into the business?
Worley: Oh, no. No, no, no. We all have many different roads, and that's why there's no one way. There were a lot of Worleys, and I never discussed what I wanted to do. I would lie. They would say, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" I would say, "a nurse or a teacher." That would make them happy and get [them] off my back. When I was in high school, I worked at a truck stop on Highway 41 and Route 2, and I had my own money when I got out of high school. So I sent away on my own to be an apprentice in summer stock, actually in Nyack, NY. It was Pickwick Players. I got the drama scholarship to go to a college from that, and I got the apprentice scholarship to go back the next year and actually be paid, your room and board paid. So that was a very defining moment, you know, those forks in the road. And I was engaged as a senior in high school. I said, "I'm going away for the summer, but I'll be back." And I didn't [come back]. As a matter of fact, when you say, "Were you encouraged?" I was telling them, it wasn't a matter of asking, because I didn't need to ask them. I had my own money. I was going away to summer stock, and my father couldn't understand that I was going to be working and paying them room and board. He couldn't get that concept, and my mother said, "Oh, let her go!" There were lots of other kids, so in a way it was, "Oh, let her go. We got the other kids." [Laughs.] That's how I got out from under the fence.

Question: Looking back, do you have a favorite theatrical experience? Is there anything that sticks out in your mind?
Worley: Well, let me see, very favorite. What could that possibly be? There's been so many. You know, it sounds trite, but it is true. It is what I'm doing right now. I'm thinking back, going, "Oh that was exciting, that was exciting," but right now it is so delicious to be in New York, on Broadway, in a hit with a wonderful family of friends onstage and offstage doing things that you can only do in New York. You run into people, as you know, in New York. Sometimes I have my dog, sometimes I don't! [Laughs.] And being able to go to Sardi's between shows on Wednesday. If that isn't the best present of all time, I don't know what is.

[The Drowsy Chaperone plays the Marquis Theatre, 1535 Broadway. Call (212) 307-4100 for tickets or visit www.ticketmaster.com]

GYPSY at City Center
As the Act One curtain fell on Patti LuPone's Rose belting out "Everything's Coming Up Roses," I sat in my seat and simply said, "Wow." The intensity that LuPone would later bring to the nervous breakdown that is "Rose's Turn" I had expected; what she did with "Everything's Coming Up Roses" I had not. LuPone began the song with a mix of optimism and desperation, trying to cling more to the former than the latter, but midway through something snapped, and as she tore June's letter with a fury, an unsettling madness entered. With a crazed look of determination, she became a woman possessed, and as she sang "Everything's coming up roses for me and for you" — with an emphasis on the "me" — it was a completely startling moment that made one shudder.

This was just one of many thrilling moments in LuPone's triumphant Rose: a performance that was as exciting vocally as it was emotionally layered. In fact, throughout the entire evening — from the moment the curtain rose to reveal the 25-piece onstage orchestra through LuPone's emotionally devastating final scene with Laura Benanti's Louise — there was a palpable feeling of electric energy in the theatre.

It was an evening filled with highlights; here are just a few: the tremendous applause that greeted LuPone's "Sing out, Louise!"; the reprise of "Some People," which LuPone ended on a gloriously belted high note; the sensuality LuPone brought to her duet with Boyd Gaines' Herbie in "Small World"; the heartbreak of Laura Benanti's "Little Lamb"; the mix of emotions that Benanti and Leigh Ann Larkin (Dainty June) brought to a powerful "If Momma Was Married"; the moving finale of "All I Need Is the Girl," when Benanti joined Tulsa (Tony Yazbeck) in his impressive dance; the contagious joy that spread throughout the theatre during "Together"; the terrifically talented trio of Nancy Opel, Alison Fraser and Marilyn Caskey, who scored with "You Gotta Get a Gimmick"; the doomed look on LuPone's face as a jittery Herbie spoke about their imminent wedding and an even more crestfallen and desperate Rose as Herbie finally left; the sheer beauty of Benanti as she transformed from Louise to stripper Gypsy Rose Lee; the emotional fireworks between Benanti and LuPone in Louise's dressing room; the anger that spewed out during LuPone's raw "Rose's Turn"; and the aforementioned final scene where LuPone collapsed in Benanti's arms.

In 1990, when I had my first experience with Gypsy (Tyne Daly), little would I have known that I would have the great pleasure of watching my three favorite musical theatre actresses — Betty Buckley (1998 at the Paper Mill Playhouse), Bernadette Peters (2003 at the Shubert Theatre) and now Patti LuPone (2007 at City Center) — spin their magic as Rose. Each has created extremely different, yet wholly thrilling portrayals of the stage mother of all stage mothers, and they are all indelibly etched in my mind.

Patti LuPone stars in Gypsy, directed by Arthur Laurents, through July 29. Do not miss it or her.

I thought you would be interested to read what the critics have said about LuPone's Rose.

Michael Kuchwara in the Associated Press:
"There is no musical-theater performer more determined than Patti LuPone. Her drive can invest a character — whether it's Eva Peron, Norma Desmond or Mrs. Lovett — with an intense theatricality that is thrilling to watch. And those thrills are present in City Center's overwhelming revival of Gypsy, the King Lear of musicals. . . . LuPone doesn't shrink from Rose's obsessiveness, but the actress makes you understand the almost pathological compulsion that makes her shove her two daughters — first June and then Louise — into the spotlight. LuPone knows how to act the part of Rose and to sing it, too. . . . Still, in the end, Gypsy is LuPone's show, most dramatically in 'Rose's Turn,' the stunning musical soliloquy that ends the evening. It's here where Rose pours out her true feelings, letting the rage and frustration of a stymied life explode. And LuPone's powerhouse delivery is dynamite."

Matt Windman in AM New York:
"But how can we best describe LuPone's performance? She combines Rose's frustrated fury and vulnerable emotions with the polish and authority of an actress who has been ready to play the role for years. In short, she is absolutely thrilling."

Joe Dziemianowicz in the Daily News:
"Whether Patti LuPone was destined to play the steam-rolling Rose who pushes her daughters to be famous in the 1920s and '30s, who knows? But she's mesmerizing singing and acting the role created in 1959 by Ethel Merman. LuPone's work never feels like a performance. From the first line, 'Sing out, Louise,' to her final knockout number, 'Rose's Turn,' she creates a Rose you can relate to and empathize with."

Frank Scheck in the New York Post:
"When this indomitable actress finished her tour de force rendition of 'Rose's Turn,' the audience rose for a spontaneous standing ovation. LuPone acknowledged the applause fully in character as the self-aggrandizing Mama Rose, bowing floridly and in effect incorporating us into her character's elaborate fantasy. It is one of many memorable moments in the show . . . . LuPone, as might be imagined, is a powerhouse in the role, singing the hell out of the classic Styne/Sondheim score and giving a portrayal that easily ranks as one of the best Roses ever."

Linda Winer in Newsday:
"The idea that someone was 'born to play' a character sounds like hyped-up old nonsense — until, that is, Patti LuPone grabs the cliche in her bared teeth and scares the banalities away as Mama Rose in Gypsy. How is it that this force of nature is just now taking her turn in what's arguably the greatest musical-female role in probably the most satisfying backstage musical of the American golden age? . . . . LuPone's Rose is indomitable, as required. Along with the ruthlessness, there is a grand playfulness. She's a stage mother who will do just about anything to make her girls into stars so that, as she tellingly blurts out, 'So we'd be a star.' But she's also a lot of fun, which goes a long way toward explaining why Herbie and all the unpaid kids in her pathetic act could have stuck with her through thin and thinner. She wears a Louise Brooks haircut and the uninhibited sexuality of a lady trucker. When she finally takes the solo spotlight for 'Rose's Turn,' the power of her multicolored voice and the strength of her personality make a visceral connection to all our mothers who were 'born too early and started too late.'"

Ben Brantley in The New York Times:
"Ms. LuPone has endowed the thwarted Rose with charm, sensuality, a sense of humor, a startling lack of diva vanity and even a spark of bona fide mother love. . . . This Gypsy is especially good on shining a light on family frictions, and Ms. LuPone contributes beautifully to this dynamic. The early scene in which she sends both her young daughters to bed, focusing the beam of her affection exclusively on June, tells you everything you need to know about this prickly parent-child triangle and the problems it’s bound to generate. Ms. LuPone has other such moments throughout. Her scenes with Mr. Gaines are uniformly excellent. (I'll never forget her Rose, suggesting an abandoned army tank, standing in a dressing room after Herbie walks out on her.) And she brings a harrowing psychological nakedness to the big nervous-breakdown number, 'Rose's Turn.'"

David Rooney in Variety:
"Ever since she seized Broadway stardom by the throat in her career-making turn as Evita in 1979, Patti LuPone has made it clear the footlights are her lifeblood. So it's unsurprising that this indomitable performer connects fiercely with Rose, the ultimate spotlight-seeker and mother of all stage mothers. . . . But the success of any production of Gypsy is determined primarily by its Rose. LuPone earns her place in the pantheon of the role's memorable interpreters, nailing the brash comedy, the cruel tyranny, the child-like need for attention and, finally, the crushing disappointment. . . . in both the deluded triumph of 'Everything's Coming Up Roses' and the shattered self-exposure of 'Rose's Turn,' when she finally acknowledges all her clawing at success has been for herself, she's mesmerizing."

Peter Marks in the Washington Post:
"To an impressive gallery of Broadway performances that encompasses Evita Peron and Sondheim's meat-pie maven Mrs. Lovett, LuPone adds her movingly take-charge Momma Rose. The character's anger has rarely felt so transparent. Nothing halfway clings to this earthy interpretation. LuPone's Rose smiles, even manages to beam at times, but it's a harsher essence, one bordering on manic depression, that envelops the portrayal. As a result, the finales Rose is given in each act — 'Everything's Coming Up Roses' at the end of Act 1, and especially, 'Rose's Turn' in Act 2 —benefit especially well from LuPone's power-belting, the sense that the songs don't merely rise from her lungs but also from her ankles. You're left with the thoroughly discomfiting sense of a woman of terrifying entitlement."

[Tickets for Gypsy — which runs through July 29 — are available at the City Center box office (West 55th Street, between Sixth and Seventh Avenues). Tickets, priced $25-$110, are also available by calling (212) 581-1212 or by visiting www.nycitycenter.org.]

A new Elaine Paige compilation recording is now available in U.K. stores. The SONY/BMG release is titled "Elaine Paige: Songbook" and features a mix of tunes from Paige's stage and concert careers. Songs include "Don't Cry For Me Argentina" (live), "I Know Him So Well" (live), "Memory" (live), "I Only Have Eyes for You," "From a Distance," "True Colours," "Another Suitcase in Another Hall" (live), "He's Out of My Life," "Oxygen," "Heart Don't Change My Mind," "Song of a Summer Night," "Grow Young," "Mad About the Boy," "Anything Goes" (live) and "The Rose." Paige is currently starring in the title role of the London production of The Drowsy Chaperone. For more information visit www.elainepaige.com.

Stephanie J. Block, who was most recently seen in The Pirate Queen, will return to the Birdland stage in August. Block will play the famed jazz club Aug. 27 at 7 PM. The singing actress will offer an evening of standards as well as a ballad cut from Wicked and a medley of tunes from the sixties. She will also perform a few duets with musical director Billy Stritch. Birdland is located in Manhattan at 315 West 44th Street, between Eighth and Ninth Avenues. There is a $40 cover charge and a $10 food-drink minimum. Call (212) 581-3080 for reservations or visit www.birdlandjazz.com.

Christine Andreas, who is currently starring in the national tour of The Light in the Piazza, will head to the Empire Plush Room in October. Andreas will offer Love Is Good Oct. 2-6 at 8 PM, Oct. 7 at 7 PM and Oct. 10-14 at 8 PM. Martin Silvestri will be featured at the piano. Tickets, priced $37.50 (Tues.-Thurs. and Sun.) and $42.50 (Fri. and Sat.), are available by calling (866) 468-3399. The Empire Plush Room in The York Hotel is located at 940 Sutter Street in San Francisco, CA. Visit www.theempireplushroom.com for more information.

Christmas in July: Misfit Kids' Letters to Old St. Nick is the title of the July 23 benefit concert for ASTEP, Artists Striving to End Poverty. The world premiere collection of "naughty (and nice) holiday-themed songs" features lyrics by Playbill.com managing editor Kenneth Jones and music by Gerald Stockstill. The evening will boast the talents of Chris Hoch, Daniel C. Levine, Cindy Marchionda and Sally Wilfert with special guests Kara Boyer, Roger DeWitt, Colleen Fitzpatrick, Emily Harvey, Gavin Lee, Michelle Miller, Fred Rose, Ben Roseberry, Jennifer Simard, Andrew Ward and Jessica-Snow Wilson. Show time at the Players Theatre, 115 Macdougal Street, is 7:30 PM. A $20 pledge to ASTEP will secure a seat for this dress-casual, book-in-hand concert; to make a reservation, e-mail tickets@createsomethinggood.org or call (212) 706-1516. Put your name on the reservation list, and show up with $20 in cash on Monday evening. Seating is on a first come, first-served basis.

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