Two-time Tony Award-winning living legend Patti LuPone is at the top of her field of Broadway stars. I've made no secret of my immense love for her — it's the subject of my show, Patti Issues — but I am not alone.
It's unfortunate for her multitudes of fans that her career began in an era when Broadway stars were not getting record deals. For the first decades of their careers, Patti LuPone and such contemporaries as Bernadette Peters and Betty Buckley had only recorded an album or two apiece. This is in stark contrast to stars today such as Audra McDonald and Kristin Chenoweth, whose record output has been prodigious, or even up-and-comers like Kate Baldwin who go into the studio not long after their debuts.
Fortunately, Patti — miraculously, given her age — is at the peak of her powers as actress and singer and shows no signs of slowing down in either arena. As a result, we are blessed with a bounty of more recent solo albums and a catalog of world-class cast recordings.
Click through to read my selections for the essential Patti LuPone on disc.
"Far Away Places" is far and away Patti LuPone's best album. This live set captures the thrill of her recent triumph opening 54 Below — a masterly club act (conceived and directed by Scott Wittman). The performance finally won over the New York Times' longtime LuPone non-believer Stephen Holden who raved, "Ms. LuPone generates more raw excitement than any other performer on the Broadway and cabaret axis." Singing a brilliantly curated collection of eclectic songs on the subject of wanderlust, she's in astonishingly good vocal form, and the way time and experience have finessed both her musicality and interpretive skills has put her work here in a class by itself.
What is left to be said about Patti LuPone in Evita? Patti herself has said repeatedly what a challenge it was to sing the Evita score, that it took her six weeks playing the role to get comfortable with where the music sat in her voice. While the cast recording can certainly be compared unfavorably to live bootleg tapes of Patti's performance later in the run (there's an invigorating hurricane quality to her live performances), there remains a singular joy in Patti's Evita album. Her voice is pure and focused like a laser and explodes with power instantly whenever the dynamics call for it. The LuPone Eva jumps off the record and takes you on the ride of the piece.
I can only dream of going out in Manhattan on a Saturday night in 1980 when Patti LuPone was starring in Evita on Broadway and selling out week after week in her smash hit midnight cabaret act at Les Mouches. LuPone and the incomparable David Lewis lead their hot rock band through a set of arrangements that reflected the wild liberation of the time. The vibe of that act is so intoxicating that you can get a high just listening to the album. It's hyper, it's crazy, it's sensual and Patti's voice is beautiful, explosive and reckless, yet uniquely musical. This recording must be heard to be believed!
If Gypsy is the greatest American musical, then this is its greatest recording. Patti LuPone's Rose is a synthesis of everything every other previous Rose was praised for bringing to the table. This Rose is a force of nature AND this Rose is a sophisticated manipulator AND this Rose is a powerhouse steamroller AND this Rose is sexy AND psychological AND vulnerable. Patti's Rose is all of that, and she is sung thrillingly with great depth and flair. On top of that, the album includes her dynamite recordings of some songs that were cut from the original production of Gypsy, including the funny "Smile, Girls" and the chilling "Who Needs Him?"
The 1999 release of "Matters Of The Heart" was a big moment for Patti LuPone fans. Besides the fact that it was her first studio solo album after a six-year stretch since the release of solo debut "Patti LuPone Live!", "Matters Of The Heart" offered a LuPone unlike anything we had ever seen or heard before. Here was the queen of the belters singing sweetly and softly, using at times downright head voice. And she was mostly eschewing showtunes, singing an almost esoteric mix of material by singer-songwriters and other contemporary artists. The result was a rich tapestry for the ear and heart that laid the groundwork for the more versatile, well-rounded Patti LuPone that we enjoy today.
Unique among Patti LuPone albums, "The Lady With the Torch" is more in line with the work of jazz vocalists than Broadway singers. You can listen to the story in Patti songs here (and she offers plenty of drama to get caught up in) or you can have it on as background music for cocktails and dinner. She artfully finds a multitude of colors in her voice to shade these songs in great intricacy, and it makes for rewarding repeated listening. Also indispensable is the EP of seven bonus tracks, "The Lady With the Torch... Still Burning" preserving "I Love Paris" and "C'est Manifique" from Patti's acclaimed (and unrecorded) star turn in Can Can at City Center Encores!
Patti LuPone's first solo album, her 1993 live concert recording, is an abundant document of her acclaimed Los Angeles act, which became her 1995 solo Broadway and touring show, Patti LuPone On Broadway. She is in excellent voice, bringing passion and guts and laughter to a wonderfully eclectic set that culminates in a string of big numbers from musicals in which she starred. While that alone would make for an important album, Patti's takes on such chestnuts like "It Never Was You," I've Got The Sun In The Morning" and "Moonshine Lullaby" are equally essential.
Patti LuPone's Mrs. Lovett is the funniest and scariest and sexiest Mrs. Lovett of all time, and that's to say nothing of her vocals. Musically, her Mrs. Lovett is simply untouchable. She tackles the challenging rangy role with the heft and agility of an opera singer, but this is hardly bel canto — a more apt phrase might be "can belto" as she fearlessly hurtles full voice into Sondheim's demanding phrases with spinning finesse. There is powerful brass one moment, sweet honey the next. Backed up by the New York Philharmonic, this is a prime musical feast. The 2005 Broadway cast recording of Sweeney Todd is also worth a listen, not least because it reveals Patti offering a completely different approach to Mrs. Lovett which is more subtle and nuanced and sung much smaller, in keeping with the scale of the production.
If the seemingly endless recitative of Andrew Lloyd Webber's score can be grating in live productions of Sunset Boulevard, the original London cast album offers the delight of Patti LuPone singing these melodies — as no one else can — in their otherwise prohibitively high original keys. Norma Desmond's big musical moments, "Surrender," "With One Look," "New Ways To Dream," "The Perfect Year" and "As If We Never Said Goodbye" are vivid and moving in Patti's golden delivery.
There is an infectious energy on the cast album of the 1987 revival of Anything Goes, which reaches its peak moments in Patti LuPone's musical numbers. Her singularly spontaneous sense of fun and joyful abandon coupled with the effortless tidal wave of her voice bring the Cole Porter standards "I Get A Kick Out Of You," "You're the Top," "Friendship," "Anything Goes" and "Blow, Gabriel, Blow" to shimmering life.
Even if The Baker's Wife was a flop, Patti LuPone's first commercially released recording is a winner. Of course, "Meadowlark" is the main attraction, and her iconic original recording is absolutely exhilarating, including the dramatic introduction. Many a fan's favorite is "Where Is The Warmth?" the question of which is answered in Patti's performance. She's smooth as silk and great fun in the duets and downright rapturous in her part in "Serenade" (just listen to her lovely little echoes, "You're such a pest," and "I'm unimpressed").
It's no surprise Patti LuPone won the 1985 Olivier Award for Best Actress In a Musical when she created the role of Fantine in the first English-language production of Les Misérables. Hailed for her larger-than-life presence and voice, Patti's Fantine was gut-wrenchingly vulnerable and was sung more sweetly than an angel. Her definitive "I Dreamed a Dream" is almost unrecognizable from the showstopper the world has come to know. Of course, there is big belting as well, and nobody nails the pyrotechnics like LuPone.
Irving Berlin's muse was Ethel Merman. LuPone is the new-age Merman. You do the math. Patti is a natural for such classic Ethel barn burners as "Heat Wave," "Hostess With The Mostes'," and "Doin' What Comes Natur'lly" and even better on lighter fare like "No Strings" and "Count Your Blessings Instead Of Sheep." Best of all are two medleys: "Let Yourself Go"/"Steppin' Out With My Baby" and the devastating "Best Thing For You"/"Lonely Heart"/"Always."
In 1995, Patti LuPone made her return to the American stage, post-Sunset Boulevard fiasco, in grand style, playing Vera Simpson in the City Center Encores! production of Pal Joey. Wrapping her lustrous chords around countless verses of the Rodgers and Hart standard "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered," Patti seemed to find endless different angles with which to delight the audience in her paean to her gigolo. The album fabulously captures this event, along with her hilariously and richly sung renditions of "Den Of Iniquity," "Take Him" and "What is a Man?"
This deluxe two-disc set full of stars and Paul Gemignani conducting the American Theatre Orchestra is core curriculum for anyone interested in musical theatre divas. It includes sensational performances by Dorothy Loudon, Liza Minnelli, Madeline Kahn, Betty Buckley, Bernadette Peters and Patti's definite version of "Being Alive," which blows the roof off Carnegie Hall and will never leave my heavy rotation.
If the Broadway production of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown failed to generate enough audience to sustain a run, David Yazbek's Latin-influenced score only reveals more pleasures on repeated listening, and chief among them is Patti LuPone's fiery, passionate performance, particularly her virtuoso vocals on the spellbinding "Invisible."
A worthwhile listen even just for Disc 1's John Houseman monologue (telling the story of the original Orson Welles/WPA production, later documented in Tim Robbins's film "Cradle Will Rock") alone, this is a wonderful capture of Patti's seminal Olivier Award-winning performance as the Moll/Sister Mister, full of lust and irony, both street smart and naïve in her dual role.
"Dee Does Broadway"
duet with Patti on "Tonight" and "Somewhere" from West Side Story, which the pair tears to shreds and which he wisely uses to close the album.
"Philadelphia Chickens" and "Blue Moo"
Sandra Boynton's albums of self-descrbed "renegade children's music" found their ideal guest vocalist in Patti LuPone. Her hilarious, full-throttle renditions of "I Like to Fuss" and "Rabbit Tango" are not to be missed.
"Hey, Mr. Producer"
There are two versions of "Hey, Mr. Producer," but iTunes combines them, so that's the place to get Patti's otherwise out-of-print 1990 studio recording of "As Long As He Needs Me," featuring an unforgettably spine-tingling slide straight down the scale into the last note.
The soundtrack to David Mamet's film "State & Main" (in which Patti appeared) features her singing "The Song Of The Old Mill," which Mamet wrote for her (and which plays over the closing credits). It's a catchy retro number with racy lyrics (imagine sort of an R-Rated "Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive") and it makes one excited about Mamet's musical version of A Waitress In Yellowstone, long mentioned to be in development for LuPone.
This collection of John Bucchino songs gives other performers the better material, leaving Patti with the dull "Dancing." Still, her sprightly take is a welcome addition.
"Family Guy Live In Vegas"
Patti's number (a duet with Quagmire, "The Q Man Loves Nobody") is just a throwaway, but it's amusing how well she holds her own opposite the (excuse the expression) cartoonishly lecherous Quagmire.
Unfortunately, this collection doesn't preserve Patti's shimmering performance of "Don't Cry For Me, Argentina" at the 1980 Grammys when Evita won Best Cast Show Album, but rather her rendition for Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Grammy Legends" honor in 1990. Nonetheless, it's a stunning live performance of her signature, backed by a full orchestra.
(Ben Rimalower is the author and original star of the critically acclaimed Patti Issues, currently on tour to Miami Beach, San Francisco and Los Angeles. Read Playbill.com's coverage of the solo show here. Visit him at benrimalower.com and follow @benrimalower on Twitter.)