Less than two weeks of onstage rehearsal for one of the most demanding roles in the musical theatre canon, no preview period whatsoever and the major theatre critics in attendance for the first public performance would be daunting for any actor, no matter how gifted. But for Patti LuPone, who recently faced that exact set of circumstances while starring in the Ravinia Festival's production of Gypsy, that recipe for disaster became a formula for overwhelming success.
On Aug. 11 LuPone — following such illustrious predecessors as Ethel Merman, Angela Lansbury, Tyne Daly and Bernadette Peters — became the latest actress to portray "Mama" Rose, the overbearing stage mother who, because she was "born too soon and started too late," lives out her show-business fantasies through her two daughters, alienating both in the process. It's a role that LuPone, who boasts not only a powerful, lush and soaring alto but the dramatic prowess that has led to stage triumphs in works by Terrence McNally and David Mamet, seems destined to have played. LuPone, however, says that she never thinks, "'I was born to play this part.' I may say it about Rosamund in The Robber Bridegroom, [but] I would not I say I was born to play Evita or [Rose], but other people have said that these are 'your parts.'"
LuPone may not say it, but the critics certainly did. In fact, Variety's Steven Oxman was so taken with LuPone's performance that he wrote in his review that "it's hard to imagine these three performances will be Patti LuPone's only opportunity to play Rose." If she is somewhat baffled by the roles people claim she should play, LuPone does admit, "I know I've got the technical chops, I know I have the voice, I know I have the energy for the part — I know I can understand it emotionally and intellectually. And," the Tony and Olivier Award winner adds, "the other thing is I've never seen anybody play it. I saw the [Gypsy] movie, but I did not see Tyne [Daly] do it. I was actually asked to replace Tyne, and I said no because it was Tyne's production . . . [and I would want] a production of my own. I didn't see Angela [Lansbury] do it, I didn't see Ethel [Merman] do it. I haven't seen the movie of Bette [Midler] playing it. I didn't see Bernadette [Peters] play it. I've never seen the play! I've seen the Rosalind Russell movie. What I say to that is ignorance is bliss! I came to it without any kind of point of reference, other than Rosalind Russell's, and I haven't seen that movie since I was a kid."
Actually, LuPone came to Gypsy directly from the acclaimed Broadway revival of Sweeney Todd, and because her rehearsal time at Ravinia was so limited, she began her work in New York. "What I wanted to do," LuPone explains, "is start with 'Rose's Turn.' The one thing that happens at the Ravinia Festival is we never get to the end. And I thought that I'd better start with the end because that's the one they're going to be waiting for. We worked a lot on that, and I'm glad we did because it didn't get short shrift in Ravinia, but it could have. I just kept insisting, 'Let's tech it, let's tech it, and let's do it everyday.' . . . I tried to get the physicality of the dancing, and then I just kept getting directed by Lonny [Price], and ultimately he and [choreographer] Bonnie [Walker] both said, 'Smile, Patti. Don't forget to smile.' And, I guess it took a long time for me to understand that [Rose is initially enjoying that moment]." LuPone says her exploration of Rose also included a good deal of research: "I read all the books. I read 'Early Havoc,' 'More Havoc' and 'Gypsy,' and in all of the books, both [June Havoc and Gypsy Rose Lee] described their mother. June said that contrary to popular belief, her mother was not a Calliope, she was a music box. And Gypsy said [Rose] was a small, fragile, vulnerable woman and a man trap. I just played into the fragility and the vulnerability of it. . . . But [whoever plays Rose] has to have the chops to open up on those high notes, to sing as largely as Jule Styne wrote it. What I tried to do is combine the two things: the way it was written musically and what I had read about her."
It's during the first-act finale when Rose must exhibit that complicated mix of vulnerability and unflinching determination. "What I think is brilliant about that [scene]," LuPone relates, "is the way the speech leads into ['Everything's Coming Up Roses']. What I tried to do is connect that whole thing, and I was blessed to have Paul Gemignani at the baton because he is such an actor's conductor. There's no beat between the end of the sentence and the downboat — there's no breath, he's right there. I tried to build the whole speech as a revelation. This is what she's going to do, and she's convincing herself as much as she's convincing Louise that Louise is the next star. And then at the end, at the very last, I made the crack — I tried to show the crack in the armor. 'Everything's coming up roses for ME and for you.' Whether I succeeded or not, I don't know, but that's what I was trying to do. I think she has to remain positive. It only makes the fall deeper."
Although her late mother was not a stage mother — "As a matter of fact, my mother is famous for saying to both my brother [actor Robert LuPone] and me, 'You and your brother just flit from job to job!'" — LuPone says the role was not difficult to comprehend "because it is an incredibly well-written part." When asked what she believes propels Rose's actions, LuPone quotes book writer Arthur Laurents: "'Just wanted to be noticed.' I think all of it is blind — I don't think it's calculated. All the women in that family were very powerful women, and they all married early, had children and realized this is not what they wanted and tried to find ways out. Big Lady was an underwear, corset seamstress and left Rose and left the husband and went off and made her living and dropped back into the family and left [again], so Rose was basically abandoned by her mother. And Rose, who was married at 14, apparently saw her way out when June was on toe shoes at two years old."
LuPone says her time with the role, though brief, was extremely gratifying. "I understood why people wanted me to play it. On Friday night, when there was that standing ovation after 'Rose's Turn,' I was flipped out. I do not know why [the audience stood]. I'm not being modest. I just don't know why. . . . Perhaps I illustrated a monologue as opposed to an 11th hour number. It's incredibly structured, and it's heartbreaking. All I did — and I'm not a substitution actor at all — but I thought about [my son] Joshua. 'Give 'em love, and what does it get you? One quick look as each of 'em leaves you.' I thought it's a mother's lament."
Singing the Styne-Sondheim score, she says, was "pure bliss" and Laurents' scenes are "concise and precise. There's enough of a scene to give out the information to have the emotional transitions to promote the song; they are seamless transitions." LuPone says she would love the opportunity to play Rose again, even though performing the role eight times a week would be demanding. "I questioned that when I did the [Ravinia] run, but I do know that I went through all the technicals, and I went through the four performances because we did a dress rehearsal Thursday night, then shows Friday, Saturday and Sunday, and I still had my voice. I would have to modulate the delivery of 'Rose's Turn.' I think that was the only place I was in danger — with the screaming of 'For me, for me, for me, for me!'" Surprisingly, though, LuPone says Eva Peron in Evita is the more demanding role. "It was [written] in a [vocal] stratosphere I couldn't handle," she says, adding, "I would have to say the three most difficult [musical theatre roles for me have been] Rose, Evita and Mrs. Lovett. Energy wise, vocal energy wise, vocal precision wise — these three roles are the ones that are monsters."
Speaking of Mrs. Lovett, LuPone is currently playing her final weeks as that meat-pie-making schemer in John Doyle's actor-musician production of Sweeney Todd, which ends its run at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre Sept. 3. "I started crying last night," LuPone says with an audible lump in her throat. "There were two people standing at the back row orchestra during the final number ['The Ballad of Sweeney Todd'], and I just started to cry. I don't know if I'm going to be able to make it. It's just the greatest experience I've ever had. It still is. It's an incredible company — it is an incredible piece."
As for future projects, LuPone will be part of two operas within the next year: the November world premiere of Jake Heggie's To Hell and Back, "which is based on the myth of Persephone and modernized for spousal abuse," and Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill's The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, which will be directed by Sweeney's Doyle for the L.A. Opera in February 2007. "All of a sudden, at my age, I'm entering the opera world. I think it's pretty fantastic, but I'd love to be able to return to Broadway. I'd love to be able to do Rose in New York."
Whether LuPone will play Mama Rose in New York will be up to the musical theatre gods, but it is almost a given that she will inhabit the role again somewhere — whether in London or with other symphony orchestras around the country. "All of a sudden this year I reached legendary status because I'm the dodo bird of Broadway," LuPone says with her infectious laugh. "I'm practically extinct! You really have to run to catch my performances." And, no doubt, her numerous fans will be there to catch her work in To Hell and Back, The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny and, one can only hope, Gypsy.
Stage and screen star Sandy Duncan will play the free-spirited Mame Dennis in the Barrington Stage Company's upcoming semi-staged concert version of the classic Jerry Herman musical. Duncan replaces the previously announced Donna McKechnie, who withdrew from the production to star in the West End debut of the 1974 Andrews Sisters musical Over Here! Julianne Boyd will direct Mame, which is scheduled to run Oct. 4-15 at the Barrington Stage in Pittsfield, MA. For more information about the Barrington Stage Company, call (413) 229-2076 or visit www.barringtonstageco.org. Speaking of McKechnie, the former A Chorus Line star will celebrate the release of her long-awaited autobiography with two book-signing events in Manhattan. McKechnie's "Time Steps: My Musical Comedy Life," which she co-wrote with Greg Lawrence, is due in stores from Simon & Schuster Sept. 6. On Sept. 12 the new author will appear at The Drama Book Shop at 6 PM, and she will also be on hand to autograph copies of her tome Oct. 6 at 7 PM at the Barnes & Noble Lincoln Triangle. The Drama Book Shop is located at 250 West 40th Street. Barnes & Noble is located at 1972 Broadway at 66th Street. Admission to both events is free.
Jay Records will release the premiere recording of Hunter Foster and David Kirshenbaum's Summer of '42 musical in September. The new CD features the talents of Rachel York (Dorothy), Megan Valerie Walker (Miriam), Celia Keenan-Bolger (Aggie), Joe Gallagher (Benjie), Brett Tabisel (Oscy), Ryan Driscoll (Hermie), Ayal Miodovnik (Pete), Danielle Ferland (Gloria) and Bill Buell (Mr. Sanders, Walter Winchell). The recording was made following a May 2005 concert at the York Theatre Company, which was directed by Gabriel Barre. Visit www.jayrecords.com for more information.
Singer-actress Adriane Lenox, who will reprise her Tony-winning turn as Mrs. Muller for West Coast audiences in the upcoming national tour of Doubt, has been cast in the film "My Blueberry Nights." Lenox will play a waitress opposite Norah Jones in the Christal Films production, which will be directed by Wong Kar Wai. "My Blueberry Nights" is scheduled to film in Lenox' hometown of Memphis; the motion picture, according to press notes, tells the story of "a young woman who travels across America to find the true meaning of love, and encounters offbeat characters along the way."
Well, that's all for now. Happy diva-watching! E-mail questions or comments to [email protected]