Emotional Journey for ‘First Lady’ of Stage
Patti LuPone is known to theatergoers for her memorable portrayals of larger-than-life characters such as Eva Peron in “Evita,” Norma Desmond in “Sunset Boulevard” and Maria Callas in “Master Class.’ ”
She’s gained a not-inconsiderable following of “LuPonistas"--fans who attend her every show. She can work audiences into a lather simply by stepping into a spotlight and raising her arms to presage the first bars of “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” from the musical “Evita.”
LuPone, 51, landed a Tony and a Drama Desk Award for her portrayal of Argentine dictator Juan Peron’s wife. She’s considered one of the finest Broadway performers of her generation and was the first American to land a principal part in a British Royal Shakespeare Co. production and earn an Olivier Award, Britain’s equivalent of a Tony.
She also has frequently appeared on television and in films, playing Libby Thatcher in the 1989-93 TV series “Life Goes On” and including among her credits such movies as “Witness,” “Driving Miss Daisy” and “Summer of Sam.”
Despite the talent, fame and awards, LuPone’s show-biz career has been far from smooth. LuPone is bright, brassy and confident in her abilities, but she admits she’s been sensitive to criticism. A reviewer’s harsh words or producer’s snub could send her despairing.
“You want everybody to understand and accept what you’re doing,” LuPone said.
Her greatest career challenge occurred six years ago in what’s been waggishly referred to as the Great Showbiz Scandal of 1994. After playing Norma Desmond in “Sunset Boulevard” in London, one of the most important roles she’d had to date, Andrew Lloyd Webber passed her over for the Broadway run. When the show opened in New York, Oscar-nominated actress Glenn Close was in her place.
Webber cited the switch as an investors’ decision.
Some speculated that he was counting on Close’s box-office appeal to fuel ticket sales. For LuPone, the public dismissal, the method of disclosure (she said she learned of her firing via Liz Smith’s column) and her replacement by a non-singing actress stung badly.
As the debacle got furiously rehashed in the international media, LuPone took several weeks off to recoup. She also initiated legal action, which eventually resulted in a settlement to her of more than $1 million. She diligently tried to put the incident behind her by traveling, hiking and spending time with her family. But hard times lay ahead.
When she found herself still disconsolate, she realized she might be battling a serious depression.
She sought counseling and was prescribed Prozac, she said. Tensions from the episode also had placed great strain on LuPone’s then-6-year-old marriage to cinematographer Matt Johnston.
“We struggled,” she said. “I’m a deeply Sicilian, emotional person. Matt said, ‘Why are you taking it out on me, Patti?’ ” They worked hard to regain their closeness.
Then a nodule was discovered on LuPone’s vocal cord, which apparently had formed after LuPone unknowingly suffered a minor vascular hemorrhage. She underwent vocal cord surgery.
After healing, she began training with a new voice coach to learn a more operatic method of singing, one that could better protect her voice. “I had been belting [singing without vibrato, a common Broadway singing style], but I don’t anymore,” she said. “I had been getting by on sheer guts and willpower.”
LuPone slowly began to reassemble her personal and professional life. She used part of her settlement money to build what she calls the “Andrew Lloyd Webber Memorial Pool” at her Adirondack-style log home in Litchfield County, Conn. Most importantly, she girded herself for a return to the Broadway stage in the productions “Pal Joey” and “Patti LuPone on Broadway.”
LuPone, the great grandniece of Italian opera star Adelina Patti, debuted on stage at age 4, when she tap-danced in a Northport, Long Island, elementary school gig. The applause set her on a career path. By the time she got to high school she was singing in a concert choir and madrigal group, playing tuba in a marching band and cello in the school orchestra, taking voice and piano lessons and studying dance and drama.
“She had the lead in every play from ‘South Pacific’ to ‘My Fair Lady,’ ” said Jayne Kane, a Long Island middle-school teacher who has known LuPone since they attended kindergarten together. “She captured a lot of hearts.”
LuPone also developed a dance act with her brothers called the LuPone Trio that performed at local benefits and concerts.
In 1968, LuPone entered Juilliard’s then-new drama program headed by John Houseman. Of the 36 students in her class, only 14 graduated on schedule four years later. By all accounts the training program was grueling. Students put in 13-hour days (including six hours of pre-rehearsal warmups) and were given only one day off a week.
LuPone survived it, eventually joining several peers, including then-boyfriend Kevin Kline, to form the Acting Co. theater group. For four years she toured the country with the group, performing in six classical plays.
In 1975, she received critical acclaim as Rosamund in “The Robber Bridegroom,” playing alongside Kline, who was cast as an amorous thief. She recalled these times as “the sweetest, most joyous moments I’ve ever spent on the stage.”
LuPone’s big break came in 1978 when she was asked to audition for “Evita.” Aware that competition for the role was keen, LuPone hoped only that Harold Prince, the show’s director, might remember her for future parts.
But her interpretation of “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” reportedly left listeners teary-eyed, even though they’d just heard the song performed several times by other Broadway hopefuls. LuPone beat out more than 200 actresses for the role, including Meryl Streep, Ann-Margret and Raquel Welch.
The pop opera called for LuPone to be onstage for all but four minutes of the show, singing every word of her dialogue. To keep strong, LuPone put herself on a tough regimen. She abstained from sugar, alcohol and food preservatives, took vitamins several times daily and slept 10 to 12 hours a night. “That was my most difficult role,” LuPone said. “It was difficult because I had to face all of it myself. I had no personal support, no boyfriend at the time, or anyone else to help me through it.”
She triumphed. Then in 1986, her longed-for personal support appeared in the form of an Indiana-bred cameraman named Matt Johnston, whom LuPone met on the set of the television movie “LBJ: The Early Years.” They married in 1988, and two years later LuPone gave birth to a son, Josh.
A controversial “first lady of the theater,” as the London Times once called her, LuPone has remained true to herself, her art and her convictions.
The inscription about her in the 1967 Northport High School yearbook says it all:
“Most musical, most dramatic, class clown, the most well-known person in school, extremely talented, exuberant, outgoing, nuts, peppy, uninhibited. Will be long remembered.”
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
Patti LuPone’s 5 Rules of Survival
Few careers are as difficult, stressful and volatile as that of an actor. Patti LuPone offers five tips for thespians and others to get through hard times:
1. Always remember that there’s an end to every depression or malaise. Everything occurs in cycles.
2. Have a support system--friends, family--to keep you going.
3. Keep your commitments. Unfortunately, there are no rules anymore. It’s a less honorable world. But you don’t have to follow the trend.
4. Choose a career that reflects who you are.
5. Get a “happiness clause.” I’ve heard that Liza Minnelli has a clause in her contracts that says, “If I’m not happy, I’m leaving.” What a great idea.