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Book review: ‘Patti LuPone: A Memoir’

Los Angeles Times

When an actor is described as “turbulent” or “difficult,” it’s typically a euphemism for “a royal pain.” Patti LuPone, one of the most celebrated musical theater performers of her generation, wears her anger with a difference. The role she casts herself repeatedly in " Patti LuPone: A Memoir” is that of battling victim.

Frowned upon by snobs who don’t appreciate her Italian American vibrancy, pigeonholed by critics who refuse to accept her as both a musical and dramatic force, and exploited by money-hungry producers who want to wring her dry before discarding her, she reviews her theatrical career in the feisty, score-settling spirit of someone who’s been burned once too often and has made a vow with her lawyers never to let it happen again (even though, at 61, she knows it probably will).

As her pulverizing (and often polarizing) star turns might suggest, this diva doesn’t suffer fools gladly. There’s a ferocity to LuPone’s stage presence, a bulldozing theatricality that, when matched with the right tour de force opportunities, such as those she seized by the neck in “Evita,” “Anything Goes,” “Sweeney Todd” and “Gypsy,” is like a return to a golden age when powerhouses ruled Broadway.

The memoir is framed by LuPone’s hard-won triumph in “Gypsy.” She first performed in the show as a teen in her hometown of Northport, Long Island. But her saga with the musical really begins in 2006 at the Ravinia Festival in Highland Park, Ill., where the role everyone had been telling her for years she was born to play, that juggernaut of a stage mother indelibly created by Ethel Merman, would become a reality for three glorious nights outdoors in front of hordes of picnicking theatergoers.

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The possibility of reprising her performance in New York, however, had a major obstacle: Arthur Laurents, the book’s author who controls the rights, was mad at her for backing out of one his plays. She was prepared to grovel, but Laurents surprised her by telling her that he wanted to direct her in a new production.

A New York test run of “Gypsy” at Encores! Summer Stars series was met by enthusiastic audiences but received a tepid response from the New York Times. Another hurdle, same old show. Would the production be able to move to Broadway without chief theater critic Ben Brantley’s blessing? Fate decided yes, and on March 27, 2008, “Gypsy” opened at the St. James Theatre to rapturous reviews (even Brantley converted). LuPone would go on to win her second Tony Award (her first was for “Evita”). “Vindication” is how she describes the feeling.

I was at the press preview for “Gypsy” attended by nearly all the major critics, and after LuPone completed her dramatic attack of “Rose’s Turn,” I whispered to my companion that we had just witnessed something historic. At long last I understood the derivation of the theater expression “knock ‘em dead”: LuPone had clobbered us into awed submission.

That same overpowering energy, however, is less appealing in a stage memoir that keeps opening up old wounds. Andrew Lloyd Webber, who in LuPone’s still-furious account, pulled the rug out from under by nixing her participation in the Broadway premiere of “Sunset Boulevard,” tops her list of manipulative monsters. LuPone originated the role of Norma Desmond in London’s West End and was contractually set for the New York premiere. But after a bad review by Frank Rich and endless mega-musical machinations, she was forced to make do with a big settlement that paid for what she humorously calls “the Andrew Lloyd Webber Memorial Swimming Pool” at her Connecticut home.

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Glenn Close, who won acclaim for the Los Angeles and New York productions of “Sunset,” gets sideswiped for never having reached out to LuPone during the whole public fiasco. Time hasn’t brought perspective. As LuPone reviews her humiliations like a bamboozled middle-aged bride in divorce court, you feel like shouting to her, “Patti, get a grip — it’s only a schlocky Andrew Lloyd Webber musical!” Her bout with breast cancer (caught early, knock wood) is a blip on the radar screen compared with this battle royale.

This isn’t the only dirt that’s dished. We hear about LuPone’s anguished yet nonetheless tender love affair with a roving Kevin Kline that began at Juilliard and continued during their touring rep days with the Acting Company. There’s a diatribe against the Israeli actor Chaim Topol, whom she describes as “obnoxious, unprofessional, and verbally and physically abusive” during the abortive pre-Broadway run of the misbegotten musical “The Baker’s Wife.” And she’s still griping about the way John Houseman, one of the heads of the newly formed drama division at Juilliard that accepted her into its inaugural class, routinely gave her the shaft in student productions.

LuPone retraces her stage résumé from her high school singing lessons through her predictably tumultuous London success in " Les Misérables” to the Broadway closing of “Gypsy.” The book seems to be written for aspiring thespians, a convenient cover for her confrontational candor. She gets to have her say, then deliver lessons about the importance of nurturing talent, learning from failure and all the rest of the clichés veterans shower on up-and-comers.

Earnestness isn’t her strong suit. The kisses she blows to playwright David Mamet and “Evita” costar Mandy Patinkin represent her most lackluster prose. Her acting tips recycle drama school platitudes. As for her personal life, she sketches an incomplete portrait of herself as lonely and driven until her marriage and the birth of her son.

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As lacking in introspection as her tirades can be (can anyone always be the aggrieved party?), LuPone’s voice is most alive when crackling with hostility. She may have disburdened herself of a lifetime of grudges with this memoir, but when she opens later this fall in the new Broadway musical “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown,” I expect to find her in fighting form.

charles.mcnulty@latimes.com

McNulty is The Times’ theater critic.


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