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Patti LuPone braces for theater’s long closure: ‘I was made tough by this business’

Patti LuPone at home
Patti LuPone at home
(Joshua Johnston)

Holed up at her home in rural Connecticut, Patti LuPone has been working furiously during the pandemic. The theaters are dark, but the two-time Tony Award winner doesn’t need a stage to perform. As a bona fide Broadway royal, she has the power to turn even her cellar into one of the world’s most coveted venues.

LuPone has been on a whirlwind virtual publicity tour for “Hollywood,” Ryan Murphy’s Netflix limited series, in which she plays a failed silent-screen actress who becomes a Hollywood mogul with a socially progressive agenda after gaining control of her husband’s studio. (File under the genre: alternative history.)

Between social media check-ins with her fans, a good many shot from her theatrical romper room of a basement, she has been lending out her formidable talents to award shows, benefit readings and special events, include the starry birthday bash that was held for Stephen Sondheim’s 90th. At a time when musical theater buffs are suffering extreme withdrawal, she’s been a singing cavalry, rescuing the deprived with her Broadway-style bel canto.

With a voice that swoops from seductive sweetness to pure brass, LuPone mainlines show tunes directly into the pleasure centers of her listeners’ brains. A diva who enjoys dishing the dirt, she can be just as attention-grabbing when firing off answers to the press. With the blasé acerbity of her idol Bette Davis, she’s more than happy to recount the time she snatched a cellphone out of the texting hands of an audience member midshow or relive her long-standing feud with Andrew Lloyd Webber.

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LuPone, 71, was supposed to be performing the role of Joanne in the Broadway revival of Sondheim’s “Company,” which came wreathed in raves from London. But COVID-19 stopped the show in previews, leaving many of us lusting in lockdown for her version of “The Ladies Who Lunch.”

We arranged to do the interview by phone rather than on Zoom, because LuPone was coming straight from her morning workout. She swears she has been styling herself for her recent media appearances, but who can bother with hair and makeup these days?

How are you coping with the pandemic?

I’m not handling it well. I worked out and did Yoga With Adriene, a 30-day program. I did Day 1, so let’s see if I can do Day 2. Structure is eluding me. If I don’t do something in the morning, the day’s gone. And I find I have more blue days than I had when this whole thing started, because it’s just going to go on forever.

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I’m having a really hard time being stuck in a house all day stocked with food.

We have freezers in our garage and they look like meat lockers. I don’t know who to believe, so we’re stocking it like survivalists.

You’ve been on a media blitz of late.

There’s something to be said about being overexposed in quarantine. I’m starting to feel that. The interviews are primarily about “Hollywood,” which I’m happy to do what I can to promote. But I’ve been getting so many email requests. My husband said I’m busier now than when I’m working.

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How did “Hollywood” come about?

When I was doing “Pose,” I was told that Ryan wanted to know what I was doing in the fall. “Nothing, why?!?” “He wants to write a role for you in ‘Hollywood.’” And then he emailed me that the character would be a failed silent-film actress who gets pregnant by someone who becomes a studio mogul. They get married, have a kid and she’s relegated to the corner, a failed actress and a failed wife. But she inherits the studio and makes movies only for gays, minorities and women. He said it was very loosely based on Irene Selznick, who was the daughter of Louis B. Mayer and the wife of David O. Selznick. I read her memoir, “A Private View,” which was kind of boring when she’s in Boston and New York. But then she gets to L.A. and it becomes this fascinating history of the beginning of Hollywood.

Was it fun venturing back to the golden age?

Ryan said he wanted “over-the-top glamour.” When I went to my first fitting at Western Costume, I walked into the lobby and almost burst into tears. There are all these pictures of Montgomery Clift, Elizabeth Taylor, Humphrey Bogart, Spencer Tracy, Clark Gable, all adorned in their costumes. It was a crazy dream come true for me. As a kid, I knew I was born for this business, but who doesn’t want to be a movie star?

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The cast of “Hollywood” is loaded with stage talent — Jeremy Pope, Joe Mantello, Holland Taylor, Harriet Harris. Jim Parsons is a mega TV star and a fine Broadway actor. There was a time when the worlds of Broadway and Hollywood were kept apart.

That was my issue when I was younger. It may be due to the fact that they’re on opposite coasts. This isn’t the case in London. You can go to Pinewood Studios and be back for a show in the West End or the National at night. I don’t exactly know when it changed, but when I was young, if I was a stage actor, I couldn’t be a film actor.

When you’re on a set these days, are you being treated like Broadway legend Patti LuPone?

Yes! [Laughter] In every workspace there are people who love musical theater. So when I was on set, there were people who had no idea who I was except I was the actress in “Hollywood” who was playing Avis. And then there were people who are like, “Oh my God, it’s Patti LuPone.” Other people know me from notorious things that I’ve done [more laughter], but if you’re savvy in the business, you know I’m a stage actress. When I was doing the TV series “Life Goes On,” people had no idea I was a singer. They had no idea that I had been Evita. That’s perfectly fine with me. I’d rather be known as an actress.

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“Hollywood” shines a spotlight on the casting couch. Does Broadway have a #MeToo problem?

I was never approached. I was either shown the door or hired, but I didn’t have to trade [laughter]. I was so rejected! No, I take that back. What I experienced was emotional abuse, not sexual abuse. Emotional abuse at the hands of directors.

You have a reputation for speaking your mind. Were you born tough or made tough?

I was not born tough. I was made tough by this business. Because I was not going to be denied the right to perform. I knew where I belonged, and I knew I belonged on the stage. My personality is controversial. I was getting in trouble when I was a toddler, so nothing is new. But when it came to the ability to work, I met a lot of resistance. It started at school, at Juilliard. They didn’t cast me because they didn’t like my personality. And then when I was a professional, there was a lot of rejection, a lot of heartbreak, and a lot of developing of survival instinct. Which is necessary. I certainly wouldn’t want my career handed to me. I think the best lesson is failure. The worst lesson is success because then you’re just trying to repeat what worked last time.

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I find now, because of the longevity of my career, a much more collaborative environment between director and actor. But the constant dismissal of an actor’s input by directors is so debilitating.

Does gender play a role in this dynamic?

I always said it was a Patti thing. I didn’t say they were picking on me because I’m a woman. I suspected it, but more often than not they’re not listening to me or they’re being aggressive because it’s me, Patti. That’s the way I looked at it. But as for the people I’ve recently worked with, Michael Greif, Doug Wright and Scott Frankel in the musical “War Paint,” they were unbelievably collaborative. If they valued what I had to say, then I trusted what I had to say, which unlocked something else and I was able to create and contribute more.

Do you think your reputation is unearned?

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In Interview Magazine, they asked Mira Sorvino what’s it like working with Patti LuPone. Well, why didn’t they ask what’s it like working with Holland Taylor or Joe Mantello or Jim Parsons. I see that a lot: What’s it like working with Patti LuPone? You would hope they’re asking the question because they think I’m fabulous as opposed to thinking I’m a pain in the ass.

I’ve had my share of problems with other actors. There are actors I will never work with again because it’s just not worth it. For the most part, I’m a trained ensemble player. I remember getting the most important letter of my career from Zoe Caldwell after she saw me in “Sweeney Todd.” She basically said I didn’t suck the oxygen out of the room, and I understood what she meant, that I was a team player. That’s the way I was trained.

It was the roles that created this larger-than-life persona. I am an ensemble player, but when you’re cast as Evita, when you’re cast as Lady Bird Johnson, when you’re cast as Maria Callas, when you’re cast as Reno Sweeney, when you’re cast as Madame Rose — those are larger-than-life characters.

An open letter protests systemic racism in the American theater. How can we can get back on track? Start by reading the plays providing a roadmap.

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Was “Hollywood” a harmonious experience?

Ryan assembles casts that are happy to be there, and it starts there. It starts with you’re happy to be at work. You’re not carrying baggage onto the stage. This was a very happy company. When you’re working with Joe Mantello, Holland Taylor, Harriet Harris, Mira Sorvino, all bringing their A game, there is no issue.

Would you call the 2008 Broadway revival of “Gypsy” the high point of your Broadway career? It’s definitely one of my top theatergoing memories.

“Gypsy” we did for the love of Arthur [Laurents] and Arthur did it for the love of Tom Hatcher, his partner for more than 50 years.

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Didn’t Arthur ban you from his work for a time?

Yes. But whether this is true or not, Tom told Arthur on his deathbed that he had to do “Gypsy” with me. Not because of me but to keep Arthur alive. So there was just love abounding in the rehearsal room and onstage. Arthur rehearsed us in a way that even the smallest role owned their part.

I find it ridiculous, this Actors’ Equity rule that once a show opens, actors are entitled to take personal days. I always thought the personal day was your day off. Everybody is there till previews, but after we’re open people start missing left and right. The chain is broken, and it drives me crazy. But in “Gypsy,” even with that rule in place, nobody missed, because they owned their part, they wanted to be there. We loved each other and it showed onstage. As the leading lady, I was grateful for the support, because there’s a lot of drama in “Gypsy.” There’s a lot of anger. There’s a lot of emotional stuff. It’s not just a comedy.

For a musical theater actress, starring in “Gypsy” is like playing King Lear. Are there other roles of that stature that you covet?

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No [laughter], I’m so lazy. I don’t think that way, and I’ll tell you why I don’t. I used to as a kid, and I never got the part. The disappointment was devastating. So at some point in my career I just thought, let the universe unfold and whatever role comes in my direction is the role I’m supposed to play.

I read after the Broadway production of “War Paint” that you were through with musicals. What lured you back to do “Company”?

Marianne Elliott. I saw “War Horse” at Lincoln Center Theater and was just gobsmacked. And then I went to London and saw “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,” and I just put out into the universe that I have to work with this woman. And then I did “War Paint,” and it was incredibly painful at the end. I thought I just can’t do musicals anymore. My body is broken. The repetition of eight shows a week. And then Marianne called and I went, “No, no, no no.” And then I remembered what I had put out into the universe. I want to work with this woman, so I said yes for Marianne. She’s an extraordinary, brilliant conceptualist director. She’s also a very wise person. She know what she wants, and knows how to guide an actor to it.

You’ve called Stephen Sondheim and David Mamet your two biggest influences. What did you get from working with them?

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They are a challenge, and to rise to the challenge, to be able to achieve accuracy, whether it’s in understanding David’s ideas or mastering his rhythms or understanding Steve’s ideas or mastering his rhythms — I don’t want it easy.

Does Sondheim still make you nervous?

He came to a couple of rehearsals and the last two previews before we opened in London. And he was very, very happy. He actually cried when he was talking to us. We all were just thrilled to death that he was there. All of us were very nervous. We knew he was in the audience. We know he likes and respects Marianne very much, and she him, so we weren’t afraid that the production was going to get trashed by Steve. Everybody was afraid how our deliveries were going to be appreciated by him. He was very happy.

But you know what they say about the best-laid plans. We were supposed to open the Broadway production on his birthday. It would have been historical. I am sad for so many reasons. I’m sad for the uncertainty of Broadway, sad for the fact that we are going to be waiting a very long time to come back to Broadway. I think live performance will be the last thing to come back, if it comes back. It’s scary, a scary time.

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How was it taking part in the online birthday gala for him?

It was hard. Steve thanked all of us individually for our participation. I wrote to him saying we all wish we could have done better. It’s different when you have an orchestra behind you. I had one AirPod in my ear, so I was singing “Anyone Can Whistle” to what I was hearing out of one AirPod in my ear. I had to do it two or three times, and then I sent it off saying, “I can’t do it any better.” I kind of gave up on it, because it was really hard. I’m sure it was the same for everybody. We tried to do the best we could under these circumstances. It better not become the way we do live theater.

What were your highlights from the show?

I loved “Someone in a Tree.” That’s one of my favorite songs in a musical. I’ve never seen it onstage. I love the music from “Pacific Overtures.” I listen to that CD over and over.

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I saw that you had some negative things to say about Christine Baranski, Meryl Streep and Audra McDonald’s version of “The Ladies Who Lunch.” What was your issue with their performance?

I’ll always have those three girls in my face when I sing that song. How did any of us handle it? We did the best we could. I don’t know how you do that song with three people, let alone one. Everybody did what they did for the love of Steve. The love that came out of our computers was so moving.

It sounds like you’re mellowing! Anything you want to get off your chest?

What’s bothering me is that idiot in the White House and his idiot sycophants. It’s like this is the most depressed I’ve ever been in this country, and it’s driving me out of the country.

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You have an Italian passport. Will you move to Italy if Donald Trump is reelected?

No, to Ireland. I have a finite amount of time left, and I just want peace. I want to go somewhere where they still have common sense and empathy. And we are doomed. We are doomed. This is a failed experiment. We are not getting out of this.

These are grim times.

It’s been a continuation of dark days, with Stephen Miller and children in cages, and that we have turned away asylum seekers and the Justice Department corrupting justice with Paul Manafort. And now Obamagate, oh shut your mouth. It’s exhausting. That’s why I want to get out of here. I’m too old.

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One last question (a follow-up, sent via email): Have the recent Black Lives Matter protests given you any hope that change is underway in America?

If actual change occurs. Not in this administration, I fear. But I am in awe, inspired and moved to tears by the protesters in this movement/revolution. It’s overdue. I just wish we had compassionate and intelligent leaders instead of what we actually have. As long as there’s a stalemate in Congress and a deluded, out-of-his-depth president, we’ll be spinning our wheels.

This conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.


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