Patti LuPone has regrets? Not when I spoke to her earlier this fall. She was too busy preparing to take her only son Joshua off to college. The Long Island-born star of shows like Evita, Anything Goes, Sweeney Todd and Gypsy sounded for a moment more like Libby Thatcher, the loving mother she played in the groundbreaking show Life Goes On, than a Juilliard-trained perfectionist who is constantly challenging and outdoing herself on stage. “I’m just trying to get my kid to college,” she said. “It’s a rite of passage. It’s gonna be hard.” She mock sobbed a moment before laughing and admitting, “It’ll be fine.”
LuPone is coming to Phoenix on January 2 to perform her one-woman show, Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda ... Played That Part, which gives the Broadway legend the chance to perform roles and songs she never got to do. ”It’s the songs that I may have sung, or wanted to sing, or didn’t get a chance to sing. It’s sort of a chronological history of my life on the stage,” she explained. What roles? “Roles I’m too old for now, like Nellie Forbrush in South Pacific, Ruth in Wonderful Town, Adelaide in Guys and Dolls, Ado Annie in Oklahoma! … sometimes I like to go for the second bananas because they’re the better parts.”
Patti LuPone started her career as part of the first graduating class of Juilliard’s Drama Division, becoming a member of John Houseman’s Acting Company and a frequent collaborator with playwright David Mamet. It was her Tony Award-winning role as Eva Peron in Evita that made her famous, leading to a number of other career highlights (see comments section below), including another Tony for her Mama Rose in Gypsy.
Lupone considers herself “lyric-driven” as a performer, adding that doing solo work taught her more than four years at Juilliard. “On Saturday nights (after Evita), I would go down to a club called Les Mouches and do a cabaret act at midnight, and I discovered that I learned more about delivering a song, so when I went back to Evita, I was better. “Facing an audience as oneself and delivering a song, it doesn’t mean I’m not playing a character — it’s just not a book musical. It is me and I will act a song, but I’m not in costume and make-up and wigs.”
I asked LuPone how she chooses her roles. “First of all, if it’s offered to me, I rarely say no,” she replied. “Just because I’m grateful that they do. I don’t know. It’s all instinctual — I sort of know that I should do this show or not do that show, and I’m not always right.” She also trusts in the way each role leads to another challenge, such as her opera debut in To Hell and Back led to her Grammy Award-winning Los Angeles triumph in Kurt Weill’s Rise and Fall of the City of Mahogonny, which in turn led to her Evening of Kurt Weill at the Ravinia Festival in Chicago.
LuPone’s trademark bluntness and brash talent has made her beloved to countless gay fans, including Jack McFarland on a memorable Will & Grace episode. She has also appeared on Ugly Betty (as Michael Urie’s mother), 30 Rock, Frasier and Oz. The inspiring Life Goes On tackled HIV issues through Chad Lowe’s character Jesse, who wed Kellie Martin’s Becca.
LuPone finds herself inspired by “anyone who’s good and committed. If I go to the theater and I see someone who reaches across the footlights because they want to tell me the story — I’m moved. That’s why we go to the theater. If I’m hooked, I’m inspired.” She is also grateful for her fans. “I love to see fans. It’s really heartening to see how many young people are coming to the theater. When they talk about the death of Broadway, I don’t think it’s true.”
Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda is only one of five shows that LuPone is performing across the country, including one with her former Evita costar, Mandy Patinkin. While the show at Symphony Hall may shed light on LuPone’s life in the theater, an upcoming memoir promises to be even more revealing. “It’s an interesting process to relive my career — not always happily. There’s a lot of trials and tribulations in my career and I don’t know if it’s going to be interesting to anyone else but me,” she said, laughing.
Surely, LuPone had to have reached a point long ago when she admitted to herself that “she’s arrived” as a star? “I don’t think that I’m there yet. I still have fairly strong critics,” she laughed. “I don’t think I’ll ever be there, because I’m always wondering if I’ll ever get hired again. So I go out there and my training and my talent have seen me through. Only after I retire will I consider that I’ve arrived. It’s a constant struggle. I’m grateful that I’m given the challenges so deep in my career. To be able to meet that and succeed is incredibly encouraging. I never turn down a challenge, and if I fail, that too is a lesson. I don’t want to fail in front of a paying audience.”
Don’t say you "coulda, woulda, shoulda" seen Patti LuPone … see her show January 2 at Phoenix Symphony Hall!
Interview by Neil Cohen, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Phoenix's Echo Magazine.