Patti LuPone, Live from Her Basement

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Patti LuPone’s basement looks like a cross between a penny arcade, a TGI Fridays, and an after-hours piano bar. You’ve probably seen it, too, if you’ve followed her on social media in recent weeks. From her home in Kent, Connecticut, where she’s riding out the storm with her husband and her twenty-nine-year-old son, LuPone has been staving off boredom, and entertaining her fans, with virtual tours of her impressive tchotchke collection. “Here’s Nipper, the RCA dog!” she says in one video, as she pats an oversized porcelain Jack Russell terrier on the head. Wearing sweats and shearling slippers, she dances around to a Les Paul record from an antique jukebox while she continues naming random objects. “Massage table!” “Pinball machine!” “Piano that I bought when I did ‘Evita’! Eleven thousand dollars! It’s broken now!” By the end of the two-minute clip, she is snapping her hands in the air like an enthusiastic Tevye. It is not clear whether her theatrics mean she’s descended into quarantine-induced madness, or whether her flamboyant goofiness is the only sane response to being stuck indoors. Either way, the show must go on.

LuPone, who is seventy years old, knows a thing or two about persistence in show business. She has been acting since the early nineteen-seventies, when she made her Broadway début as Irina in Chekhov’s “Three Sisters.” She won her first Tony Award in 1980, for playing Eva Perón in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Evita.” (According to her 2010 memoir, LuPone invented the iconic hand formation at the end of “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina” during a photo shoot: “I raised my arms in a V. I did it spontaneously.”) She won another Tony in 2008 for her role as Mama Rose in a revival of “Gypsy,” and earned another five nominations. She also won two Grammys, two Olivier Awards, and, in 2006, joined the American Theatre Hall of Fame. Throughout the decades, LuPone has earned a reputation as a woman unafraid to speak her mind, or, as she puts it, as a “roaring bitch.” Her memoir is a delicious soup of score-settling and profanity; of an aggressive actor she worked with in “The Baker’s Wife,” she writes, “I know there are two sides to every story, but believe me, both sides thought he was an asshole.”

LuPone has not mellowed with age—if anything, her vim and vitriol are zestier than ever. I spoke to her recently via Skype, as she sat in her sunny kitchen. Before the pandemic hit, LuPone was starring as Joanne in Marianne Elliott’s gender-swapping new production of Stephen Sondheim’s “Company.” The show, which transferred to Broadway after receiving rave reviews on London’s West End, played for just two weeks of previews in New York before the coronavirus shutdown began. Still, LuPone has other projects cooking; she will appear in Ryan Murphy’s new nostalgia-bait Netflix series “Hollywood” (premiéring May 1st) as the wealthy wife of a Golden Age studio executive who hires gigolos for companionship. She is still planning concert appearances for 2021. And, in the meantime, she will be headlining her basement.

“Company” was supposed to open in March. That obviously didn’t happen. Do you know if the show will continue after this is over?

I wish I did know, because the uncertainty is upsetting. Nobody knows. And I was actually talking to my manager last night, and she said, “Even if Broadway comes back, will people even want to be sitting next to each other?”

Maybe they’ll do social-distancing Broadway, every third seat or something.

Oh, I’m sure the producers would love that, the amount of money.

It’s haunting to think about all those Broadway theatres sitting empty.

Before it happened, there were rumors going around for about a day that Broadway was shutting down. And that was shocking. I mean, I went through 9/11; I was rehearsing “Noises Off.” I think then they shut down for only two days? I don’t remember Broadway ever being shut.

At first, the producers told us that we’ll be shut down for a couple of weeks. That was their hope. But, you know, there’s a rumor mill on Broadway. We heard that people were sick in “Moulin Rouge.” And at the Booth, there was an usher that had tested positive for COVID. It was, like, oh, my God, it’s on the street! I think March 11th was the last day we were in the theatre. We were going to open on the 22nd, Steve Sondheim’s birthday. The best-laid plans.

It’s very hard. I keep wondering: Is this aliens sending a message? Is this Mother Earth sending a message? Is there so much negative energy on Earth right now that we created this virus? You do your best to stay positive.

Did you think Broadway was in a healthy place before it went on hiatus?

No, actually. I remember when I was doing “Gypsy” and [the journalist] Richard Schlesinger came to my dressing room. That was 2009, and we had the crash, and [Richard] said to me, “Do you think this is gonna affect Broadway?” And I said, “You can’t kill Broadway.” When it’s bad times we’re needed, and when it’s good times were needed.

But what I’m seeing on Broadway now is really just a bunch of trash. It’s become Las Vegas. I have not seen “Girl from the North Country,” which I wanted to see, and I wanted to see “Hangmen.” Those really good productions sneak in there. But I think that there should be term limits on federal and Supreme judges, on anybody that’s in the government, in Congress and the Senate, and on Broadway musicals. Five years, and get out of the theatre. Theatre isn’t vital if it isn’t exchanging ideas.

You’re about to star in Ryan Murphy’s TV series “Hollywood.” What drew you to the character of Avis?

Ryan wrote a woman who succeeds in a power situation and makes all the right choices without fear. She has a real emotional variety. And then, you know, of course, I look stunning.

Have I seen you do a sex scene before? I’ve never seen you bent over a stair railing before, that’s for sure.

God bless Ryan! I don’t know what else to say.

No, I’ve never—wait, I did have a sex scene! In “Summer of Sam,” with Mike Starr. He ripped off my bodice, and I was topless. I actually got a piece of fan mail, where the fan had a picture of me in “Sweeney Todd,” a picture of me as “Evita,” and the picture of me topless from “Summer of Sam.” I also did a film in Italy years ago and had a sex scene. You know, it’s too bad more people don’t think of me for that, because I’m game for anything.

The theatre, at least, is a medium that does seem to value aging women.

Totally. I think theatre is feminine, and film is masculine. You have that aesthetic distance. You suspend your disbelief when you’re seeing Vanessa Redgrave on stage playing Mary Tyrone, even though she may be twenty years too old for it. There was that permission given. It could just be the magic of being in the dark. I don’t know, but it is different on stage. HD is unforgiving. [In Hollywood,] I kept saying, “Where’s the cheesecloth? Give me more bounce lights!”

You have been involved in several of Ryan Murphy’s projects throughout the years. How did you first meet?

I got a telephone call from my agents saying that Ryan Murphy wanted to do an episode of “Glee” around me. It would have been “Patti LuPone on a plane.” I have no idea what the plot was. I immediately said no: “No, no, no, no! I cannot afford to be Patti LuPone’d out of the business.” I’m not Cher. I’m not Britney Spears. I’m not Madonna. I’m still a working actor. And if I do this, I will be “Patti LuPone” on TV for a long time, and I won’t get work. They were shocked that I said no. I told Ryan, “I'll be in if they want me to be me. . . . but you can’t do an entire episode around me.” So I did the one episode in Sardi’s with Lea Michele.

Going back to the state of the world, how angry are you right now?

I want to take a shotgun and shoot the TV every time that motherfucker opens his mouth. I am appalled. We are broken.

You see, I don’t censor myself. I’ve never censored myself, and that’s probably a very big flaw of mine, but I don’t know how to be diplomatic. I’m an Italian. I think I would feel ill if I suppressed it.

With Trump, you know, I was in New York City when this guy rose to fame. He’s always been a shyster. He’s always been a con man. He’s always had this braggadocio. And I just don’t understand how people don’t see that, because he’s not serving anybody but himself. But this is old news.

Do you remember the first time you got in trouble for running your mouth?

I would do things that would end up with me in the vice-principal’s office. And I’d be, like, “You can’t suspend me! I’ve never been in your office before!” I mean, I gave it right back to him. He threatened to suspend me. What I did was get twelve weeks of detention. My DNA is such that I feel I have to speak up.

I know that I’ve been blackballed in this business for things that I said.

Like when?

Years ago, when I was doing “Evita,” I was interviewed in Backstage magazine. And I actually said, “I don’t understand what a casting director does. And I don’t understand why there is a casting director. Is the director such an idiot that he doesn’t know how to cast?” I was told to cool it by my agent at the time. And then there was a lot of conflict backstage. And I think I came out of that known as this roaring bitch.

I had come out of a very rigorous training at Juilliard that instilled in me a respect for the craft of acting and the stage. And then I went to Broadway, and it was like a big slap in the face, because my training did not prepare me for the reality of life on Broadway. It’s not an idealistic environment. But, at this point, what are they gonna do to me? It’s, like, they know who I am! I survived all of it. I’m back—I’m still here!

I was there the night of “Gypsy” when you grabbed an audience member’s phone after it rang.

Oh, you’re kidding—oh, my god! That was something.

I will never forget that experience, working with Arthur Laurents. There’s this notorious thing on Broadway, that, after you open, you get to take personal days, and you never have a full company again. So the circle is broken. But with “Gypsy,” Arthur instilled in everybody—even in the smallest part—ownership of their role, the desire, the love of art. Every night it was electric. That doesn’t always happen. Hits go south faster than flops, do you know what I mean? If it’s a flop, people are holding on for dear life. But if it’s a hit, entitlement sets in, and things get taken for granted. You have to protect a hit, especially backstage. That’s where all of the innuendos and all of the gossip and all of that stuff starts. Who’s having an affair with whom; somebody ripped up their costume because they were pissed off. Because, you know, we’re in a petri dish.

Do the casts of flops become as close-knit?

I’ve been in flops where we’re blood. The people that are still alive, that were in “The Baker’s Wife”? We’re blood. It was a notorious flop. We were on the road for six months. It was devastating. It just got worse and worse and worse. Every time somebody would join us on the road, we’d go, “Oh, what did you do that sent you into the bowels of hell?”

Where would you put [the 2017 musical] “War Paint”?

“War Paint” was great. You had two veterans. Christine [Ebersole] and I have known each other for many, many, many years. We’d never worked together. I worried, and I’m sure she did. But the fact that we are both professionals who understand the craft of comedy—we knew when to give the other person the straight line. And then, when we sang together for the first time, it was shocking. Our voices blended so beautifully that you don’t mess with that. You go “O.K., this is divine.” We had a ball.

Between “War Paint” and “Hollywood,” you’ve been playing a lot of Jewish women in great hats lately.

It’s the nose! I was reviewed years ago by John Simon when I was at the Acting Company playing Lady Teazle in “The School for Scandal” when I was, what, all of twenty-one years old, twenty-two years old. And he actually said that my “lupine visage militated against me.” And I went, What the hell does that mean?

My name does mean “wolf”; “LuPone” is “white wolf.” But I always thought my lips were the thing that were too big, not my nose! I often say, “Man, I should have gotten my nose done back then.” But I never did.

Do you feel like you’ve fully embraced the whole Patti thing now?

Never. I’m not a big fan of me. I say that all the time. People say, “Have you listened to that recording?” Or, “Did you see that?” No, I’m just not a big fan of me. I don’t go out and seek myself.

In America, I do not look beautiful to me. When I go to Italy, I go, “What’s the big deal, Patti? You look like everybody else!” We were in Rome a couple of years back, and I saw a Roman woman who was so sensual, and so voluptuous. I went, That’s beauty. And she was big! She wasn’t, you know, the classic Sophia Loren or Gina Lollobrigida beauty. But she had a thing going on.

I would live in Europe if I could. I said that when I was sixteen years old, in the apple orchard of our house, in Northport, Long Island—I went, “My career’s in Europe.” Just, boom, like a stream of consciousness. I’ve always felt that I wasn’t American, that I was more European.

How was living in London this past year during the West End run of “Company”?

I love London—it’s like the second city for me. The first time I went there was 1970. I did a bad rock musical at the Young Vic, when [Laurence Olivier] was the artistic director of the Old Vic and Roland Joffé was his assistant. We all slept with Roland Joffé in his apartment. Ah, the good old days!

And by “slept with,” you mean . . . 

Sleeping with! It was the very end of the swinging sixties in London. I’ve always had the best time in London. The next time I went was “Les Mis” and “Cradle Will Rock,” and then “Master Class,” and then I did a concert over there, and then “Sunset Boulevard,” and then “Company.” I love living the life of a Brit. I love the pub. I love the Sunday roasts.

Has it sunk in that you’re not going to be able to travel for a long time? That you’re kind of stuck in Connecticut?

It’s not a bad place. What’s upsetting is what’s going on in the world. Are we going to come out of this?

Let’s talk a little bit about “Company,” even though it didn’t get to open. Marianne Elliott, the director, flipped the gender of the main character, Bobby. What new resonance did that give the show?

It was so much more powerful with a woman in the title role, because women get asked those questions all the time—“When are you going to get married? The clock is ticking.” It was so much more poignant. What was wrong with a thirty-five-year-old man boinking beautiful women and being unmarried? Nothing, absolutely nothing. Steve [Sondheim] didn’t know whether it would work with a female until he saw the workshop in London. And when he saw the last preview, he actually wept. I don’t think a subject about marriage ever goes out of style: whether you do, whether you don’t, whether you’re happy, whether you’re not.

You get to perform the number “Ladies Who Lunch.” Is it strange to sing a song that another actress, in this case Elaine Stritch, made so famous?

You know, I’ve taken over for four iconic performances for iconic actresses, and people say, what am I thinking? And what I’m thinking is, we’re all individuals. I saw Angela Lansbury in “Sweeney Todd” and was gobsmacked. I saw Zoe Caldwell in “Master Class” and was gobsmacked. I’ve seen Elaine Stritch sing “Ladies Who Lunch,” and there is one Elaine Stritch in the world, ever. But we are all individuals, and my responsibility is to the script, and I will read it differently than they do. Nobody said to me, “This is the way it should be done.”

You and Stephen Sondheim are neighbors. Have you stayed in radio during the pandemic?

I haven’t called him. We’ve been in e-mail connection. What do you say? You just complain about the same thing; you’re horrified about the same thing. I really should call him and go, “O.K., let’s just talk. What are you doing?” I think he’s probably writing. I think he’s probably quite happy to be up here. I hope he is. But he doesn’t want to see anybody. He didn’t want to see anybody for his birthday. We all wanted to see him.

Tell me about what your day to day is like right now, in quarantine.

I’m purging, basically. I’m an Italian housewife is what I am. And I’m a Taurus: a place for everything and everything in its place. So less for me is more. Plus, you know, if I want to leave this country, I’ve always said this: I want a suitcase, a gown, a passport, and a jaunty cap. I don’t want to be laden with stuff.

What else are you doing?

I just finished “Tiger King”—who hasn’t seen that? I’m watching “Babylon Berlin” and “My Brilliant Friend,” and the antidote to both of those is “Grace and Frankie.” I’m reading the new translation of “Madame Bovary.” And I cook, and have the Italian siesta, the big Italian meal between three and four o’clock in the afternoon. That’s when we all come together. We have a drink, maybe two. Maybe the rest of the night is gone because we keep drinking.

We have to talk about the basement videos. How did that happen?

I was doing a video for Rosie [O’Donnell]’s show. And I was, like, where do I shoot this? If I’m going to sing, and I’m going to sing a capella, I need to be by the piano, because I found out my pitch pipe with the note I wanted was broken. But I didn’t know what was in the background near the piano, and what was in the background was the jukebox and the legs of the pinball machine. So I got an e-mail from a friend who said, “We watched your thing—jukebox? Pinball machine? Nice basement.” I went, “Oh, my god, they can see it!” And then another friend of mine called and said, “Patti, people want to see your basement!” And on the spur of the moment I said to my kid, “Get your phone! Come on, we’re gonna show them the basement!”

It feels like a public-access television show or something.

Yes! Did you ever see—maybe you’re too young—“Biograph Days, Biograph Nights” back in the late eighties? Ira Gallen would broadcast it from his apartment on the public-access channel. You should Google him.

We became friends, and he’s given me some of the most incredible gifts. I have a full-size Gumby that he gave me. I have a talking-head Elvis. Oh, my god, it’s so fucking brilliant. It sings and it talks to you. I have a large James Brown doll that dances. I have dancing loafers. I have a rabbi where you press his finger and he sings, “Hava nagila, hava nagila!”

At least you have all these toys around to amuse yourself. Are you going to end up cutting your own hair? How feral are you going to go?

I cut my husband’s hair. And he thought he looked like Cletus, because I cut it and then I went, “Oh, I wanna do something else." So he has little bangs. I actually went to the city and got my hair done. I said, “I’m not going to be depressed and then look in the mirror.”

How long ago was that?

Friday the 13th, I went to get my hair done. I suppose when I get it done again Broadway will be open.

What do you think the role of a celebrity should be right now, during this pandemic?

My kid is twenty-nine. He’s got his finger on the beat, right? And he thinks that, when you see certain celebrities go out there lecturing, it’s not what you want to hear. He actually told me what I was supposed to put on Twitter. He said, “Mom, just get to the point.” I don’t want to be frivolous and superficial. I certainly do want to make my point, whenever it is Trump or this fucking Republican Administration. And I do it with a sense of humor, or do it with so much vitriol that it becomes amusing. But the lecture thing—who are we? If we are going to communicate, it should be as a human being and not somebody who thinks they have a key to a special knowledge.

Hang on, I’m texting someone to find out if the producers of Broadway theatres still have to pay rent.

Whether Broadway producers have to pay rent for an empty theatre?

Give back. That’s what I would say. Give the fuck back. To the people in the box office, the ushers, the porters, the stage doorman, all the people who lost their jobs overnight.

You know, I’m screaming at night at the news, and then I spend a sleepless night or have weird dreams. I gotta figure out what to do. I gotta stop. Last night, instead of reading or watching my videos, I was looking at the news and screaming at my fucking phone.

There’s always Klonopin.

I was once given Klonopin. I came back from “Sunset Boulevard” torn to shreds, and I could not sleep, and a friend sent me to the Yale sleep-disorder unit, where they stick all these little electrodes on you and they observe your sleeping. And the next night, I was rolling over, waking up, going, “How can I sleep, because I gotta move all the wires?!” The next day, I went to the doctor, and he said, “Miss LuPone, there’s nothing wrong with you. You’re a healthy young woman. Here’s a prescription for Klonopin.” I went, “If there’s nothing wrong with me, why are you giving me this paranoid sleeping pill?” I took it once and I freaked out.

But can we go back to the question of what is a celebrity’s responsibility? I think it is to be outraged on a human level like everybody else. We do have a platform to speak up.

No “We Are the World”s. No more of that shit. O.K.? Donate money. People are asking me to do these living room sing-alongs, and I won’t do it. Unless it’s spontaneous in the basement.

Your kitchen looks nice, too.

This is an antique butcher block, from “Sunset Boulevard,” that Andrew Lloyd Webber paid for and shipped home and doesn’t even know it!

You absconded with an entire butcher’s block?

And all the costumes! The first-act costume, with a turban, and a fabulous golden black thing? I just tucked them in my bag and left the theatre.

You could swan around in them now. I feel like Norma Desmond would be good in isolation.

That would be a fucking brilliant video. I have the sunglasses. I have the heels. You know what would be funny is if I just wore them over these red sweatpants that I can’t get out of.


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