Patti LuPone: A ShowBiz Memoir to Remember

She is probably the last of the great Broadway musical stars, certainly has the loudest (and funniest) wit, couldn’t be more honest (or complaining) and, with her trademark honesty and bawdy humor, has a heart and a funnybone as big as the Great White Way.

All of which to say that while actor/singer/comic/tuba player Patti LuPone sails through her memoir bringing one skeleton after another out of the closet from New York to Hollywood to London, we readers get to chuckle and wonder in wow-I-didn’t-know-that delight all along.

Who knew, for example, that centuries ago, opera singers canceled performances at the peak of their menstrual cycle because blood would so engorge their vocal cords that they could blow a singing gasket, as it were, that would render them silent for days and weeks afterward.

The great Jessye Norman told LuPone this, but too late: Following disastrous vocal blowouts (especially during Evita previews because that !@#$%^&! Andrew Lloyd Webber wouldn’t lower the register but more about that below), LuPone — one of Broadway’s most powerful and versatile singers — had to have surgery and learn how to sing all over again.

That Breast-grabbing Topol and Others

And who knew that Topol, the Israeli actor who played Tevye in the movie version of Fiddler on the Roof and co-starred with LuPone in The Baker’s Wife, was an “obnoxious, unprofessional,” breast-grabbing, tyrannical spoiled brat of a star who refused to sing lyrics he didn’t like, so he would substitute “blah, blah, blah, blah.”

LuPone tries to be fair: “I know there are supposed to be two sides to every story, but believe me, both sides thought he was an asshole.”

Paul Sorvino is seen as “a classic show-off tenor”; John Houseman was just as dictatorial at Julliard as he was in the role of Professor Kingsley in The Paper Chase; Hal Prince was misguided and self-aggrandizing as the director of Evita; actor Bill Smitrovich — her husband in the TV series Life Goes On — is characterized as a “self-absorbed bully” (and boy, do we believe her); director John Berry turned out to be “an obnoxious human being with absolutely revolting personal hygiene”; and we’ll get to that !@#$%^&*! soon.

In fact, though, the bad guys are few. LuPone admires and loves a phone book of celebrities (Stephen Sondheim, Meryl Streep, Arthur Laurents, Mandy Patinkin, Angela Lansbury, Kevin Kline, Trevor Nunn et al) as well as Australian theatergoers (they throw out blankets of streamers and candy), sympathetic ushers (who take the cast of a turkey like The Baker’s Wife to dinner), dressing room ghosts (they do exist), her Sweeney Todd tuba named Irene that she stashed in her dressing room closet each night so she could say, “Good night, Irene!” and hundreds of others including a wonderfully earnest Concorde pilot who, learning that the great Patti LuPone might miss a performance in London because of blizzards along the way, pulled out all the stops and announced heartfully from the cockpit, “You’ll go on tonight, and you’ll give the performance of your life!” And she did.

The Lurching Sets of Sunset

But it’s the behind-the-scenes glimpses of a showbiz few of us see that make the book so absorbing. In London, the huge state-of-the-art sets for Sunset kept lurching unpredictably around the stage with LuPone and her costar clinging to the furniture until it was discovered that the radio frequency used to trigger the hydraulic lifts was too wide-open, meaning that every cell phone, taxi cab and courier service passing by in the street outside sent Norma Desmond’s living room skittering across the stage (another screwup by!@#$%^&*!)

LuPone had her problems in Life Goes On playing a “docile mom in a patriarchal family” whose dialogue stopped at “Yes dear, no dear, whatever you want, dear,” but she loved Chris Burke, the young Down syndrome actor who played her Down syndrome son, Corky.

One director, Rick, who was notorious for making actors repeat each take dozens of times, was typically insensitive with Chris.

“In one episode,” LuPone writes, “Chris had to say the word customer, but he just couldn’t get the plosive out, the k sound in customer. Rick made him do 42 takes because he couldn’t say ‘customer‘ without stammering — 42 takes in front of all of us, a ton of extras and the crew. That would have been a nightmare for any actor, let alone one with Chris’s challenges. Chris covered his distress well and just tried to please Rick. He did it, he finally did it, and we were all there to hug him and love him up a lot.”

It’s great to listen to LuPone narrate the audiobook version because her diction is as meticulous as her painstaking creation of each character. She learned the hard way to nail every aspect of character development in rehearsal before playing the part to a live audience; how to sustain “character maintenance” when performing a role hundreds of times on the road; how to weave her own sense of humanity into villainous roles (Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd; Fosca in Passion; Norma in Sunset; Rose in Gypsy); and how to know when all your research hasn’t really prepared you for a part.

For example, to create the role of Lady Bird Johnson, the wife of President Lyndon Baines Johnson (played by Randy Quaid) for a TV movie, LuPone listened to the former first lady on seven hours of tape and thought she had captured every nuance of speech, posture and style. Then she met the Lady Bird in Texas.

“To break the ice, [Lady Bird] asked me, ‘What have you done?’
” ‘I played Evita Peron,’ I said.
“And while I jabbered some inanity, she said, ‘Well, it’s a far cry from Evita to me. Evita was a bird of paradise, and I’m just a little mouse.’ ”

Uh-huh. This from a woman as bull-headed as her husband. At that moment, LuPone realized how much “I’d underestimated Lady Bird” and made the adjustment that saved the character.

Mr. Megalomania: Andrew Lloyd Webber

But the most revealing parts of the book come when LuPone tells all about that !@#$%^&*! composer/producer Andrew Lloyd Webber, who is nailed here for mercilessly manipulating actors, directors, media and audiences to serve his own megalomaniacal needs.

With Evita, one wonders why a composer would sabotage his own production by insisting the already demanding score be kept out of range of the one Broadway star who could sing it. Or why a seasoned director like Hal Prince would consent to creating a simultaneous company in Los Angeles. (As LuPone makes clear, “once you have dual productions, you have dueling performances, then comparisons, and someone always loses.”) And speaking of self-sabotage how could it help the New York company, struggling against negative reviews as they were, to hear from Harold Prince upon his return from Los Angeles “that the L.A. company was better than we were?”

Stuff like that was child’s play compared to what happened with Andrew Lloyd Webber’s next production, Sunset, which he asked LuPone to perform in workshop and was so blown apart by her performance that he asked her to star in the London production that very night. He also offered her the role in New York and, with contracts signed, made the announcements to the press.

Nevertheless, LuPone tells us, Webber began manufacturing rumors, which the press gobbled up that Patti LuPone was having one catfight after another with Glenn Close, Barbara Streisand, and Meryl Streep, either for stealing songs (Streisand) or the entire part.

She calls Webber a coward, and rightly so it seems, for never speaking to her directly. LuPone had to learn from a gossip column that she had been replaced by Glenn Close in the NY production, and although the settlement fee from Webber was hefty (the LuPone family swimming pool is named after Andrew Lloyd Webber), the injustice of it all (and I’m only touching on the worst parts) would have taken the stuffing out of a lesser actor than LuPone.

What sticks with the reader in all these stories is LuPone’s delight in everything from the highest standards of her craft to the silliest and most enduring legends. She can’t stand the kind of “entitled” actors who are content with sloppy performances, spread dirt about colleagues and have the audacity to phone in sick. But she loves the Damon Runyon effect of a dressing room filled with showgirls, private detectives, bodyguards, and police rushing in to announce a bomb threat they won’t take seriously until a proper break occurs in the play.

The real turning point in her career, however, is not to come until she both flops and triumphs in the latest revival of Gypsy. This story teaches us all a lesson about the ridiculously overinflated power of certain critics — namely that fop, Ben Brantley of the New York Times — so I’ll save it for next time.