Patti LuPone, Part II: “Don’t Give Critics the Power”

A big difference between books and theater, as Broadway star Patti LuPone points out in her enlightening and instructive memoir (Crown; 324 pages; $25.99), is the fact that in publishing it takes an accumulation of negative reviews to damn a book; in theater, one review can kill a play overnight.

Here’s one reason: With books, the Internet has ushered in our current era of “the democratization of publishing” in which everybody’s a critic. True, traditional critics at newspapers and magazine may still be influential, but readers give as much or more weight to reviews by bloggers, customers, book clubs and, of course, themselves.

Theater criticism, on the other hand, has remained more parochial and elitist. A handful of trusted reviewers still seems to reign, and among these few, for Broadway shows especially, the New York Times has inordinate power.

Fighting Back

LuPone is both victim and victor to this oddly provincial tendency. She has even been doubly damned: Despite her incredible talent and wildly favorable notices in Europe, LuPone has been the subject of hostile critics in New York not just for a few years but for entire decades.

This forced LuPone to re-earn audience regard every time she appeared onstage. For example, thanks to early publicity, tickets for Evita, her first big hit, were sold out so far in advance that LuPone and her co-star Mandy Patinkin had to outlast the sour impact of New York critics who hated her performance. This surprised even LuPone:

“The audience was pissed off the moment they walked into the theatre because they’d spent $35 a ticket on a flop,” she writes. “(Can you imagine how pissed off they’d be today, at $125 a pop?) They sat there scowling at the stage with their arms folded across their chests as if to say, Prove it. We ultimately did.”

Why would New York theater critics single out Patti LuPone? I think it’s because she has always refused to fit a mold. Formally trained at Julliard, adept at everything from Shakespeare to slapstick, she is gifted with a musical range and authority that regularly knocks ’em out of the balcony, not to mention those rubberized lips that can stretch across Times Square and keep you laughing at (some critics might say) at unorthodox moments.

The Tipping Point

So it was Frank Rich’s negative review in the New York Times, which was published after he saw the London production of Sunset, that lost LuPone the role of Norma Desmond in the New York company. Although British critics loved her, Variety announced that producer Andrew Lloyd Webber wanted to fire LuPone “as soon as the Frank Rich review came out,” she writes. And so he did.

But the tipping point came in 2007 when LuPone opened as Mama Rose in a City Center (off-Broadway) revival of Gypsy. Every night for this brief three-week run, “the audience gave us a standing ovation,” she writes. The entire company, including its producers, was “sure we were going to Broadway.”

Then came Ben Brantley’s back-handed review in the New York Times. At first sounding as though he congratulated LuPone for bringing “a startling lack of diva vanity and even a spark of bona fide mother love” to the character of Rose, Brantley then sliced LuPone to pieces:

“But once you introduce such traits into Mama Rose, the air starts to leak out of her. Ms. LuPone is less a Rose of billboard-size flair and ego than the sort of pushy but likable woman you might compete with at the supermarket for that last perfect sole fillet.”

LuPone writes with her characteristic humor, “Gypsy almost choked to death on that sole fillet.” Suddenly the Broadway management wanted to back out. Producer Roger Berlind actually told LuPone and director Arthur Laurents, “You would have to be crazy to bring Gypsy to Broadway after a review like that.” A single review.

LuPone writes: “The second time he said that to me over the phone, I said, ‘Roger, you give the critics the power. If you don’t want to do [the show], that’s one thing, but if you don’t want to do it because of a critic, then why bother producing anything?”

That about sums up the entire trajectory of quiet outrage that’s been building up against unjustly arrogant reviewers for decades, not only from artists but from the audience that pays to see/read/experience them.

LuPone continued: ” ‘I can’t guarantee you a good review,’ I said. ‘If you look at my history with the New York Times, this is nothing new. I can only do what I do, and you’ve seen that. You’ve seen this extraordinary production and cast, and you’ve seen how the audience reacts. Trust your instincts and don’t give critics the power.’ ”

Go, Go, Go, LuPone

I bet any theatergoing reader mentally stood up after reading that passage and gave LuPone a standing ovation for this statement alone. I certainly did, and do, and thank heaven the story doesn’t end there.

Not only did LuPone convince the producers to carry on, she dug even deeper into the role, threw out the original Jerome Robbins choreography, got Laurents to cancel the reprise of “Small World” (he confessed it only got in there because Ethel Merman “needed something to sing in the second act”) and unleashed her full power when Gypsy did, finally, open on Broadway.

This time, Ben Brantley was impressed. His review in the New York Times was effusive about Patti LuPone “building a bridge for an audience to walk right into one woman’s nervous breakdown” so there is “no separation at all between song and character.”

He even issued a kind of apology: “And yes, that quiet crunching sound you hear is me eating my hat.”

Boooooo, Ben Brantley

Of course, a critic stepping in front of his subject and turning the spotlight on himself is the worst possible error one can make in a review. It brings critical standards to a new low and distracts readers from the work under review. Remember when Brantley reviewed his personal obsession with Julia Roberts rather than her performance onstage? We had to wade through Brantley’s adolescent crush to get to his (by then corrupt) idea of the quality of her performance.

And just recently, in a review of the musical Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, Brantley observed that the play proceeds so fast and erratically that it doesn’t allow LuPone time to finish her solo. He added snidely, as though we all remember what happened with Gypsy, “(And woe unto ye who deprive La LuPone of applause.)”

La LuPone. That’s so sophisticated, Ben. How New York audiences allow the New York Times critics to get away with that much power is bewildering.

But, hooray: LuPone got the last laugh, literally, when she won a Tony for playing Rose in Gypsy. Having been nominated for the award rarely and winning only one other time, she left her audience laughing when she got up to accept and said to the world, “It’s such a wonderful gift to be an actor who makes her living working on the Broadway stage — and then every 30 years or so, to pick up one of these.”