Patti LuPone on Her Plan to Leave America, Drugs, Sex, Feuds, Broadway—and Basement Videos
Patti LuPone talks to Tim Teeman about leaving America if Trump wins re-election, basement videos, drugs, feuds, Broadway’s future, the TV show ‘Hollywood,’ and a final dream role.
Patti LuPone was not in her basement—that newly famous wonderland with its jukebox, pinball machine, model RCA dog, massage table, $11,000 piano, and cassette tapes and records—when we spoke by Zoom.
At her kitchen table, the Tony and Grammy-winning (and Emmy-nominated) Broadway star revealed she plans to make two more videos in the lower level of her rural Connecticut home, where she, her husband Matt Johnston and their son Josh are spending the coronavirus lockdown.
“They might be a little wacky,” she said of the next videos in a series that has fast become wildly popular with her fans. “I keep thinking about how to make them different.” There may be a family dance-off, possibly involving flashlights. “We have a ball in the basement. It’s so much fun, and I’m glad other people are enjoying it. One needs a pool table, one needs a pinball machine, one needs a one-armed bandit.” And LuPone also needs her cocktail of choice: Matt’s excellent vodka martini.
In the last video, following her 71st birthday this week, a hungover LuPone opened school gym-style lockers to reveal a Tony Award, a bong, and a bottle of Jack Daniel’s. “They were Matt’s, not mine. He planted them!” she insisted. Not that LuPone hasn’t partaken. “I did my share of drugs. Yeah, I lived through the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s,” she said, beaming. LuPone said she had used cannabis, cocaine, and LSD in the past. “Not heroin, there but for the grace of god,” she said. “They don’t call me a party girl for nothing!”
She doesn’t take anything now? “No!” she exclaimed. “I am too old. I can’t smoke pot now. I was a serious pot-head. It was the time. I would crush the seeds and smoke them if I didn’t have the marijuana.”
Had taking drugs ever become a problem? “Who knows,” laughed LuPone. “I’m still here.” (Nifty Sondheim reference!) When did she stop partaking, and why? “Who said I stopped? I’m kidding.” She laughed. “Because it ran its course. All of a sudden I thought about my mortality, and said to myself, ‘Oh, I better straighten up.’”
LuPone is sharp, witty, and candid, exclaiming and wise-cracking—with frequent eruptions of laughter. She has a reputation for speaking her mind professionally; and so it is in conversation.
Dressed in a black sweater, and sporting navy-framed spectacles, LuPone expressed her fury and disgust toward President Trump and why she will leave the country if he is re-elected and why more generally she was “fucking sick of old white men” in politics; her thoughts on the state of Broadway in coronavirus lockdown and whether her own show, Company, will ever be re-mounted in New York; love (including what went wrong in a seven-year relationship with Kevin Kline); her diva status; her relationship with Stephen Sondheim (whose 90th birthday celebration is tonight, featuring stars including LuPone and Meryl Streep); and filming her full-on sex scenes in Hollywood, Ryan Murphy’s new seven-part Netflix show about an idealized Hollywood of the late 1940s (premiering May 1).
Murphy imagines this Hollywood as the flipside of its oppressive conservative reality, breaking boundaries around gender, race, and sexuality. The closeted idol Rock Hudson is re-conceived as an out, proud celebrity in an interracial relationship who kisses his boyfriend at that year’s Oscars. LuPone plays female studio head Avis Amberg, issuing orders and shattering taboos while dressed magnificently in fur-fringed power suits and hats that look like chic, dinky missiles.
If Avis seems powerful, her portrayer feels quite the opposite watching Trump’s Oval Office coronavirus briefings. “I’ve become obsessed with watching the news and it’s making me crazy, upset, and depressed,” LuPone said. “And it only gets worse. Trump is the worst president in my lifetime, and I’ve lived through 13 presidents: Bush, Nixon, all of them. It’s appalling. I don’t understand how people can follow him. I don’t understand how he can have a base, unless we are the stupidest country on earth, which I’m starting to feel that we are.
“He’s a conman. He was a conman in the 1980s. He’s a shyster and a liar. He’s everything you don’t want to be in life. He exemplifies everything that is bad in human nature.”
LuPone is not confident that Trump will be voted out in November. “So I’m making plans. I want to leave the country. I don’t want to be here. I have a finite amount of time left in my life, and I don’t want to waste it feeling the way I feel because he’s running the country.”
Ireland and Canada lead her countries of choice. “If they’ll have me. We want to go to a country where they speak the language.” She laughed, then paused. “It’s really so distressing. I’m living in such anxiety right now. I don’t think I’ve ever been so politicized or felt so strongly, except possibly the Vietnam and Iraq Wars. Trump is so anxiety-provoking and pervasive, 24-7. There is so much of him, all the time. He’s just crass and a liar, and doesn’t know what he is doing. Listen to him. It’s fucking crazy. He can’t keep anything straight, and it’s really messing all of us up. For me it’s just too much.”
LuPone said Matt, her husband of 32 years, had been “the breaking point” when it comes to what the family will endure, Trump-wise. “He is a Midwestern man, he loves this country and its sports, and when my husband is ready to leave the country I know how bad it is for the country. Matt is really even-keeled, and makes me feel legitimate in what I’m feeling as opposed to histrionic.”
LuPone said she has “always felt more European,” especially coming from an Italian-American family. “I look Italian. I feel better when I’m in Italy and look like everyone else. I prefer Europe to America: the joie de vivre, the dolce vita.”
LuPone and Matt have been looking on real estate websites. She fell in love with Wicklow Town in County Wicklow in Ireland while filming the TV show Penny Dreadful, but County Wexford is now on their radar after a friend bought a home there. “We want to find somewhere convenient that’s a plane ride, rather than a plane ride and two-hour drive.”
LuPone also “cannot stand” Melania or Ivanka. “All his entire offspring are entire slime-buckets, slimy as shit. For a minute I had respect for Melania, but now I think she must be a complete airhead. She doesn’t have her finger on the pulse, that’s for damn sure. I think she probably hates the guy. He’s a pig. Oh god, I don’t like any Trump.
“I never expected America to be this broken in my lifetime. I feel like the America I was sold in the 1950s was a lie, because it is c-r-u-m-b-l-i-n-g. I don’t want to give Trump too much credit. He was elected because the country was broken. He’s just compounding his idiocy by the way he’s handling this coronavirus. I used to leave the room when George W. Bush was on camera. I totally shout at the TV when Douchebag comes on. I could not look Mitt Romney in the eyes.”
So, LuPone will be voting for Joe Biden?
LuPone paused, and said slowly and very seriously, “I am sick and tired of old white men quite frankly,” then repeated that sentence. “First of all they are the luckiest human beings on the planet, white men. I am fucking sick of old white men telling me, number one, what to do with my body. I want to see diversity, diversity, diversity. I want to see all of the cultures in my government because that’s who we are. If it’s got to be Joe Biden then it’s Joe Biden. But I was a Pete Buttigieg fan. He was so damn smart and so cultured. And young. And gay. And a veteran. He ticked off all the boxes for me.
“I want to see a young gay guy lead the government. I want to see a lot of women, transgender people, I want to see diversity. I want to see Pakistanis, Indians, Palestinians, Mexicans, Puerto Ricans. I want to see the gamut of our society in the government.” LuPone liked Elizabeth Warren (“she was the smartest candidate”), but thought Warren seemed “hard. There has to be a nurturing quality in our leaders that we will follow.” LuPone hopes Biden chooses Stacey Abrams as his VP (“I love her”), and asks the other Democratic presidential candidates to form a cabinet.
LuPone said she did not know Trump in his 1980s ascendancy in New York City. “Apparently he came to see Evita a lot (for which LuPone won her first Tony for in 1980),” she said. “I met Ivana once at one of (music executive) Clive Davis’ Memorial Day parties. She was the surprise mystery guest, and oh my fucking god. She said [and LuPone mimics Ivana’s accent): ‘I saw Evita 30 times. People had to come see Evita.’” LuPone rolled her eyes, and sighed.
“Broadway is resembling Las Vegas more and more. It’s more glitz and less substance”
Until Broadway does return to life, all its marquee lights should be turned off, said LuPone. “If it’s a ghost town, don’t pretend that it is anything else. When they told us we were closed and we collected our stuff, I saw the lights all turned on. Why? It’s a false sense of hope. Turn the neon off.”
As for Company, in limbo like so many other shows, LuPone feels she is getting “a well-deserved rest and it feels as if we’re never coming back and it’s just a very uneven emotional time. I’ve talked to our producers. They say we’re coming back but don’t say when. The rumor mill says January, and the other rumor mill says we’ll be the last thing to come back, because people need to feel reassured about sitting in a theater.”
Right now she is “baffled at the selfishness, stupidity, ignorance, and denial” of businesses who are opening up. “We’ll just repeat this whole thing all over again.”
LuPone retrieved a New Yorker cartoon showing a man reading a headline, “Theater and Concerts Cancelled.” The man says, “Where will I go to cough?” She laughed.
“If someone coughs in a theater now, is there going to be a stampede to leave,” LuPone wondered. “Or are people so much more conscious and resourceful? Who knows? I don’t think you can kill Broadway. It will come back, the question is when. I think some of shows that should have seen the light of day will not make it. They didn’t have the advance or enough money in the coffers. It’s a pity, though I have said in the past there should be term limits on Supreme Court and federal judges, Congress, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Broadway musicals.
“You can’t have a vital theater if it turns into a tourist attraction. And right now I think Broadway is resembling Las Vegas more and more. It’s more glitz and less substance. When we come back we may have lots of empty theaters.”
When the time does come to reopen, LuPone predicts “everyone chomping at the bit” to get shows back up and running.
“If that’s Jan. 1, we’ll be in rehearsal Dec. 15. We’ll be totally ready to open. It depends on when audiences are ready. New Yorkers are a tough breed, and we hadn’t cycled through the New York audience yet.”
Matt lives at the family’s rural northwest Connecticut home full-time. LuPone travels more for work. “It’s been lovely,” LuPone said of their time together under quarantine. “I don’t know the last time I spent so much time with family, or watch the blossoming of trees. This is quality time with my husband, my son, and myself. But the uncertainty is mind-boggling.”
The (second) homes around them are occupied now by New Yorkers, typically they are empty. Neighbors keep themselves to themselves—LuPone doesn’t know many people there, although she finds herself “checking up on them right now. I guess we are in that situation.”
“I am a melancholy baby, a glass half-empty baby, that’s just who I am, but I am also riotously funny,” LuPone said, laughing, emphasizing the last two words. “I think I am very grateful for all the blessings. We’re not sick. Right now, we can afford to be in this situation. I am figuring out how I feel. More often than not our professions don’t allow us to negotiate our own emotions. We’re busy interpreting somebody else’s.”
What LuPone does need is structure. If she doesn’t do something in the morning—and this can be as simple as making the bed—she feels like “I’m wasting my day, wasting my life.”
She is not self-motivated. “As a child I was taken to dance classes, made to sit at the piano to practice. I didn’t do it for myself.”
Was she missing being on Broadway in that respect?
“I think it’s more about when and if we are coming back,” said LuPone. “It’s so weird. I have never experienced this, and I went through 9/11.” After the initial shock of 9/11 LuPone wondered what had taken an enemy of America’s so long to strike at it so viciously.
“I remember feeling great anxiety going on stage after 9/11. I still feel our security is so lax in theaters—that somebody could go, ‘I hate her performance,’ and pull out a gun and shoot me.’”
She has famously taken action against mobile-phone users in the theater, but she is unsettled rather than amused by other interruptions, like one man during a performance of Master Class, who—in the middle of a significant monologue—got up to leave.
“We’ve lost one,” LuPone, in character as Maria Callas, thought as he rose. Then he switched direction and walked down the center aisle towards her. “This is shit, this is shit, fuck you Terrence McNally,” the man shouted at her. “And I’m still doing the speech thinking, ‘Don’t shoot the messenger,’” LuPone recalled. “The audience thought it was part of the show.”
LuPone said she doesn’t feel “protected” in the theater. “Those security checks… what would a security guard do if they found something with one of those wands? It feels perfunctory. I feel terrorized in that respect. I’m quite vocal about Donald Trump, and that’s another element that concerns me. I have a little bit of fear now when I go on stage.”
“I’m a sensual person. Why wouldn’t I want to have sex and have the world see it?”
When Ryan Murphy told LuPone her role in Hollywood would include sex scenes, LuPone’s response was, “Finally! I enjoyed it so much.”
The sex between LuPone’s Avis and David Corenswet’s much younger Jack Castello is transactional, passionate, and in the case of one staircase-related fucking scene, pretty rough-looking.
“I relish the chance to do sex scenes, because why not?” said LuPone. “I’m a sensual person. Why wouldn’t I want to have sex and have the world see it?” She laughed, and said that she and Corenswet had just met, introduced themselves, and got down to the scene. “We were both Juilliard graduates, so we had the same training. That was useful.”
She said that another sex scene with Dylan McDermott—who plays Ernie, the Scotty Bowers-like character in the show, a garage owner and benevolent-seeming pimp to Hollywood’s big names—was cut.
“It was longer, sexier, rougher. But when we were heading back to the studio I said to Dylan how unsexy it felt because you’re doing everything by the numbers: camera angles and the such. One thing I do find over-the-top is having an intimacy coach. Ours was really nice, but—and this is just for me—I just don’t feel they’re needed. I think they’re unnecessary. We have one in Company too. I find it gets in the way. I know what I’m doing.”
Murphy is an atypical director, said LuPone, because “he loves women. He gave me at my age sex scenes and gave Holland (Taylor, her co-star) a sex scene—and why wouldn’t we be sexual at our age? He has a wonderful mindset about women, but he’s the only one. At my age, in Hollywood you’re offered dowdy mothers and dowdy grandmothers. Ryan gave me a glamor part—which is what I normally play on stage.” (She also appeared in the second season of Pose, as Blanca’s ruthless landlord.)
LuPone loved the victorious charge of minorities in Hollywood—a kind of liberal wish-fulfillment. “Diversity, diversity, diversity. I want to see it all. Ryan is the champion of bringing the fringe to the front. Hollywood shows what might happen if artists had been in control. Studios and studio heads second-guess audiences. They do not take the artist’s opinion into consideration, but we are the ones facing the audience, especially on stage. The artist can educate the audience, and in turn the audience educates the artist. We have to be able to throw out stories out there to judge the temperament of society. We have to lead, and we have to follow.”
Would she be up for appearing in season two of Hollywood, which would supposedly be set in the 1960s with the same cast playing different characters?
“You bet. ‘Please Ryan, bring me back.’ Oh yeah. I’m already imagining the go-go boots and mini-skirts.” She said the cast was especially close, and singled out Tony-nominated Broadway star Jeremy Pope—who plays Archie Coleman, a black gay screenwriter, in Hollywood—for special praise.
She may be considered a diva, and worshipped by some as such, but LuPone is adamant that she doesn’t want to play up to that in roles. In Hollywood, Avis is grand and regal, but also real; she has camp flourishes, but isn’t just camp.
“I don’t want to be Patti Lupon’d out of the business,” said LuPone. “I am still a working actor. I still have a mortgage to pay. I don’t have a Malibu mansion. First and foremost I am an actor, not a personality—even though I am a personality.” She laughed.
Murphy initially wanted her to play such a diva character in Glee. “My agents were very worried I would offend him. But I explained to him that I had to work and have a paycheck. I told him I didn’t want to be typecast, and he totally got it. I don’t want to be ‘Patti LuPone,’ I want to be the characters I play. Thankfully he trusted me to do that, and I hope he continues to use me.”
Indeed, LuPone would love Hollywood “to be my swan song in the business. I would love to stay in it for as long as it runs. Ryan is the one who offers me roles and I hope he continues to do so, because I’ll never turn them down.”
The show is particularly special because LuPone “grew up on movies. They were my education and passion. As a little girl, I fell in love with Bette Davis. She’s my idol. You go into a darkened movie theater and look up at the huge screen and there they are. To a stage actor with little success in Hollywood playing a Hollywood mogul in a show called Hollywood is quite something.”
For LuPone the Hollywood history nerd, in love with the “glamor and grandeur” of the golden era of movies, it was a “dream come true” to shoot the series there. She would leave Stage 12 of the Sunset Gower Studios, turn to the left and see the “Hollywood” sign. She would look for old-style street signs, and searched out the home in Beverly Hills that once belonged to Elizabeth Taylor and Michael Wilding, and site where Montgomery Clift fatally crashed his car after a supper party held by the couple (“There should be a plaque there”). LuPone also visited “what’s left” of legendary Hollywood mansion Pickfair.
LuPone’s good friend Mandy Patinkin, whom she still gives concerts with, invited her to come see the place he was staying while shooting the final episodes of Homeland. It was in an old-style California bungalow park in Santa Monica, which she imagined being occupied by studio workmen back in the day, “and women in floral nightgowns and bleached blonde hair sipping Scotch out of coffee cups in the morning.”
LuPone hopes she can split her time between stage and screen, with a slight preference for the camera. Retirement is not on the agenda. “I’m in enforced retirement right now,” LuPone shouted, laughing. “I’m talking to friends, and saying, ‘Oh gosh, if this is retirement I’m fucked. There’s nothing to do.’ If this was every day till I died, then I am totally screwed. I guess I am my work. I do want to create, although I’m not sure I want to be slogging away at 85, 86 years old.”
LuPone laughed that she and a Juilliard friend had once imagined being 82 sitting in a Venice piazza “pinching cute Italian guys’ asses. That was our idea of retirement. ‘Hey, ragazzo, come here!’”
LuPone said she had given up yearning for dream roles—“it’s too sad and depressing”—after missing out on parts she really wanted years ago like Ruth Sherwood in the musical Wonderful Town, Ado Annie in Oklahoma!, and Desiree Armfeldt in A Little Night Music. “I began to realize that if I don’t pursue roles, and if I let the universe unfold, the right roles come in my direction.”
However, she revealed, there is one role she would love to do: Regina Hubbard Giddens in The Little Foxes (played by her heroine, Bette Davis, in the 1941 movie version). LuPone has already appeared in Marc Blitzstein’s operetta Regina, based on the play.
“I’ve never been able to hold back, nor have I wanted to. I have always questioned authority”
LuPone knew she wanted to act from a young age. At 3, her mother, Angela, would ask “Patti Ann” to do her Marilyn Monroe impersonation, which involved pouting, looking upwards. Her father, Orlando, an English teacher, started an extra-curricular program at Ocean Avenue Elementary School in Northport, Long Island where the family lived, with LuPone enrolled in dance.
“At 4 years old I was tap-dancing furiously down stage right and fell in love with the audience because they were all looking at me. I actually said in my head, while I was tap-dancing furiously, ‘They’re all smiling at me. I can’t get in trouble up here. I can do whatever I want and they’ll still smile at me.’ So, I was bit, and never looked back.”
Her parents divorced, with her father disapproving of show business. Her mother, a library administrator, had “no choice” because she was taking LuPone and her brother Robert (also an actor) to stage lessons. “At one point she said to my brother and me, ‘I wish you would stop flitting from job to job.’ I guess she wanted us to be ‘Phantom’ for 50 years,” LuPone laughed.
However, LuPone conceded, “I was not a model student, not a model child, and not a model daughter at all. I think my parents saw this as a unique situation that they had to get a handle on. ‘We have to understand this.’”
Conformity was the order of the time. “My parents were first-generation Italian-Americans. My mother denied her Italian heritage. She would say ‘I’m Swedish’ when people asked if she was Italian. I have no idea why she said that. But my parents were Italian immigrants, and they wanted their kids to be American. It was the ’50s. We were supposed to behave in a certain way. My mom would wear shirt dresses with little aprons and serve cocktails and hors d’oeuvres, and lived that ‘American Dream’ bullshit of the 1950s.”
Her mother knew Patti and Robert were talented, LuPone said, “but did not know how to channel that because she had none of that in her. Whatever it was had been beaten out of her.” As a young girl, her mother’s father had removed her from a girls’ basketball team. “She was born in 1909. It was a rough upbringing.” LuPone’s parents wanted Patti and Robert to be a “certain way, and when it was clear we were not that ‘way,’ they did not have the wherewithal or ability to see what we were.”
Their parents were proud of Patti and Robert once they realized their children had talent. “My mother could not hold a tune, but my family are fantastic liars,” said LuPone. “My mother’s side of the family are very boisterous and loud. They’re constantly fighting—‘the fighting Pattis’ (her mother’s maiden name) is what the family is called. My dad’s side of the family is from Abruzzo in Italy, which famous for storytelling. And both of those are in my DNA.”
LuPone herself has a reputation for not holding back when it comes to directors—and this is rooted in her childhood too.
“I’ve never been able to hold back, nor have I wanted to,” LuPone said, roaring with laughter. “I have always sensed injustice, whether I have perceived it correctly or not. I have always had to speak up about it, even as a young kid. I have always questioned authority.”
She recalled being 3 or 4, wandering out of the family home to visit a friend who lived nearby. It must have taken her a long time, because when she got there, her friend’s father furiously instructed her to go home immediately. She went home, and when she got there “there were police cars, fire engines. Maybe they thought I had been kidnapped.”
Parental fury awaited her. “I was punished for walking through field on a beautiful summer day to see a friend. There was no explanation, just punishment. No one asked if I was alright. I was 3 or 4 years old. I had no concept of time. I wondered, ‘Why am I being punished for just living?’ It was shocking.”
LuPone also recalled her first-grade teacher asking the class to put their toy typewriters away. But she was “in the process of learning something,” and the next thing she saw was her teacher ripping the paper out of the typewriter. Again, she felt shocked and humiliated and wondered why it had happened. “Why wasn’t there any explanation. Why couldn’t she see I was engrossed in learning? I wasn’t disobeying. I must have been a precocious kid. I didn’t understand these adult responses. I think kids are born very intuitive and smart, and just get dumb as we grow up.”
At Juilliard, aged 19, a male director told LuPone he would ruin her career. “I went, ‘What the fuck,’ I’m 19. I don’t have a career but thanks. I said to him, ‘You’re just looking for another way to get your rocks off.’ It just came out of my mouth, it just flew out.” LuPone laughed. “And I suppose it has something also to do with being a woman, but I wasn’t saying ‘I’m a woman, you’re not going to do this to me.’ It was: ‘I’m Patti, you’re not going to do this to me.’ Being a woman and speaking up is treacherous to men, and to some women.’”
“I’m not in show business to make friends”
From 1972 to 1976—before roles like Eva Perón in Evita, Reno Sweeney in Anything Goes, Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd, and Mama Rose in Gypsy made her Broadway royalty—LuPone began her career in The Acting Company, formed by actor and producer John Houseman.
In 1973 she made her Broadway debut as Irina in Chekhov’s Three Sisters, receiving her first Tony nomination in 1976 for best featured actress in a musical for The Robber Bridegroom. She won her first Olivier award in 1985 after originating the role of Fantine in the original West End production of Les Misérables.
Matt was a stay-at-home dad to Josh, while LuPone worked. “I would call him every night if I was working before he went to bed.” She is proud of Josh, now a 29-year-old actor and writer. “He has the best of both of us,” said LuPone. “He has gratitude and is not entitled. He’s sensitive, smart, funny, and considerate. Yes, he’s my son, but I’m so proud of him.”
LuPone said she was a “very good director’s actor,” but that she spoke up and challenged things backstage. Performing in The Baker’s Wife for The Acting Company, “we were all in the shitter. They kept slapping us in the face with things. ‘He’s fired!’ ‘She’s fired!’ We’re back in rehearsal after seven months!”
LuPone may have won her first Tony for Evita, but she hated acting in the production. “A production’s stage management builds the show’s temperament. They can do that by wielding a stick or by generosity or kindness. I’ve worked with really bad stage management and really great stage management. (Director) Hal Prince’s men on Evita were terrible and ineffectual. It was one of the worst experiences I ever had. Oh no! Sunset Boulevard (in 1993, playing Norma Desmond, obviously) was the worst experience. Two Andrew Lloyd Webber shows!”
LuPone wrote in her 2010 autobiography about what happened after she discovered she was fired from the Broadway run of Sunset Boulevard: “From the outside, I’m sure it sounded like all hell had broken loose in my dressing room, which in fact it had. I was hysterical… I took to batting practice in my dressing room with a floor lamp. I swung at everything in sight in sight—mirrors, wig stands, makeup, wardrobe, furniture, everything. Then I heaved a lamp out the second-floor window…
“If there could have been a bigger slap in the face, I’m not sure what it would have been.”
Lloyd Webber ended up paying LuPone $1 million for not appearing on Broadway. Did she and he ever reconcile?
“There was no détente, even though I sang ‘Don’t Cry for Me Argentina’ at the Grammys (in 2018). It’s just that he doesn’t figure in my life. The less I deal with him the better. It had nothing to do with show business. It was his ego, he wanted critical success.”
LuPone feels that Glenn Close, who took on the role and won a Tony for it, did not reach out to her properly. “We were never friends. We lived on the same block. We knew each other. But I’m not in show business to make friends, but I have very good friends, like-minded friends, in show business.
“My lifelong friends are gardeners, psychiatrists, professors, sports representatives, and lawyers. There are no true friendships in theater. You find one or two people who you’re friends with for the rest of your life, like Mandy Patinkin. I don’t seek friendships. I seek really good working relationships.”
The Sunset Boulevard firing had “a huge impact,” said LuPone. “That was psychiatrists and Prozac. It was relentless. It wasn’t just a firing and ‘Go home.’ It was relentless before I got fired, and it was relentless in negotiation. Before I got fired, there was relentless bad press. On stage in England I got standing ovations. In America, they were trying to get me off the stage so they didn’t have to pay my contract. It was a tough time. I thought, ‘Why am I going through this?’ ‘What karma is this?’” (She still has a few Norma Desmond outfits she took from the production.)
This was only a finite period of therapy, said LuPone. “I tell everybody everything anyway,” she said, roaring with laughter. “I find acting incredibly therapeutic. You have to discover the qualities of a character and you find them within yourself.”
In 2008, when LuPone won her second Tony for playing Mama Rose in the Broadway revival of Gypsy, she said, “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, pick up one of these.” (She has been nominated for five other Tonys, most recently for War Paint in 2017.)
Two characters have had a particular impact on LuPone: “the tragic and beautiful” Kitty Duval in William Saroyan’s play The Time of Your Life and Ruth in David Mamet’s The Woods. The latter “really brought up lot of stuff, and led to a lot of self-investigation and cleansing. In Ruth, I confronted how much had I had been lying in my relationship to myself and in my relationship with Kevin Kline.”
The couple was together for seven years. “It was not just about him. It was about me lying in every respect, little white lies but the lies became my life. I felt ‘I can say this, say that, and have no accountability.’ The play somehow pointed this up to me.”
Did doing the play hasten the end of her and Kline’s relationship?
“Yes, it did, because of the level of self-investigation and the effect of the play on me.”
“Stephen Sondheim is the ultimate, the Mount Olympus. He’s been a taskmaster with me”
Sondheim’s 90th birthday celebration, Take Me to the World, will be broadcast tonight, Sunday April 26, and LuPone will appear as part of a star-studded roster of artists including Meryl Streep, Jake Gyllenhaal, Sutton Foster, and Christine Baranski.
For LuPone, Sondheim is “the master lyricist and anybody in any aspect of the profession who wants to be challenged and succeed in that challenge should try to sing accurately a Sondheim melody and try to fully understand the emotional depth of his lyrics. He’s the ultimate, he’s Mount Olympus. He’s been a taskmaster with me, and pointed out things that are absolutely correct: my swooping up to a note in fear of not hitting it on-pitch, instead of hitting a note straight-on. And he’s talked to me about my diction. At one point, he said to me, ‘This is not your cabaret show.’ I didn’t even know I was swooping. You can sing without too much thought, and you’ve got to think with Steve.”
In the new production of Company, which originated in London (winning LuPone her second Olivier award), Bobby is now female (played by Katrina Lenk), bringing a tweaked frame and ending to LuPone-as-Joanne’s rendition of “Ladies Who Lunch.”
“I don’t know if I sing it differently to Elaine (Stritch) or anybody else, but I think Steve is very happy with me and the entire production. For me, it’s about Joanne going, ‘I’m fucked up and a mess, and I’m making fun of these women but in fact I’m worse off than they are.’”
For now, LuPone is available to return to Company on Broadway whenever Governor Cuomo decrees Broadway ready to open, but if Hollywood is picked up for a second season that might affect things.
“I really hope we come back. For actors, the stage is the medium we should all go back to to remember how to act. There’s a real discipline and real understanding to mean that you’re able to stand on the stage and communicate with a live audience. There’s an energy there which isn’t there on camera. You can do things again on camera, you can’t on stage. It’s the place where actors really live.”
LuPone is adamant that her family comes above her career and always has. She looked up and laughed. “My husband is shaking his head, but truly, family, life, and then whatever that life has in it is much more important to me than show business. That’s how I live. I could not be in show business if it was any other way. I wouldn’t know how to act.”
LuPone said she thought about her mortality “all the time, I think I am going to die soon. Or, it won’t surprise me if I die soon. I’m old. I partied. I smoked. I’m damaged goods!” She roared with laughter. “I’m not (fitness instructor) Jack LaLanne.” (For the record, this is nonsense; she looks fabulous.)
Today, LuPone said wearily, “Trump will kill me. This will completely eviscerate my soul and I will just want to die. Trump, Mitch McConnell. These fucking assholes, these fucking douchebags, they are the worst. That’s what’s going to kill me.”
She paused, looked up, and smiled. “You’ve got to laugh and keep your spirits high. I felt so much better in Ireland. I kept saying to my husband, ‘I’m a better person here, not this rotten old bitch.’ The people in Ireland are much nicer than Americans, much more considerate to each other.
“You just want a certain kind of consideration, not even respect. And they display that all the time; this sensibility, sensitivity, and consideration. I know I am a better person in Canada too. I love being in England too, but the taxes are intense.”
“We don’t have decency in America,” said LuPone. “It’s getting closer and closer to authoritarianism and fascism, and I hate the corporations. I think I have been a Democratic Socialist for a long time. I am for the people. People power.”
She paused, and summoned a determined smile. Before her next eagerly awaited basement video, LuPone’s fans can tune in tonight to see her contribution to Sondheim’s starry 90th celebration.
“I just sent my video in,” LuPone said, groaning theatrically and wailing, head in hands. “And it was so hard. I had to do with an AirPod in my ear. What I’m doing is a secret. But I picked a ballad I love. I should have done a comedy number. I have no idea if I was on pitch.”
Her agonized expression suddenly vaporized. Smiling widely, she threw her arms out, as if a challenge to everything swirling in our upended world.
“What can I say?” shouted Patti LuPone. “We’re doing the best we can!”