We love a diva. So when we had the opportunity to talk to Broadway luminary Patti LuPone, we were Rainbow High and then some. Patti’s career has run the gamut from Broadway leading lady (two Tonys, two Drama Desks, and a slew of others), to performances with symphony orchestras across the country (LA Opera, Ravinia Festival, NY Phil), to starring as Corky’s mom on the ABC family drama Life Goes On (which earned her an Emmy nomination). Her newest album, Patti Lupone at Les Mouches (on Ghostlight Records), documents the last performance of her six-month cabaret stint at Les Mouches, the legendary Manhattan nightclub, while starring on Broadway in Evita in 1980. We caught up with Patti after a performance of her award-winning role as Mama Rose in the acclaimed Broadway revival of Gypsy.
Hi Ms. LuPone! I just got a copy of the Les Mouches CD and haven’t been able to stop listening to it. It sounds like you must have had a lot of fun!
Yeah! I mean, I can’t imagine what I was thinking, playing Evita, and then doing that. But we did have fun—they were some wild times!
There were some crazy people in the audience, too, like Andy Warhol, Jodie Foster and Stephen Sondheim.
Yeah, that was the performance we used on the recording, but, yeah [laughs], it was pretty crazy. It was a really interesting time. Les Mouches was a huge discotheque and also a supper club, and of course that doesn’t happen in New York any more.
You can say that again. On Les Mouches, you turn on a dime, from an epic like “Meadowlark” to a really sultry, come-hither song, “Squeeze Me,” and then a great standard like “Street of Dreams.” There’s a bit of everything in there. Even “Mr. Tambourine Man.” How’d you choose what to sing?
I didn’t choose it at all! [Music director] David Lewis chose all of it. I just learned it. I had no involvement in its creation, except to learn the music. I just followed David’s lead. You know, I was doing Evita and was overwhelmed at that point, and a friend of mine said, you should do a nightclub act! ... I can’t even recall our rehearsal period, except David would go, “try this song,” “try this song,” “try this song,” and he came up with a line-up, he came up with the choice of material. I don’t think I had anything to do with it!
Hearing you on this recording and others, you strike me as someone who, when you’re singing a song, you’re not just putting words to music, but it’s more of telling a story through music and through words, both of them.
Thanks! Yes, exactly.
Do you have a process when you’re learning something that gets you to that point?
Well, I think it’s sort of natural. I think I’m lyric driven. If it’s a good piece of music, the lyrics and the music will be one. If it’s not a good piece of music but it’s a good story, the lyrics aren’t hard to memorize. If it’s not a good story and the music stinks, too bad! (laughs) But I start from the lyrics. I think if I make sense of the line, then the musical line should make sense with the line of the text.
That definitely comes across. And also your singing has this extraordinarily powerful and human quality. Did you learn that from listening to other singers?
I think it’s just tapping into who I am. I’ve always tapped into who I am, I’ve always just opened up my mouth and sang. I’m a huge fan of Edith Piaf. She always sounded as though she was singing from her absolute being. Always. And so she’s my real heroine.
You’ve never shied away from demanding roles—from Eva Peron to Maria Callas [in Master Class], Mrs. Lovett [in Sweeney Todd], and now Rose. And you certainly bring it all to Gypsy. Is it exhausting? I mean, “Rose’s Turn” must be one of the most demanding numbers of all time.
The whole show is demanding! The entire role. I guess you learn to give each section a proper weight, so that you’re not exhausting yourself, so when you get to “Rose’s Turn” you can’t play it. Right now, I’m waiting for “Rose’s Turn”! I think I’m, you know, I’m strong enough now, physically, emotionally strong enough now, that when I reach Rose’s turn I still have a reserve. Which is what you want. You know, you don’t want to go like, shit, I have to do “Rose’s Turn,” you have to be like, well I could do that again if they wanted me to. You have to figure it out, physically figure it out, how you do that. So the whole role is demanding, not just “Rose’s Turn.”
Right, but even so, the musical choices you’ve made have been pretty complex. You recently did Kurt Weill’s Rise and Fall of Mahagonny with the LA Opera, and of course Mrs. Lovett, first with the New York Phil, then on Broadway.
I’ve done them because I was asked! [LA Opera Musical Director] Jimmy Conlon wanted me, and years ago I wanted to play Jenny Smith in Mahagonny, and I never did, so when they offered me Leocadia, I thought, here’s my opportunity. And I’ve always thought that I should do Weill, and the fact that Jimmy was the maestro of the LA Opera just made it all the sweeter. Because, here I was, making my operatic debut! It was totally cool.
I’ll bet. What about your other roles? Do you seek out challenging work?
You know, basically, I don’t really look for them, they come to me. I’m constantly surprised by my career and what’s put in front of me. I guess it’s like, what they say—what do they say?—“you’re given as much as you can handle.” So if I’m given difficult roles, it’s because somebody thinks I can do them. But I didn’t go after Evita. As a matter of fact, I auditioned, but I didn’t like it! I auditioned because they told me to. I didn’t like the music at all. And that was, at that point, the most difficult thing I’d ever done. And then, when Sweeney Todd happened, I was grateful that I was finally doing a Sondheim musical. And it was at the New York Phil, so you don’t turn that down. And up to that point, that was the most difficult thing I had ever done.
I mean, I think if you don’t do them, you aren’t going to be able to stretch yourself and allow anything else in, if you don’t embrace a challenge. Then you’re going to be quite limited in your creative process…. And especially if people ask me to do them, I don’t generally say no, because perhaps they know more than I do!
What about your role in Life Goes On?
Life Goes On —that was different! I auditioned and I got it, and that was shocking. [laughs] And so then I was off to California!
Has your career taken lots of turns like that you think?
Oh! My career is nothing but constant surprise!
Does that affect how you view your role as a performer and artist?
Nope. Nope. I’m just grateful I’m given these interesting opportunities! I’ve never been typecast. And now, so many years later, that’s a great example of not being able to be typecast. To be able to go from Mrs. Lovett, to Rose, to Maria Callas, to, you know, Libby Thatcher, whatever.
Well that’s certainly true. What’s next on the horizon for you?
Yeah, yeah, good question! I am doing a Weill piece with the Cincinnati Festival and the Ravinia Festival, Seven Deadly Sins, with Jimmy Conlon.
Oh my goodness, that’s such a great piece of music!
Yeah, it’s a great piece. We’re actually doing only the Sins in Cincinnati. But for Ravinia I’m doing the Sins for the first act and the second act will be Weill songs. And then I don’t know what I’m doing after that!
What other kinds of music do you listen to?
Jazz, rock ‘n’ roll, classical. Right now, I’m listening to a lot of John Coltrane and Dave Brubeck. As for classical music, Mahler, Shostakovich. I like programmatic music, you know, the big German and Russian stories. I love that music.
Well, thank you so much Ms. LuPone—it’s been a pleasure!
Oh, thank you!
Catch Gypsy at the St. James Theatre now through March 1. For more info go to papermag.com.