Being ushered into Patti LuPone’s dressing room at the Gielgud Theatre feels like something between being granted an audience with the Queen and tiptoeing into a lioness’s den. But the famously outspoken musical-theatre megastar has a wicked sense of humour. She’s gearing up to play Joanne in Marianne Elliott’s production of ‘Company’. Her co-star, Rosalie Craig, will play the leading role of Bobbie, who’s been rewritten so that instead of being a bachelor, she’s a 35-year-old woman whose friends are badgering her into getting married. It’s a change that LuPone welcomes.
Were you surprised Sondheim said yes to the gender-switch?
‘Yes. He’s turned down lots of variations on “Company”. But I’ve never heard of anybody who could say no to Marianne Elliott. I think it’s more powerful this way. And I think it’s timely.’
Can you imagine other shows getting the same treatment?
‘Well, you wouldn’t want to see “The Queen and I”! I just think this is special. But why can’t more people write more musicals for women? With female protagonists?’
You first sang ‘Ladies Who Lunch’, your big number, at Sondheim’s eightieth birthday gig in 2010. Scary?
‘It took a lot of nerve. But Sondheim was so close we could see him, and the grin on his face. Elaine Stritch [who originated Joanne on Broadway] was there, and I sang the line, “Does anyone still wear a hat?” directly at her. And the audience burst out laughing. Because she never was without a hat.’
Your last West End role was working with Andrew Lloyd Webber on ‘Sunset Boulevard’. How was that?
‘Difficult… It wasn’t fun for any of us. He was desperate for it to be a hit. And the show is flawed, no question. Every time he showed up, it was like “What’s gonna happen now…”. A publicity machine was trying to get me off the stage. And the lawyers were saying, “Stay on”. And I just don’t know if that was ultimately, emotionally, the right thing to do because it took its toll. He did pay though! [chuckles] He did pay.’
You’ve spoken out about bad audience behaviour. How’s it been in London?
‘Ushers are being vigilant. But once when I was performing in New York this woman was texting throughout the show. On my exit, I walked past the front row and I just took the phone off her. I came back on stage and I shouted, “I got the phone!” and the audience applauded. It became a big thing. I can’t believe I did it!’
You’ve played so many great roles…
[Gestures to a row of tiny dolls on her dressing-room table] ‘Look at my fabby-dabby dolls! They’re all my characters! I got sent them in the mail! There’s Nancy in “Oliver!”, Norma in “Sunset Boulevard”, Mrs Lovett in “Sweeney Todd”… It’s crazy! As I unwrapped them, I was getting more and more depressed. I have to get out of showbusiness. I’ve been in it too long.’
And I was going to ask if there any roles you still really want to play?
‘Um, no. I just want a vacation! I don’t have that kind of desire for two reasons. One, I am lazy. And the other one is that I never get the part. So I have given up wanting a role. It’s about trusting fate. It’s healthier.’
‘Company’ is at the Gielgud Theatre until Dec 22.
Buy tickets here.