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Like most larger-than-life figures, Patti LuPone is smaller than you might expect. It’s hard to believe that so little a person, just over five feet tall, could contain the elemental powers that have made her the great musical-theater star of our time: the voice like a flood, the heat like a volcano, the acting like raw earth. But even while calmly seated for an interview at quiet Gramercy restaurant I Trulli, her hair neatly bobbed, her inner fire flares out. She means business and she means show.
A graduate of the first drama class at Juilliard in the early ’70s, the famously temperamental LuPone, 66, rose to power as the original Eva Perón in Broadway’s Evita and was the first Fantine in London’s Les Misérables, triumphing since in revivals of Anything Goes, Sweeney Todd and Gypsy. Now the two-time Tony winner is in a play at Lincoln Center: Douglas Carter Beane’s Shows for Days, in which she portrays Irene, a community-theater prima donna. Irene’s philosophy—“big choices, big results”—might as well be LuPone’s. And we wouldn’t have her any other way.
What do you think about Broadway these days?
I don’t know what’s going on. I don’t know if the people putting on theater are putting it on for the right reasons. Is it only money-driven? I don’t think I ever want to work on Broadway again. Because Times Square is such a disaster. I left An American in Paris the other night, and I walked out into a fucking zoo. It’s nuts. And it’s so inelegant. It’s so crass. It caters to the bottom-feeder. I don’t know what the fuck it is.
How about the shows themselves?
What’s disconcerting and depressing to me is that people think audiences are stupid. Audiences are not stupid. They are not given a choice. I wish our producers gave our audiences more credit. Kansas is coming to Broadway, to New York, to see us. Don’t give them Kansas! But I still love it. I go to the theater. I can bitch and bitch, but I want to see everything.
Tell me about Shows for Days.
It’s Doug’s homage to the Genesius Theatre in Reading, Pennsylvania, the theater that started him on his road to playwriting. I play the director/costume designer/scenic designer/leading lady/artistic director. She will do anything to keep her theater alive. She’s ruthless, but it comes out of a passionate love for theater.
It’s a comedy, right?
Yes, and it’s directed by that comic genius Jerry Zaks. But it’s also extremely touching. Yesterday, I actually started to cry onstage. Because it’s my life. Doug says it in the play: He’s spent his life in rehearsal rooms. And he also talks about how he feels about theater now. [Tears up.] I feel strongly about that, because I share his sentiments. Not enough attention is paid to how many people it takes to get you onstage or the ones that train you, the ones that keep you on the right path. A lot of people in my career have taught me very valuable lessons—good and bad.
Theater history seems important to you.
Yes, I believe in that history. I have Ethel Merman’s jewels from [the 1956 musical] Happy Hunting. Adelaide Laurino was a very famous wardrobe supervisor—she looked like a cliché witch, and she was sought after by all the big productions, because she was brilliant. Right before I went onstage in the charity concert [scene in] Evita, she came upstairs with these jewels glimmering on a velvet tray, and she went, [raspy voice] “These were Ethel’s from Happy Hunting, and I’m giving them to you for the charity concert.” So when I left the show I took them, because I knew that that information wouldn’t be passed down to the next Evita, and eventually they would get destroyed. And that kind of stuff, to me, is very important. It does something to the soul. It makes you stand up straighter if you have that information. So I’m really big on that.
What stage production has been the best experience for you overall?
Gypsy. It was a perfect cast, and it was directed out of pure love by Arthur [Laurents]. There’s a very bad habit now on Broadway where the minute you open, people take days off, and that particular circle of energy is broken. But because Arthur instilled ownership in everybody, down to the smallest part, nobody missed unless they were truly, truly sick. Every night, you knew you had the same players and you went out there going, “We’re going to put this on for Arthur. We’re going to put this on for the audience.” And that was unbelievable. The other one was Les Miz in London with the Royal Shakespeare Company. Many things about it were very sad. I was dating some asshole who broke up with me. It was perfect for Fantine! [Laughs] But there’s just something about being in London among working actors, because it’s not the same kind of pressure to succeed. It’s an honored profession there, and it’s not here.
You’re back in the spotlight now, but you were not in a Broadway musical for 16 years, between Anything Goes and Sweeney Todd.
Right? What about that? And it continues to this day. I’m not the one they think of, even when I’m so right for the role. I don’t know what it is, because I know how good I am, and that’s not a boast. This is a gift from God that I’ve known since I was four years old. I mean, I remember when they cast Heather White as Katisha [in The Mikado] when I was in the second or third grade. She couldn’t sing or dance or act. I could! So this has been going on my entire life. [Laughs] I have a line in the play: “You can have the worst luck but the best career, and I should know because I got both in spades.” And that line could be labeled “Patti LuPone.” Anything Goes went to London without me. And now Gypsy. What the fuck did I do wrong? What karma is coming back to bite me in the ass?
Yet you keep being asked to play yourself on TV, essentially as the symbol of Broadway musical theater: on Will & Grace, on Glee, on Girls.
That’s the scary part. They’re going to Patti LuPone me out of the business. When people call and say, “Will you play yourself?” it’s like, Okay, but how am I going to get hired after that? I'm not Cher, I'm not Britney Spears. I don't have that kind of money. I have to be a working actor. The business is incredibly fickle and shortsighted, and I don’t want to be Patti LuPone first. I want to be an actor first.
But it can be good, as a star, to have a style—to be imitable.
I don’t think that way. I know there are probably mannerisms, because they’ve told me that since Juilliard, but I’m not aware of them. I’m aware of the rawness of my emotionality. My emotional expansiveness isn’t American at all, and I have always struggled with that. I went to a psychiatrist once, and he said, “You have pepper blood.” My husband uses it on me all the time: “You have pepper blood.” I have pepper blood!
What younger musical-theater stars are you most impressed by?
Lena Hall! God! First of all, she’s got that monster instrument. She’s got this huge Latin voice. I thought she was incredible [in Hedwig and the Angry Inch]. And Annaleigh Ashford is just fabulous. I’ve seen her in a couple things, and I love her take. I love her zaniness, I love her energy. She is just wild. The first time I saw Jessie Mueller was in Beautiful, and I went, "No wonder she won the Tony." There is a genuine specialness about her. There is a sincerity, and she comes across the footlights. I thought Cristin Milioti was robbed of a Tony [for Once]. She either should’ve shared it with Audra [McDonald], or she should’ve won it. She’s unbelievable. She drove that musical, and she had a characterization within it. And Kristin Chenoweth has got incredible talent. There’s really nobody like her, and [Lily Garland in On the Twentieth Century] is the part she was born to play. You applaud that, and you reward that. I guess what I respond to are the ones—female or male—that dare on stage.
It does seem like a lot of young performers today are mired in a bland professionalism.
I’m glad that people are professional—I want the utmost professionalism when we’re in rehearsal—but I also want somebody who’s going to shock me and thrill me. People can be technically brilliant but not compelling. I like the ones that just plant and deliver. That’s it, man. You own that stage. Your feet are one [Bangs the table] with that ground. And I respond to the ones that go to the absolute edge. I once said on a London curb at three o’clock in the morning, “My life is all about either crawling out of or falling into an abyss.” [Laughs] I don’t understand why you go onstage if you haven’t got that to start off with. I don’t understand who you’re serving. If it’s self-serving, don’t waste my time. We love to do it, it fulfills us, but the purpose is to give it away.
Shows for Days is in previews at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater (at Lincoln Center) and opens June 29.