In a book that simply uses her own name as its title, two-time Tony winner (Evita and Gypsy), Patti LuPone (with Digby Diehl) nails the star autobiography.  She kisses and tells on lovers Kevin Kline, Peter Weller, and current husband, Matt Johnston; regales us with theatre stories and makes good on tabloid gossip: for example, a blow-by-blow account of the disastrous London opening of the musical Sunset Boulevard—it landed her in a snake pit with the likes of Andrew Lloyd Webber, Glenn Close, Meryl Streep, and Barbra Streisand to name four; and settles old scores with just about everyone who ever crossed her: Topol, Paul Sorvino, Bill Smitrovich, and much of the entire chorus and dance corps of Anything Goes at Lincoln Center.  Plus she goes further, adding an eight-page section of color photos with black-and-whites throughout and explaining what it takes to create roles, play them for extended runs, and survive in the major leagues of show business: “I’ve never wavered from my love and dedication to the craft of acting and the belief in the value theatre holds in our culture,” she writes. 

That doesn’t mean it was easy: the story of Evita, the part that made LuPone a star in 1984 is not about a “glorious ascent.”  Instead, it was a “trial by fire, with the constant threat of being burned at the stake.”  The truth is, the director Hal Prince was unhappy with the interpretation; LuPone’s competitive alternate was ready to take over the part; and the singing voice was shot: during the run, she spent fourteen hours each day in enforced silence, restoring whatever she had left.  Her reviews—as well as those for the entire rock opera in America–were lackluster—and, ultimately, she felt that she and costar Mandy Patinkin had to perfect “the art of roping in skeptical audiences who dared us to be worth the money.”  Nevertheless, they became Broadway’s hottest ticket at the time, with Patinkin always receiving the larger hand each night at curtain calls.  The surprise is that, given her character anyone bothered to clap at all—the real Evita, an uber-opportunist, married a fascist dictator who protected Nazis after the war.

LuPone was beginning to avail herself of a strange ability—she could make the villainess, the anti-heroine identifiable [after Evita, there would also be, as examples, Mrs. Lovett, who knew and kept the secrets of a man who turned from a barber to serial killer (Sweeney Todd); and Rose, who, unrelentingly, forced her daughters to become successes on the stage, no matter the path (Gypsy)]. Regarding Evita, the actress says she wanted to play her as a girl on “a roller-coaster ride . . .  with a big smile . . .  as if she were saying, ‘Look at me.  Look what I got away with.’ ”  With regard to a song like "Rainbow High", the interpretation is different than that on the original concept album where the song is sluggish. LuPone’s version, however, in its galvanizing speed, drive, and intensity is an anthem to narcissism.  The song can speed up your pulse and spark fantasies of forbidden, ecstatic self-will; Evita, the nefarious saint, was made into an adrenaline rush perfect for American materialists in the go-go ‘80s—LuPone made her one of us.

Her crash-and-burn portrait of the iconic lead in Sunset Boulevard was intended to be identifiable as well.  “I wanted to create a character, not a caricature. . . .  To be sure, Norma Desmond was a woman who was larger than life, both as a great actress and as a movie goddess, but at the same time she still had to be recognizable as a flesh-and-blood human being.”  The critics were divided; at least one found the character pedestrian. I seriously doubt she was boring, though; what other actress can elicit such a visceral reaction from the audience time after time?  “Some of the actors . . . were technically brilliant,” she realized at Juilliard. “They had beautiful speaking voices, beautiful diction, beautiful projection, but they were not very good actors.  You can be taught to act, but you can’t be taught the X factor.”  No matter what you want to make of an individual interpretation, that’s what LuPone’s got.  

The night I saw Gypsy at City Center, the audience was primed, the score roared, you couldn’t take your eyes off her—I even happened to be at a performance when one of the props broke.  She  took a broom, brushed up the pieces and, without missing a beat, continued the show.   LuPone owned the stage. In discussing Gypsy she says, “I did not see the ‘monster stage mother’ that had become the standard description of Rose. I hooked into her love for her children and her desire to do only her best for them, however misguided those intentions were.  That’s the way I wanted to play her.  It was a departure.”  Personally, I had a difficult time reconciling her interpretation of the songs with Ethel Merman’s piercing phrasing (etched into my skull after years of listening to the original cast album).  I also didn’t understand LuPone’s conception of her craft; she was singing the songs so straightforwardly, seemingly tossing them off (I’m not saying that they’re easy to sing)—I thought she was missing a more dramatic rendering. It’s a style, a choice, though—and I’m glad she explains it: we realize, through the book, that she’s employing a method gleaned from David Mamet: “Remain open . . . ‘let(ting) the script do the work’. . . .  The easier I played . . . the more I comprehended the material.”      

It should be mentioned that Patti LuPone: A Memoir is not Proust, but it doesn’t have to be.  The  forward structuring of the book can break (the section on Mamet, for example); I felt the edit could have been tighter (there are repetitions and similar expressions–I would have watched continuity a little more closely); the index also seems perfunctory (not even Peron makes it in, and I found myself scrambling to find the acting material); additionally, it would have been helpful to have had an appendix with her production history. The voice, however, is intact. I suppose booksellers only saw this as a tell-all—and it can be read just as a confirmation of LuPone’s diva reputation.  I’m glad it’s more. 

© 2010 by Bob Shuman

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Published by Crown/Archetype

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