A Conversation with Patti LuPone
November 15, 2000
Lincoln Center Theater's Platform series presents conversations with artists working at LCT before an audience of interested theatergoers. Admission is free and open to all. Platforms are held in the lobby of the Vivian Beaumont Theater. The following is a transcript, edited for clarity, of the November 15, 2000 Platform with Patti LuPone:
THOMAS COTT: Good evening. I'm Thomas Cott, Director of Special Projects at Lincoln Center Theater. Welcome to the second of our November series of Platform events. The Platforms are made possible by The Rockefeller Brothers Fund and The Rose M. Badgeley Residuary Charitable Trust and we are grateful for their support.
Tonight, we have with us a truly amazing woman. A local girl! Born and raised in Long Island. She started performing at the age of four and she hasn't stopped since. She is a member of the first class of Juilliard's drama department and toured with The Acting Company, which was an offshoot of that program, for four years after that. She's been a mainstay of Broadway and the London stage ever since.
Some of her extraordinary roles include her Tony-winning performance as Eva Peron in Evita, her Olivier Award-winning performance as Fantine in Les Miserables, her now legendary performance as Norma Desmond in…well, we'll get to that later. [audience laughter] She is equally at home in straight plays, having starred most recently on Broadway in Terrence McNally's Master Class—a role she also played in London—and The Old Neighborhood by David Mamet, a writer she's had a long association with—she's done four of his plays and is starring in his new movie, called State and Main, which is coming out shortly. I think you even sing a song on the soundtrack? We'll talk about all of that.
Her numerous roles in film and television include her Emmy-nominated guest starring role on "Frasier" and of course, her starring role in the series "Life Goes On". But, at Lincoln Center Theater, we are particularly fond of her role as Reno Sweeney in Anything Goes, which she played to rapturous acclaim for a year and half here at the Beaumont. She even got married on the Beaumont stage! She's been back to visit a few times for benefit evenings; she did a one-night-only concert version of Annie Get Your Gun and introduced the 25th Anniversary reunion concert of Company. We are so happy to have her back Sundays and Mondays now through December 17 with her new one-woman concert, Matters of the Heart. Please welcome Patti LuPone! [audience applause]
For those of you who have not been here before, these evenings are rather informal. I'm going to start by asking a few questions of my own and then we'll open it up to the floor for questions, so be thinking about what you want to ask Ms. LuPone. But first I've got some questions.
Patti, you are known as a singer and actress who is smart and technically skilled, but you are also—as you sing in your show—"a real emotional girl." Which pulls you the most? Your head or your heart?
PATTI LUPONE: My heart. I don't think I'm smart enough to have my head pull me. I've always been an organic actor, an instinctual actor. I'm stronger following my instinct than I am actually thinking a part.
TC: The songs that you sing in this new show…are these your own personal selections, or did you choose them with your director?
PL: I did them with Dick [Gallagher], the musical director, and Scott [Wittman], the director. Actually, we did this while I was performing in The Old Neighborhood. I live in Connecticut and I was able to commute home most nights, because the play was only 74 minutes long. That's a four-hour commute for thirty-five minutes on the stage! [audience laughter] However, on Tuesday and Friday nights I'd stay in the city, and Dick, Scott and I started working on a new show.
We had no idea how it would manifest itself. We solicited songwriters. We listened to material. Whatever we felt strongly about, we decided to investigate. And it happened to be love songs. It's interesting, a lot of times my comedic side is short-changed, but nobody out there is writing really funny songs, which is a pity. Otherwise they would have been in the show, believe me!
TC: Perhaps what is distinctive about this particular evening is that it includes a lot of songs that are not Broadway songs. Is there a reason for that? Did you purposely go that way?
PL: Yes, absolutely. There was music in my house, growing up as a kid. My mother—when my Dad was in the war, or even before that—my mother would go to the old Metropolitan Opera and she'd see every opera she could, after work at NYU. We had a stack of librettos at home that were 25 cents apiece. She'd listen to opera and my Dad loved jazz.
So I grew up listening to music in the house. Then, of course, I discovered rock and roll, transistor radios, going to the beach and listening to a new form of music, rock and roll. There was the occasional show album at our house, but it wasn't my thrust. I remember, actually, knowing it when I was fifteen years old, that I would end up on the Broadway musical stage. With no knowledge — instinctually again — I knew that my voice was not a rock and roll voice, it was a Broadway voice. However, I was in a rock and roll band! [she laughs]
TC: When you were doing Evita, you were simultaneously doing a rock and roll act, weren't you? I think I read about this…
PL: Well, I was in a rock band with David Nictern. Does anybody remember the theatrical producer Claire Nictern? David was her son; he wrote the song "Midnight at the Oasis". Does anybody remember "Midnight at the Oasis"? David and I hooked up on Long Island and then we hooked up again after Evita.
I began performing David's music, which is soft rock. I wouldn't call it rock and roll. But growing up listening to rock and roll, you heard stories. There were some very good rock and roll storytellers: Joni Mitchell, Laura Nyro, Randy Newman, The Beatles, The Band, Bob Dylan. There were a lot of great rock and roll storytellers.
I don't there's very much difference between a show tune and a rock and roll song with a story. It could as well be a show tune, if they are well constructed, if they tell a story, if they have a great melody. What is a show tune? I think a show tune progresses the plot through song.
I did a Broadway concert in 1995 that was "And then I sang...and then I sang...and then I sang..." It is one of the reasons why I have moved from comedy to drama, from stage to whatever. To keep me interested and to grow. This time, I told my director I did not want to do show tunes, but he resisted it, because he didn't think my audience would accept me not singing show tunes. As a matter of fact, before we came to Lincoln Center Theater, we weed-whacked about three show tunes and put in more contemporary music. I feel good about singing it. I feel that I can sing it. I think the stories are wonderful. I think there are provocative songs in there.
TC: I think you put a theatrical spin on the pop songs.
PL: Someone was talking about how they heard the lyrics for the first time, and I think in the case of some of these songs, what we usually hear is the beat. It's got to have a beat. In a rock song, you hear the beat before you hear the lyric... but I operate from the lyric first.
TC: I particularly felt that to be true with the song "The Air That I Breathe". I feel like I'd never heard the lyrics before you sang them and I'd heard the song a million times. You really bring people's attention to what the song is about.
PL: Thank you. I think the only way I can sing it is if I can understand it. If I can't understand it, then I can't deliver it. I think with some of these songs, these guys were on drugs! [audience laughter] Because, when you look at some of the lyrics, you think "what were they saying?" Well, it was the '70s and it was rock and roll!
TC: You've been fine-tuning this show all around the world. You've played in very small venues, like the Donmar Warehouse in London; you've played in big halls like the Sydney Opera House and in many places in between. Has the show changed a lot, and has playing it in different places changed the way the show is?
PL: That's a great question. I thank God that I actually trained as an actor, because you have got to be able to adapt to the spaces you're playing. With The Acting Company, we found ourselves in very small stages with 90 people in the audience, doing a Restoration piece or a Shakespearean piece. And then the next night, we would be in an auditorium that had two thousand seats. How do you go from ninety seats to 2000 seats and turn in the same performance, without compromising the play? It took a lot of practice.
It got to the point with The Acting Company—because our schedules were so hideous—that we would get to the theater, throw up because we were all carsick, go on the stage, snap our fingers to figure out the acoustics, get dressed and do the show, and be able to adapt to the space by just recognizing the size, projecting our voices, understanding the space onstage and how far it would be that night in relation to how close it was the previous night. That's invaluable experience.
The concert hall at Sydney Opera House was an incredibly warm theater. I stood on the stage and I thought, "I feel enveloped by the audience. I feel very comfortable here." And it's a concert hall, and they are traditionally colder than theaters.
TC: Acoustically, certainly.
PL: Just the relationship from the audience to the stage and from the stage back out into the audience. You could feel that there would be warmth that night. You could just tell.
TC: Having played the Beaumont for such a long time, did that help when you came back here, in terms of how you played this concert?
PL: I do feel as though I know this stage and I feel at home on this stage. I think I know this stage because the Juilliard Theater stage is a similar arena stage. And I love playing up to the Beaumont's loge seats. I don't like theaters that are straight out and down. I mean, all the way back to the ancient Greek temple of Epidauris, you played up. You played to the Gods. The Beaumont is like a Greek stage to me; I love that.
It's interesting, I learned more in my first concert—when I was doing Evita—than I learned in all my years at Juilliard! [she laughs]
TC: [audience laughter] We won't tell our friends at Juilliard!
PL: About how to reach an audience. How to look at an audience and reach an audience.
TC: You studied acting, not singing, at Juilliard. Did you get any vocal training at Julliard?
PL: Just speech and vocal projection. Not singing. We eventually did do musicals in the drama division because, one Easter break, Gerald Gutierrez directed Kevin Kline, me and Sam Tsoutsouvas in the first act of The Apple Tree. We put it on as a surprise for John Houseman. They then said "well, they can do musicals." Our first musical was Brendan Behan's The Hostage.
TC: That's not exactly light fare.
PL: And I didn't get a singing role! [she laughs] I was cast as a whore! [audience laughter]
TC: I'll let that go.
PL: I was left off the cast list!
TC: I read recently that you said, "I'm finally learning how to sing. I wasn't trained correctly and I muscled my voice for twenty years." What do you mean by "muscled"?
PL: I think with anything—if you're teaching Science, if you're teaching English—not only do you have to know what you're talking about, but you have to know how to give away the information correctly.
I've studied singing since I was fifteen years old — I studied across the street at the Juilliard Preparatory Division — and ultimately, all I did was imitate my teachers, never understanding how the whole apparatus worked. And I don't think my teachers even knew. Because if they did, they would have told me.
And then, what happened was — and it happened during the run of Anything Goes — I would lose my voice periodically. I thought, being a "belter" — not even knowing what a "belter" was — that it was blowing out my voice. And I did blow out my voice.
I went to my throat doctor, who I've had since I was 18 years old—the Julliard Preparatory Division sent me to him, Dr. Wilbur Gould, who has since passed on—and they invented a camera that goes down the nose and down the throat so that they can actually see your vocal cords. They put a name to what was happening; why my voice was being blown out. It wasn't necessarily over-singing. It was the mid-cycle engorged blood vessels that women have to be very careful about. I asked Jessye Norman if she'd knew about this, and she said, "Yes, of course". We Broadway slobs don't know about this.
In the old days of theater, women could cancel performances and stop production—they were called "grace days"—when women were mid-cycle and the blood vessels were engorged. I would be singing through this and breaking a blood vessel in my vocal cords and the cords would fill up with blood and then I couldn't sing until the blood had subsided.
I found out about it at Lincoln Center, and it happened about three or four times after that. The last time, I wasn't singing; I was on a hike on the Appalachian Trail. I took Advil, which is a blood thinner, and came home after about a 5 1/2-hour strenuous hike, took a steam, ate dinner and when I woke up the next day, I had lost my voice for a month. When I finally went to a throat surgeon in Philadelphia — the microsurgeon all the throat doctors from New York to L.A. told me to go to — they went in and they cauterized the blood vessel so that it wouldn't burst again. And there were several broken blood vessels inside of my throat.
That sent me to a rehabilitative teacher, Joan Laden, who I've been studying with since. She is teaching me how to talk again, how to sing finally. What I used to do, in fear, was go onstage and immediately shut down my breathing. By shutting down my breathing, I'd close up my esophagus and sing on the air trapped in the mouth. That's belting. That's not what I chose to do; that's the only thing I knew how to do.
So she's gotten me to open up my esophagus, understand the hard palate, the soft palate, understand how to focus the air. Believe me, it's difficult to understand. I'm learning something different after doing the same thing for thirty years. I want to learn how to sing better. I don't necessarily want to be a belter, because it's hurt my voice. The older you get, the weaker the muscle is. I mean, I don't have the same strength I had when I was 20 years old; when I was 20 I could muscle my voice. I'm beyond 20 and I can't muscle my voice anymore.
TC: When this operation was happening, did you think, "What if I can't sing again?"
PL: I asked those questions, but they assured me I would sing better. And in fact, I am. I was sent to Dr. Gould because there was a bump on the left cord. It wasn't a nodule; it wasn't a pollop. What they think it was now is the first time I burst the blood vessel inside the vocal cord —skin cells and blood cells are not friends — and the skin cells trapped the blood cells, because they cut a bit of it off in the operation and there was nothing there…it was sort of like a callus. They were assuming that's what it was. It's amazing, the trials you go through, to learn how to sing!
TC: Well, it was certainly all worth it.
PL: Yeah, indeed it was. Because I don't think I would be singing now, had I not gone through that.
TC: You said earlier to me that you doubt if you'd ever perform eight shows a week again in a traditional musical. Is that really true?
PL: To be brutally honest with you, I do not relish doing a musical with the gaggle of producers that now reign on Broadway. I wouldn't go there. I wouldn't do a Broadway musical. I'd have to have Liza Minnelli's happiness clause: "I'm not happy, therefore, I'll be leaving!" [audience laughter] I need it!
I did tell Bernie [Bernard Gersten, LCT's Executive Producer] the other night that I would be thrilled to come back here and do a musical, because I feel there's a protected environment here that is so close to my alma mater. I've always felt that walking across the Lincoln Center plaza — to go into any one of these stage doors — makes you feel noble. It makes me feel as though I have finally achieved something, truly achieved something.
But with eight shows a week, the issue also is the fact that I have a 10-year-old and I don't live in New York City anymore. I don't relish losing time with my family. The only solution to this is to commute in an ambulance! [she laughs] Strapped into a gurney with the sirens blaring! But then they say, "Patti, don't you think the cops will catch on to you? You're going down at 4:30 every night and coming back at 11:00?"
TC: Right. "Hmm, it's about time for the 4:30 ambulance!" [laughter] You have played such a wide variety of roles, but you're probably best known for larger-than-life characters, like Evita or Reno Sweeney. Do you worry about being typecast?
PL: Oh yes.
TC: I know that when you were doing Evita, they immediately offered you Lady Macbeth, but instead you went to do As You Like It, which has a very different, comic sensibility.
PL: The story behind typecasting is... When I was accepted into Juilliard Drama Division, I was thrilled to death. Of course, when I was going to school there, there were no dormitories, so it was tough. I grew up on Long Island, so I had New York City experience. But imagine kids off the farm from Minnesota, and dealing with thirteen hours of brutality at the hands of our teachers at Juilliard, and then hitting the streets of New York, having no understanding, no point of reference. I mean, it was a brutal experience.
I think the students at Juilliard have it softer now, because they do have the cushion of a dormitory. But I'm glad we didn't. I'm really glad we didn't, because it prepared me for what I was about to enter into in the professional world.
But as for typecasting... I've never been typecast. As a matter of fact, I found out in my third year of Juilliard at one of the famous critiques, that Michael Kahn said, "well, you've been able to play every role we've thrown at you". I went in my head, "thrown at me?" I thought there was a design, in that I went from La Poncia in Garcia Lorca's The House of Bernardo Alba to The Pupil in Ionesco's The Lesson.
What was happening was they didn't like me and they could not throw me out by the fact that they didn't like my personality. They were trying to make me fail as an actor. [audience laughter] What happened was, they trained one actor in versatility and the rest of the actors fell into each category: leading lady, character lady, second leading lady, etc. And I would go back and forth. So I learned about versatility and the wonderful variety that you can have by not being typecast.
I try to make that an issue every time I go out. I went into Evita, and it seemed refreshing to me that they cast an actor, but when I left Evita —22 years later [laughter] — I was a blonde, fascist tap dancer! [laughter] And the roles that came in my direction reflected that, or there were no offers at all. Because of the power of that part and the irrational hatred of the fact that the show was on Broadway followed me.
Nine months before the end of my run in Evita, the director Livui Ciulei came backstage and said, "Would you play Rosalind in my production of As You Like It at the Guthrie?" And I said, "yes, I will." I then got an offer from Robert Altman to do Come Back to the Five & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean and I said, "I've made a commitment to go to the Guthrie to do Rosalind in As You Like It, and I hope you understand that I will honor my commitment. However much this hurts me not to do your play, but he [Liviu] asked first and I said yes." I think it is key to any actor to honor your commitments. They will always lead you in the right direction.
I'm very happy in my career. I can move from the dramatic stage to the musical stage, from comedy to drama. What's interesting now is that they're finally getting it, whereas this is what I've done my entire career. By decision. The only way one rose as an actor is having the guts and taking the risks and honoring your commitments, I think.
TC: I think I've hogged the mike long enough. Are there questions from the audience?
AUDIENCE MEMBER #1: What makes David Mamet's work so attractive to you?
PL: Again, we go back to the Acting Company.... Its founder, John Houseman commissioned a young playwright to write a play for the company and put him on a bus with us from Louisville, Kentucky to Columbus, Ohio to see how these actors — that had now spent eight years together — interacted.
What happened was... the company broke up. So David picked up Kevin Kline, Sam Tsoutsouvas and me. We went to the Yale Cabaret and did a play David wrote. The work was strange and exciting and different and innovative. While we were doing that, David handed me a play called The Woods. I shook when I read it. I said, "This is an American playwright asking an American actor to originate an American role. This is a dangerous play, and yes, I'll do it."
It was primarily through my training that led me to see and understand this man's work. I think I have a natural ability to interpret David's work, because of my training at Juilliard and because I'm musical. I don't even know whether David knows how musical he is. But he writes melodies. He writes beautiful melodies. I am lucky to be attached to a living American playwright. And I'll do anything for him. And have! [laughs]
TC: Details, details!
PL: Well, no, you see the last two roles that I... Jolly in The Old Neighborhood was one thing, but this last film role... well, you'll see, I've done "anything" for him!
AM #2: So much of the material that you sing in your current project is unfamiliar to me. I recognize the Sondheim songs, of course, but I wonder if you considered introducing the other songs during the show?
PL: No, because that's not the show. The show is an emotional journey, and the lyrics…there are set-ups for each section. In the beginning, I say it's an evening of love songs and the various kinds of love. We all felt that in order for you to take the theatrical journey, you had to work at it. You have to listen to the lyrics. You have to think.
You know what? We're not allowed to just come to the theater anymore as an audience. We're assaulted by sound, we are assaulted by sets. We may have forgotten how to think and listen and come to the theater. So that was my intention, when I was doing this. What I'm trying to say is, each song leads you to a climax or a conclusion of a kind of love. For me to break that and to say, "when I heard this song, I..." — it would break the mood.
I think, for me, we know Rodgers & Hart, Rodgers & Hammerstein because they got a hearing. Somebody put on their shows. And now there are some new composers out there that deserve to be heard, too... John Bucchino is one of them. And unless somebody sings their songs, unless someone's giving them a stage to sing them on, they're not going to become as familiar to us as these earlier composers are.
And I wanted to take you on a journey.
TC: Also, this isn't really a straight concert. It has the feeling of — and a number of reviews have mentioned this as well — of a play. It has dramatic movement and storytelling. Although it's not necessarily linear,it does propel you forward with the songs.
PL: There is a song list in the back of the Playbill. But if there was a song list in the front.... the thing I cannot stand — and I saw this in Master Class, when people read a program while actors are onstage acting...
It's ridiculous. There was a girl — in this theater — down in the first row reading a program! I just wanted to rip it out of her hand and say "Read it at intermission, before the show or at home! But not when the lights go out!" [audience applause] Yes, it's terrible.
TC: I heard about some man who went to see a play during the World Series, and he brought a little television with him so he could watch the game. I just wonder why he even bothered to show up at the theater.
PL: Exactly. People aren't going to the theater for the right reasons, but then again, I think that we don't have that much theater left, I mean, save for this place. We don't. I mean, if you go see some of the shows on Broadway, you're not entering a Temple. When the lights go out, you don't unify as an audience, do you? You're assaulted!
When I saw The Lion King I was so angry — I went with my kid — and a mother was yelling at her child, and her child was yelling back because they couldn't hear each other! It should be quiet. It should be an individual experience. It should not be as if we're going to the movies, or sitting in front of our television set, or at The World Series… do you know what I mean?
When I saw The Chairs, there was a very interesting thing going on in the audience. Some guy was laughing, another guy was shushing him. The first guy kept laughing! He knew this play and he thought the play was funny. And the guy in front of him was shushing him. Finally, he turned around and said, "be quiet, it's not funny!" And the other guy said, "Yes it is!" [laughs] And I thought, "Yes! This is live theater!" I mean, these two people were passionately involved in what was going on the stage. How often can that happen now?
AM #3: How about Copenhagen?
PL: Well, I haven't seen Copenhagen, but I love its director, Michael Blakemore, and I love the actors. What I'm talking about happens more often in plays, than in musicals.
AM #3: Or with Sondheim. Audiences are silent.
PL: But he's doesn't have a show on right now.
TC: I think with Sondheim, too, audiences are quieter because they're so busy trying to catch all the lyrics, because they're so intricate.
AM #3: Or with The Old Neighborhood?
PL: Yes, and with The Old Neighborhood, we were mike-less.
AM #3: I wanted to ask you about that. I've seen your current show at the Donmar and I've seen it here. They're both small theaters. The Donmar is particularly small. But you've got a great voice. Actually, you were the best Norma Desmond of all the Norma Desmonds. But with the voice that you have and in the theaters that we're talking about, you don't need a mike...
PL: I was miked at the Donmar. But the Donmar is a very difficult space. If I wasn't miked, the sound would go straight up and vanish.
TC: For those of you who don't know the Donmar, its auditorium is two stories high.
PL: It's an old warehouse and the sound goes straight up. They've done what they can to acousticalize it, if there's such a word. I had an incredibly difficult time at the Donmar, getting the sound out. It kept going straight up. So you have to make accommodations for the building you are in. The Beaumont, too, is a very difficult theater to play.
AM #3: But you've got a great—
PL: But how far I can project depends on the acoustics of the theater.
TC: Also, she's singing for two hours straight, which puts a lot of demand on her voice.
PL: When I did Oliver at the Mark Hellinger — I think it was done there originally, too — I said to the producer, "Are these the original orchestrations?" "Yes." "Well, did they use microphones back then?" "No." "Then why are we?" "Oh, well, you have to, because audiences can't hear anymore!" [audience laughter] Well, I'm sorry to say it but the creative staff more often than not will underestimate an audience.
TC: Would you have done Oliver without mikes back then?
PL: I wanted to! I wanted to do it without mikes! When we did the benefit concert of Annie Get Your Gun here, that's another show where they knew how to orchestrate and arrange music to support a voice.
Mind you, we only have four strings and a piano for Matters of the Heart. But if you have a full orchestra — and the minute they put electronics in the pit, the singers have got to be miked. The minute they came out with synthesizers that would cover the entire violin section with one player, the actors had to be miked. Hardly anybody even knows how to orchestrate the way they did back in the '30s, where it was mostly strings and woodwinds which supported the voice. I mean, Ethel Merman's voice on top of those orchestrations…we heard it, when we heard the original orchestrations for Annie Get Your Gun that we did. They don't orchestrate that way anymore. But then, they're not thinking of you.
Why am I being miked this time? I am singing two hours. It is a difficult theater. I have often finished a show without a mike on. I just say, "turn the mike off. I want to sing. I want to hear my voice." And my voice does sound better unmiked, because it is a big voice. When you play those little theaters, and you have something for the voice to bounce off of, so that you can hear yourself, it's great. But I'm not going to hurt myself. Here, a sound will disappear and you don't know where it goes in this theater. It's hard to focus the sound.
It would be interesting to see. I mean, I was angry when I saw Ain't Misbehavin' with just a piano and all five of those voices were miked. And how many years ago was that? But now, it's gotten to the point where they don't dare not mike you. Because they think you don't know how to listen or won't accept it.
That's not fair to us as audience members. It's really not. So what if half the audience walks out in the first week? You can retrain an audience if it needs to be retrained! What do they think are we doing? We bought the tickets and go because we want to be there. We're not taking $75 and throwing it into the toilet; we're going to the theater! We want to be there! So I think they underestimate us. Completely.
AM #4: I'm fascinated about how you take care of your voice. Do you still study and is there a warmup routine that you have?
PL: I'm really bad. I do study every week. But I never listen to Joan's tapes... [she laughs] I don't have time! I'm a mother, I'm a wife... There are beds to be made. Laundry to be done...
TC: Chickens to raise! [audience laughter] Do you all realize this woman is a chicken farmer? You have a whole second life!
PL: I try to just be careful. I can't forget I'm raising a 10-year-old. "Time to get up! Make your bed! Clean your room!" [laughter] It's hard! When I'm singing every day, I vocalize every day. I can't go onstage without having vocalized. I study with Joan. I'm still studying with Joan. I'll study with Joan until I can't afford to study with Joan anymore, quite frankly, because I still don't understand it completely, and I think it's very interesting to try to figure out how the whole mechanism works.
So I do. I work out. I get my breathing going. I vocalize for about an hour. And then I set the voice by singing a song. And then I pray to God. It's a muscle, you know? It has a mind of its own. I pray to God that when I go onstage it's going to be there.
AM #5: What role are you most proud of and why?
PL: I have to say — I don't have a favorite role — but I have to say, my proudest moment was playing Mrs. Lovett for the New York Philharmonic's Sweeney Todd this past spring. [audience applause]
TC: That was truly great. For those of you weren't lucky enough to see it, there is a remarkable live audio recording that captures, unlike most live recordings, what it was like to be there. I was lucky enough to see this concert and it was just as amazing as it sounds on the CD!
PL: Please! We were dumbstruck backstage. Our first runthrough in costume was the night of the $5000 ticket…the Gala.
TC: You didn't have much time to rehearse, did you?
PL: The original rehearsal schedule was only three days. We were supposed to start rehearsals on Monday and open on Thursday. Then the director they had wanted dropped out and the director that I had hoped would do it — Lonny Price — came in, and Lonny said, "you can't do this in that amount of time."
We started in Connecticut, on the 24th of April [about two weeks before the first performance]— Lonny stayed up there with me for a week. And George Hearn [who played Sweeney Todd] came over, because George doesn't live far away. Lonny blocked George and me into our scenes.
And then there were certain rules at the Philharmonic, we couldn't rehearse onstage. And so we were rehearsing in the 'green room' at Avery Fisher Hall, where they told us the stage was 65-feet wide and — I never made it through math — I don't know what they're really talking about, and we're in the green room…. and the chorus is singing the song "God, That's Good" And I'm asking, "Well, why is this... and how can this be...?" They said, "Patti it goes like..." And I stopped and said, "Well, what are you talking about?" [laughter]
And then we were downstairs in a rehearsal room at the New York State Theater, and then we got onstage. Then we got on the ramps. Then we got to have the orchestra and then we said, "Holy...unh!" There was no time to panic. There was no time to think. There was no time to regret. There was no time to do anything but do it. I think that is where success lies in a lot of these productions. You don't overthink it. You don't over-direct it. You don't over-angst it. You don't over-anything. Your instinct, your adrenaline is driving you forward.
When we started it, we were all backstage going "Oh. My. God." We didn't expect the response, or that it would even come off. We were so happy, so thrilled. The great thing about this is that Opera met Classical met Broadway. And everybody fell in love with each other. It was through the enormous respect everyone had for the score.
I mean, Heidi Grant Murphy [who played Johanna]and John Aler [who played The Beadle] are my new heroes. I mean, John Aler's voice…I would just stand in the wings and go "Wow!" He is like one of the castrati. Do you know what I mean? His voice is so rare. And Heidi, when she sang "Green Finch and Linnet Bird"...
And of course George Hearn — because George saved the day [when Bryn Terfel, who was scheduled to play Sweeney, dropped out of the project due to illness.] But I know Broadway voices, I don't know opera voices that well. I was so proud. So proud to have been asked. So proud to have done my work and to go onstage and not fall flat on my face, either musically or tripping over a skirt! So this is a long way of saying... Sweeney Todd.
TC: One of the most impressive things about your career is that you have not shied away from taking on roles previously associated with other people, like Angela Lansbury in Sweeney Todd or Ethel Merman in Anything Goes. I really can't think of any other star that's been willing to do this in the way you have.
PL: Well, it's probably because I'm ignorant! [she laughs] I never saw Ethel Merman do Anything Goes, so I didn't have anything to compare it to, right? I only found out after accepting the role that everyone was going, "Who does she think she is?" I'm going, "What are you talking about?" Someone came up to me and said, "Ahh! The woman who defies Merman!" I just went, "What is this person talking about?" Then he said, "You're playing one of her most famous parts." And I went, "Yeah, oh my God, shouldn't I be scared?"
And I saw Angela do Mrs. Lovett. But the idea for our version of Sweeney Todd was 'Opera meets Broadway meets Classical'. So when my agent called and said, "they want you to play Mrs. Lovett opposite Bryn Terfel with the New York Philharmonic", my immediate response was "Tell them I'll pay them." [audience laughter]
About Master Class with Zoe Caldwell: I saw Zoe do it and I was so blown away. I was doing my other one-woman show at the Walter Kerr at the time. I saw Master Class at a matinee and afterwards I just walked through the theater district, got to my theater and thought, "I don't deserve to be on stage. I have just seen a master perform, a master act."
I wrote Zoe a fan letter and had it hand-delivered to her dressing room, and it said that she was my 'La Divina.' That I was a student in her class. Then when the offer came to replace her, I said no. I said the part doesn't scare me, because I've got the information for the part. I said "No one in their right mind would follow Zoe Caldwell in that part." But they were smart. They just prodded and prodded and prodded. And they broke me down.
I told [the producer] Robert Whitehead on the phone—I think Zoe [his wife] was listening on the other end when he called me at home—I said, "I'm not scared of the part, Robert. I'm just scared to follow Zoe." One of my favorite theater moments is when my husband and son and I were in Southeast Asia, in Bangkok, and a 32-page fax came to the hotel for me and it was the script to Master Class! I read it on a beach and I thought, I'm an idiot to do it and I'm an idiot not to do it. So I said, "okay. Here goes."
TC: Well, we're glad you did, because you were amazing! [applause]
AM #6: I've seen many plays here at Lincoln Center, but my favorite performance was seeing you in Anything Goes. Was it special for you?
PL: Oh, it was incredibly special. I remember Jack Mitchell — who was a theatrical photographer — would always take my headshot. And I was going to the audition with Jerry Zaks [who directed LCT's revival of Anything Goes]. I was coming here after picking up the pictures there—Jack took the last picture of Ethel Merman and he gave me that last picture. And that's how I started my audition.
I had my back to Jerry and it was the scene where she sees Billy on the ship. So I turned around and I held the picture up to my face! [audience laughter] It's a picture of Ethel as Disco Mama, you know with the big hair!
Then we went into rehearsal — I think that Evita... I don't mean this in a bad way, but I think that show did untold damage to my career [audience laughter]. I was always a comedienne. In school and in several roles afterwards. My first Tony nomination was as a comedienne, in a true musical comedy, The Robber Bridegroom.
And with Anything Goes, I used to leave with the audience because I was commuting to Connecticut, and you all would be dancing on your way to the parking garage, singing those songs. Nobody knew who I was [without the wig, make-up and costumes on].
I would just marvel at the audience, thinking, "This is what it's all about. For the last two hours, that audience was changed." And that's rare. It's rare that you see and feel and smell an audience have that experience.
TC: Well, they may not have known that night who you were. But they sure do tonight! We're all grateful that you could be with us, Patti. Thank you so much. [audience applause] And thanks to everyone for coming tonight. Good night!