Don't Monkey With Broadway. Patti LuPone. Canberra Theatre Centre Playhouse, Monday June 25, 8pm. canberratheatrecentre.com.au or 62752700.
Broadway legend Patti LuPone is no stranger to this country.
"I've been to Australia three or four times," she says. The first time was in 1981 when she recreated her 1979 Tony Award-winning Broadway performance in the title role of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice's Evita when the original actress lost her voice.
"Robert Stigwood asked if I would go to Australia to finish the tour. I said, 'Of course.'"
It bred in her a genuine affection for this land and its people.
"I love Australia – I've seen quite a bit of it. It's my favourite country," LuPone avers.
"I went to the outback and saw Ayers Rock."
She's driven from Adelaide to Darwin and travelled extensively elsewhere. But one place she hasn't been, it seems, is Canberra, though she has visited a sheep station, Avalanche, just 45 kilometres away.
LuPone is making up for that on this tour, though, with a performance at the Playhouse of her current show, the autobiographical Don't Monkey With Broadway.
It takes its title from a Cole Porter song with customised new lyrics, some of which relate to her complaints about what's happened to Broadway itself – "the disaster that is Times Square" – but mostly concerned with the show's overarching theme: "How I became a Broadway performer."
In the show, LuPone sings songs – some drawn from her long career, others numbers she would have liked to have sung, or simply ones she likes, and tells stories about her experiences as a performer over more than four decades. Along the way she has won two Tonys for her Broadway performances (the second was for playing Rose in the 2008 revival of Gypsy), an Olivier Award (for her 1985 London performances as Fantine in Les Miserables and Moll in The Cradle Will Rock) and two 2009 Grammy Awards (best opera recording and best classical album for Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny). She was inducted into the American Theater Hall of Fame in 2006.
Broadway star Patti LuPone.
"I love Rodgers and Hart, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Jule Styne," she says of some of the great songwriters of the past who feature in her show, which she's recorded.
Of more recent Broadway composers, among her favourites are John Kander and Fred Ebb, Stephen Sondheim and David Yazbek and she says she was "blown away" by the recent smash Hamilton.
LuPone says both her parents were singers and she loved vocalists such as Kate Smith and Elvis Presley from an early age. As a teenager she played Katisha in The Mikado and Rosie in Bye Bye Birdie in high school productions and it seems her path was set.
She wasn't an overnight success. LuPone began her professional career with John Houseman's The Acting Company in the early 1970s and made her Broadway debut in Three Sisters in 1973. After several more shows she received her first Tony nomination (of seven) for the short-lived 1975 musical The Robber Bridegroom and says her first big production was a 1976 Stephen (Godspell) Schwartz musical, The Baker's Wife that closed before it made it to Broadway.
"It was his first flop – that was tough," she says, though even while it was happening she says the cast knew it was doomed as changes were being made constantly and "the stuff they were putting in was worse than the stuff they were taking out.
Patti LuPone performs Don’t Cry For Me Argentinaduring a tribute to Leonard Bernstein and Andrew Lloyd Webber at the 60th annual Grammy Awards at Madison Square Garden on January. 28, 2018, in New York.
"It was crazy, but it still works – the music is beautiful. Everyone tried to make the show work."
Evita made her a star but her relationship with Lloyd Webber took a bad turn when she played Norma Desmond in his later musical Sunset Boulevard – "He fired me" she says in a tone that suggests she doesn't want to discuss it further. Other sources report she received a $1 million settlement and built what she called the Andrew Lloyd Webber Memorial Pool at her Connecticut home. When it's suggested the role of Norma Desmond seems somewhat cursed – Faye Dunaway and Glenn Close also had tussles with the composer – LuPone laughs. More recently, composer and star seem to have achieved detente: she sang at a Grammy Awards tribute to the composer this year.
Since Evita she's been busy on stage, in films – including the Oscar-winning Driving Miss Daisy – and on television, including the family drama Life Goes On, which ran for four seasons.
It might seem hard to believe, but LuPone says, "I'm basically a lazy person -I'd never get the roles I'd go after."
Broadway has changed a lot since LuPone started out, not always for the better. Shows cost about $750,000 to mount when she started; now $50 million or even $100 million is not unheard of.
"It's crazy," she says – and she's similarly horrified by the exorbitant ticket prices of some shows.
One problem with Broadway today, she thinks, is the corporatisation that's occurred: "We don't have producers any more – when you're in a flop, that's when producers produce: they figure out how to keep it running."
The days when an imaginative, hands-on producer like David Merrick could employ gimmicks like wining and dining men who had the same names as major critics, then run a newspaper ad with their comments singing the praises of one of his shows, seem to be long gone.
LuPone says she's "over" long runs.
"They take the year away from your life – I can't do anything except the show."
Still, she was disappointed by the short runs of two original musicals she was in, Woman on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (2012) and War Paint (2017), thinking they deserved to do better, but a show's fate is out of her hands.
Nowadays, she says, "I would rather do straight plays – I don't have to worry about my voice."
LuPone's tastes in drama range widely – she says she loves everything from Jean Anouilh to David Mamet.
"I cut my teeth with David when we both worked on his American Buffalo – I found his dialogue as difficult to master as a Sondheim melody," she says.
But her next project will see her in London for the better part of a year for a production of Sondheim's musical Company where she will play Joanne, the character who sings The Ladies Who Lunch. In this version, with the composer's blessing, the sex of some of the characters will be switched, including that of the lead, who changes from Bobby to Bobbi (played by Rosalie Craig).
After that, LuPone, who says, "I'm think I'm 69 or am I 68? – I'm working on it" says she would like to do "a multicamera situation comedy that's a hit" filmed before a live audience like live theatre.
"Then I can retire."
Patti LuPone is also at the Sydney Opera House on June 23 at 8.30pm, and the Arts Centre Hamer Hall, Melbourne on June 25 at 8pm. ticketmaster.com.au/Patti-Lupone-tickets/artist/887819.
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