Glory and Misery on the Way to Stardom

10.07.10
Patti LuPone
The New York Times

By Charles Isherwood

Acceptance speeches are definitely a lot better to give than to receive. But Patti LuPone’s 60 seconds of glory at the Tonys after her win for “Gypsy” constituted one of the highlights of that year’s telecast. Cradling the twirling medallion, she began with a sly joke. “It’s such a wonderful gift to be an actor who makes her living working on the Broadway stage,” she said, “and then every 30 years or so, pick up one of these.”

As Ms. LuPone reveals with refreshing candor in her new autobiography, the line was actually written by a friend. Nevertheless it captures the LuPone tone precisely. There’s a healthy ego at work — about damn time, guys! — but the tough edge is softened by the self-aware humor of an actor who knows in her bones what it is to be grateful, not just for the occasional fancy paperweight, but also for the next job.

“Patti LuPone: A Memoir,” written with Digby Diehl, represents no dazzling literary feat. As a work of literature it’s more or less negligible, although the workmanlike prose is enlivened with zesty infusions of gum-chewing New York humor. Ms. LuPone plays the highlight reel and the blooper reel essentially in straightforward chronological order, writing of roles and rehearsals and openings and closings in a style unadorned by felicitous phrasing or sustained reflection.

But nobody reads showbiz autobiographies to discover the next Proust. If a book rings true and shovels a sufficiency of dirt, revealing the pain and grit without quite dousing the glamour, we are satisfied. On both scores Ms. LuPone’s book delivers. She comes across as a straight talker, a tireless worker and an occasional tantrum thrower and Valium taker. The Patti LuPone we meet in these pages has earned her reputation as a diva (in the benign sense) through her big talent, willingness to take risks and sheer persistence, and her reputation as a diva (in the less benign sense) more out of nerves, actorly integrity and ill fortune than blinkered egotism.

The chapters devoted to her star-making role in “Evita” illuminate both the glory and the misery, and they make for often hair-raising reading. Ms. LuPone was working on her first big movie (Steven Spielberg’s “1941” — bum luck) when she was summoned to New York for a final audition. She was warned that if she didn’t make it back for her morning call two days later, her Hollywood career would be over. “Really, people talk like that out there,” she writes.

Cue a blizzard. Ms. LuPone had to perform the audition in a state of heightened emotion and suppressed rage, knowing that she’d never make it back to Los Angeles in time and that the powerful Mr. Spielberg would not be pleased. The anger helped, and she got the plum part that would turn her into a Broadway luminary overnight.

But the rewarding roles, as Ms. Lupone’s book makes clear, often come in productions plagued by angst. At one point during the tumultuous out-of-town tryouts for “Evita,” Ms. LuPone was a hair’s breadth from being fired. Only an encouraging word from the critic Clive Barnes to the producer Robert Stigwood — for once, the critic as hero! — saved her from being let go from one of the most high-profile musicals of the era.

Still, she struggled with the demanding vocal range and the challenge of making her own a role that had already been created, to acclaim, by Elaine Paige in the London production. Ms. LuPone rebuffed advice on her interpretation from dancers in the London staging. “Shut up” and let me figure it out myself, she told them, and thus “a Broadway reputation was born.”

Her fabled temperament aside, Ms. LuPone’s stage career has been important, and not only because she may be one of the last generation of theater performers to attain a measure of real stardom without forging a strong career in film or television.

Those who know her primarily for her big musical theater roles — Evita and Reno Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett and Momma Rose — may be unaware that this Long Island-born actress was in the very first class of the Juilliard Drama division, led somewhat rancorously by John Houseman. Or that she toured the country performing the classics for a few years afterward in the Acting Company, the important itinerant troupe that emerged directly from that class. Or that Ms. LuPone has been a significant interpreter of the work of David Mamet.

These career passages are related in brisk, frill-free chapters that are sometimes skimpy when you’d like a little more fleshing out. Kevin Kline sidles up in a backhand reference, and Ms. LuPone never says much about their youthful romance. She divulges little or nothing about other relationships except her happy marriage to a cameraman, with whom she has a son.

Work is the natural focus, and the inclusiveness is salutary; the breadth of the roles she writes about attests to her assertion that she has pursued acting challenges more assiduously than star parts.

Ms. LuPone does give due prominence to the performances that could be described as the nadir and the apex of her career to date. (She opens on Broadway next month in the new musical “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.”) Two meaty chapters that still ring with dudgeon are devoted to Ms. LuPone’s tumultuous experience in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical adaptation of “Sunset Boulevard.”

Unsurprisingly, she has few kind words to say about Mr. Lloyd Webber’s role in withdrawing the offer to star in the Broadway production after the show (and its leading lady) opened to some sour reviews in the West End. Ms. LuPone does offer many amusing and unkind ones on the subject and spares a few for Glenn Close, who ultimately played the role in New York and never sent a conciliatory or friendly message.

“You might think it would have been common courtesy, if nothing else,” Ms. LuPone grouses, with reason.

Far happier is the history of Ms. LuPone’s involvement with “Gypsy,” related in chapters that open and close the book. Even the journey to her triumphant night at the Tonys was not obstacle-free. Ms. LuPone practically had to grovel before Arthur Laurents, the author of the musical’s book, who had a beef with her after she withdrew from one of his plays, to win his permission to play the role in New York. And the critical reception to her debut in the role at City Center was not unanimously enthusiastic.

But Ms. LuPone has a formidable will to match Momma Rose’s. The story of her campaign to bring the show to Broadway makes for a winning close to a book that reveals how doggedly even established actors have to work to keep a career on track, to keep the gift of a talent in flexible form, to keep the specter of oblivion — not to mention poverty — at bay.

As Ms. LuPone writes, apropos of that life-changing turn as Eva Peron, “What many believe must have been a glorious ascent into heady stardom was, for me, a trial by fire, with the constant threat of being burned at the stake.” Ms. LuPone is mixing her incendiary metaphors, but as this lively book illustrates, she has earned the right to get a little overheated on occasion.