Q&A: Patti LuPone

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Called the Broadway diva of her generation by some, Patti LuPone is coming back to the Bay Area on July 12, with her new show, Don’t Monkey With Broadway. Conceived and directed by Scott Wittman, this two-act, two-hour performance features classic Broadway show tunes by the likes of Richard Rodgers, Lorenz Hart, Jule Styne, Stephen Schwartz, Charles Strouse, Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, Cole Porter, and Irving Berlin.

In anticipation of LuPone’s very special evening at Davies Symphony Hall next week, our musical theater correspondent Gavin Delgado spoke to LuPone about the show, why she loves coming to San Francisco, and why she believes the arts play a crucial role in schools.

This interview has been edited for length and condensed for clarity.

Gavin Delgado: So, I know you’re not a stranger to San Francisco. I’ve seen you in Sweeney Todd and other concerts with the San Francisco Symphony. I also saw you in conversation with Carole Shorenstein Hays at the Curran Theater. What do you enjoy most about performing in San Francisco?

Patti LuPone: Oh, I just love San Francisco. I love Northern California. Um, I love the environment. I love the vibe. I said to my husband, if we ever sell our properties on the east coast, I would want to retire in Northern California. It’s this, just something about it that speaks to me. It’s just spectacular. And San Francisco is free-spirited, inclusive, stunningly beautiful.

Gavin: Expensive. (laughter)

Patti: Oh, well, see? Yeah. Thank you Silicon Valley. But you know, perhaps it’s changing and I’m just not aware of it. I don’t know, I’ve spent a majority of my career in San Francisco and I love the city. I love the people. I love the whole northern California vibe I get.

Gavin: Well, San Francisco loves you because everybody’s talking about this concert.

Patti: Oh, so cute.

Gavin: In your show Don’t Monkey with Broadway, you talk about your exposure to music at the age of eight, and were a part of the music program from elementary school through high school. How important do you think music education is in school and why?

Patti: Essential. I think it is. It’s a right. It should be. I don’t know why of course the arts are the first thing that gets cut. Um, it’s a different focus. It’s a different discipline. And I found in my school, the ones that were drawn to the music department were generally the smartest kids in the school. The mathematicians, the musicians. Then, of course, the oddballs, the outcasts, the bohemians would naturally go.

But as far as music is concerned, it was an integral part of my education from elementary school through high school. It was mandatory. We weren’t given a choice. We were chosen. We were told to choose an instrument in the third grade and all of us were … the eighth period was Chorus. And for me, I had a teacher that was my mentor. She kept me on the path. She laughed at me if I got in trouble, or laughed with me rather if I got in trouble. As opposed to punishing. And for the other kids, it was a focus. It’s a discipline. I don’t know what else to say. It’s essential. And everybody sings and everybody dances. Everybody does something in the arts as an expression. So for them to cut it in schools is ridiculous. It’s unhealthy for children not to have that influence in their life.

Patti LuPone

Gavin: So let’s talk about some of your characters: Eva Perón, Reno Sweeney, Rose Hovick, Mrs. Lovett, and Helena Rubinstein. Five diverse women. What is your process to make each one unique and which one is most like you?

Patti: I think I’m only responsible for what the playwright has written. So I start with the script. I do my research. I read as much as I can about the person that you mentioned. They were all real people except for Mrs. Lovett. Elena Rubenstein, Rose Hovick, Eva Peron. But Reno Sweeney, well we know is a compilation of a Texas Guinan and Aime Semple McPhearson. But I start with the script and just keep reading this script and that determines the characterization really. You know, I just try to see what other people think of her. What she says. What the character says. And develop it that way. So, which one is most like me? Reno! (laughter)

Gavin: That’s what I was gonna say exactly! I would like to ask you about Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. I think that it’s a great cast album and although I never physically saw the show, “Time Stood Still” is one of my favorites. What was that experience like and what was it like to work with David Yazbek?

Patti: Oh, I love David and I want to be an all of David’s musicals. I think he’s such an interesting voice in musical theater. Um, really, really unique voice. And he’s a great guy. We have a little Salon that Jeffrey Lane creates every now and then, and the core of it are David, Betsy, Jeffrey Lane and me and Richard Kind. It’s just that I know him socially and adore him and I adore his music. And it was a difficult rehearsal period because the set was so complicated and difficult or no that’s the wrong word to use. It was, hmmm …

Gavin: I heard it was a tech-heavy.

Patti: Very tech-heavy, but I can’t say difficult. It wasn’t difficult. Everything was wonderful about it. Unfortunately, it didn’t catch fire. I don’t know whether it being out of town would have done anything for it but I loved doing it. It has a tremendous cast. And, I just had a ball, you know. It was a great meeting.

I wanted to be a rocker. But every time I sang a rock song, I sounded like Ethel Merman.

Patti LuPone on following her path in life

Gavin: You can tell him that on the soundtrack that everybody was in sync because I listened to that over and over and over again.

Patti: Oh, well thank you.

Gavin: So, I love all the songs in the show. I have the CD and my favorites are “Big Spender,” “Meadowlark,” “I’m Just a Girl Who Can’t Say No.” Of course “Blow Gabriel Blow,” and your rendition of “Sit Down You’re Rocking the Boat.” But in the show there’s a part where you say, “here are three by Steve” and you sing three iconic Sondheim songs: “Another Hundred People,” “Anyone Can Whistle” and “Being Alive.” And I know you’ve had a long association with Mr. Sondheim. How did you first meet him?

Patti: Well, it was my very first Sondheim role was with the New York Philharmonic and it was Mrs. Lovett. It was Sweeney Todd. Wells Kaufman was responsible for that. Um, I think it was, have a question what Wells position was, but he wanted to do a celebration of 70 to 75. Steve’s birthday, 70 to 75. And the first one was Sweeney. And I got a telephone call asking if I would like to play Mrs. Lovett. And I said, does Steve Know? Because at that point I’d never, you know, I auditioned for one thing, didn’t get it. I mean, I didn’t have any relationship with the man. Um, so I would have to say it was the year 2000 that I started doing anything.

Gavin: Oh really? Wow. Because that was great. That Sweeney Todd was incredible when I saw it here. And you had a great cast with that too. So in addition to being a star on the stage, you also have a formidable list of television credits. And I remember watching you on American horror story and last week I spotted you in the preview for the new season of Pose. How did Ryan Murphy become the new man in your life?

Patti: He just called me up!

Gavin: Oh really?

Patti: Yeah, I was in London doing Company and I got a telephone call. I was so excited to be a part of this. I’m very proud. I’m very honored to be in this series with these incredible trans women. I don’t know. I need to be schooled. I need to learn more about the trans community. But I’m working primarily right now with MJ Rodriguez who plays Blanca. It was a big scene where there was an AIDS cabaret and everybody was in all three houses were there. You know, the House of Abundance and the House of Wintour…

And I sat down with Our Lady J who’s transgender and is also a writer and a producer on this. I started to talk to her about it, but I think that I would love to talk to her about it. I’d love to take her out to dinner and have her explain to me. Um, more things. I think it’s important, it’s a very important TV show right now considering what Donald Trump is doing to the LGBTQ community. It’s important that a light is shined on the fact that these are just human beings. These are just people with the same heart, same blood, same. It’s, you know, they’re just trying to live their lives.

Gavin: Exactly. I had somebody tell me, “I watched the first episode three times already.” Because they’re getting a history lesson. And that’s, I mean, to be a part of that. You’re right. It’s a great show and I’m so glad to see that you’re on it.

Patti: Thank you. I’m so glad to be on it. I play a nasty person, but I don’t care.

Gavin: Getting back to Don’t monkey with Broadway. The original concert was recorded in your hometown of Northport long island. What was the inspiration behind this project?

Patti: I just wanted to sing more songs from my youth really. We have a show called Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda, that we were updating. There are even more songs that I’m thinking about. We want to do a medley of Hair because there are so many great songs from Hair. It’s just, I guess, the songs that affected me. It’s the songs that affected me when I was a kid. The songs that, you know, kept me on the path that I was supposed to be on. Not the one I wanted to be on, but the one that was supposed to be on. The one I wanted to be on was that I wanted to be a rocker ⁠— but every time I sang a rock song, I sounded like Ethel Merman.

Gavin: So finally I’m going to ask you, are there any future projects on Broadway, movies or television?

Patti: You know it’s all stuff in the wind. Absolutely. But nothing is, nothing has landed into a contract. But there is stuff up. You know, who knows. At this point in my career, I can’t be anxious about it. If it happens, it happens. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t. Yeah, there’s stuff but there are no contracts yet. So, there’s no point in talking about it cause that’s all bad luck. You know what I mean? I’m very superstitious.

Photo courtesy of the San Francisco Symphony

“An Evening with Patti LuPone — Don’t Monkey with Broadway” // Fri, Jul. 12, 2019 at 7:30pm // Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco

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Gavin Delgado is the man on the scene for anything musical related. With over 1,700 followers on Twitter he’s considered an influencer in the San Francisco theater community.

An avid drummer whose discography includes albums on Digital Nations (a Steve Vai imprint), music critic Louis Raphael has always kept a pulse on the San Francisco music scene. After many years as the San Francisco Music Examiner for Examiner.com and AXS.com, he decided to start Music in SF® as a way to showcase what the San Francisco music scene really has to offer.

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