Don't be lulled - OK, disappointed - by the nice chatty girl with the inspirational anecdotes who figures in the first half of Patti LuPone's memoir. She eventually does get to the juicy stuff and, when she does, it's dynamite.
LuPone, an actress defined by boulder-size proportions of talent, temperament and honesty, would seem to have been chosen from birth for a breezy sail to stardom.
Long before the world saw her steamrollering up to collect Tony Awards for her Eva Perón and Mama Rose, she was the 4-year-old darling of Miss Marguerite's dance class at the Ocean Avenue Elementary School in Northport, where her father was principal. In the '50s, she and her twin brothers, William and Robert (Tony nominee for "A Chorus Line"), were the LuPone Trio, troupers on the Long Island Rotary circuit. She wore a white ball gown but, as she adorably remembers, "I still hadn't grown into my lips."
So there are lots of such once-over-lightly stories, grateful tributes to teachers of the unruly golden girl of John Houseman's formative drama school at Juilliard and life lessons about "my responsibility to my craft."
Sprinkled into the pleasant memories, however, are dark little seeds of the struggles and disillusionment that also helped form one of the most distinctive theater actresses of our time. "Nothing has ever come easy for me," she says in different ways through her journey to big-time Broadway stardom. "The reality is that it's not what you think it is. It never is. Goddammit."
Despite her identity as a musical diva, I first encountered LuPone in the '70s as a dramatic actress. She was one of the brightest of Houseman's bright lights (along with then-boyfriend Kevin Kline) in the early years of the Acting Company, the classical repertory troupe that toured the country for four years in a bus.
In other words, she wasn't exactly plucked from obscurity when she catapulted into brand-name status in Harold Prince's American production of "Evita," the show that "gave me a reputation and a shadow of controversy that has followed me to this day and took its toll on every aspect of my life." She had to pass up a play by David Mamet, one of her lifelong friends and heroes, to sing music she didn't really like. She desperately wanted to work with Prince, but, "As I listened to it, all I could think was that this guy, Andrew Lloyd Webber, hated women."
She was plagued with vocal problems and got bad reviews, but the show was a huge hit and she was a lonely Tony-winning star with "a hostile reputation. Ah, the glory. . . . " Worse yet was her experience in "Sunset Boulevard," when she read in Liz Smith's column that Glenn Close was going to play the role LuPone created in London. "I took batting practice in my dressing room with a floor lamp," she says.
But the highs have been high. She hit on camera assistant Matt Johnson while filming a made-for-TV movie about LBJ and married him onstage at Lincoln Center Theater in 1988, during the happy run of "Anything Goes." (They have a 19-year-old son, Josh.) She had a triumph as a tuba-playing Mrs. Lovett in John Doyle's 2005 production of "Sweeney Todd" and, of course, as Mama Rose in "Gypsy" in 2008. She has a role in the upcoming musical, "Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown" and another in HBO's new backstage-Broadway series, "The Miraculous Year." She is cast as the Broadway diva. Few know better how hard it is to become a real one.
PATTI LUPONE: A Memoir, by Patti LuPone with Digby Diehl. Crown Archetype, 324 pp. $25.99.
WHAT Patti LuPone signs copies of "Patti LuPone: A Memoir"
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