The last time Patti LuPone stopped by her hometown of Northport was in the summer of 2020. She and her husband, Matt Johnston, were headed to Sag Harbor to visit an older cousin of hers whose health was failing. It would be their last chance to say goodbye.
LuPone suggested they stop at Northport on the way. She packed a lunch, and the couple sat on a bench along the harbor.
"We just looked out," she recalls. "It was beautiful. Gorgeous. And packed. Main Street was PACKED!! I thought, that’s not the way it was when I grew up here."
In more recent weeks, the two-time Tony Award-winning actress, singer and all-around Broadway legend has been gazing at a different home, and from a different vantage point. Instead of a park bench, it’s a bar stool set center stage; instead of the waterfront, it’s Broadway’s Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre. LuPone opens Dec. 9 in a new gender-bending revival of the Stephen Sondheim musical "Company," starring Tony winner Katrina Lenk ("The Band’s Visit") and directed by two-time Tony winner Marianne Elliott ("War Horse," "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time").
Again it all looks familiar. The stage, spotlights. Yet, something’s different. And it’s not just that audience members are wearing masks. Or that Broadway just lost a legend with Sondheim’s death on Nov. 26. She can’t shake the feeling that in this moment her show, her industry, her home away from home, could be snatched away — again. In an instant. Each night, she registers that thought, then tucks it away. Hey, on with the show, right?
TOAST OF THE TOWN
Yes, it’s perhaps ironic that this anxiety — a fear that another COVID outbreak could stop the show for good — hangs over the woman who stops the show on a regular basis.
She utters six words. "I’d like to propose a toast." And the crowd goes nuts.
That’s the beginning of "The Ladies Who Lunch," already a signature song of hers from her concert work. By the end of her last lyric — "Rise!" repeated over and over — the audience obeys. The cast holds in place till the cheering dies down.
It’s not just that number. The applause throughout the show, and at other shows, feels urgent.
"We feel a real joy and gratitude from the audience that live theater is back," she says.
And it aims to stay back. Among the new rules: Audience members must show proof of vaccination to enter the theater and remain masked once inside. Cast and crew receive rapid-antigen COVID-19 tests daily, and all backstage visits and stage-door autograph signing is on hold.
Such protections keep her colleagues comforted. "It’s a really beautiful feeling backstage," she says. "Everybody, cast and crew, is where they belong."
She chuckles, at this unexpected silver lining wrought by the pandemic.
"You know how sometimes you can get jaded?" she asks. "There’s none of that backstage, none of that, because we’re allowed to do what we do again."
That’s great, but it comes with added pressure. Nobody wants to be the one bringing COVID-19 into the theater. COVID-related cancellations hit "Aladdin" in September, and closed the new "Chicken & Biscuits" last month.
REVIVALS AND REWRITES
"Company," with music and lyrics by Sondheim and a book by George Furth, won six Tonys when it debuted on Broadway in 1970. It centers on Bobby, a serial ladies’ man on his 35th birthday, with a gaggle of girlfriends and well-meaning married friends who spend the show trying to convince him it’s time to settle down. Their own hobbled relationships, alas, reveal the flaws of marriage as much as the fulfillment of it.
The current revival premiered in London in 2018 with a different (all-British) cast save for LuPone, who won an Olivier Award, the U.K. equivalent of the Tony. This version transports the tale to the age of cellphones and Tinder — and flips it head-over-high-heels, changing Bobby to a female, Bobbie; the girlfriends to dudes; and one hetero couple to a same-sex pair.
"I emailed Sondheim and I said, ‘You better be sitting down for this one and preferably holding a drink,’" director Elliott recalled to London’s Evening Standard newspaper. To her delight, Sondheim loved the new take, and not only gave his blessing but rewrote lyrics to help facilitate the changes.
LuPone thinks the show works better with a female protagonist. It’s a question women get asked all the time: The clock is ticking — when are you getting married? And it’s always been so, she notes.
At the start of "Company" previews in 2020, just before the COVID lockdown on March 12, LuPone was reading Anne de Courcy’s book "The Husband Hunters," about New York’s high-society daughters who were married off, "Downton Abbey"-style, to British gentry. Among them were Cornelia Martin, whose family owned a mansion in Wheatley Hills, and Consuelo Vanderbilt, who played at the family estate in Oakdale before marrying the Duke of Marlborough. LuPone was struck by how little has changed for women between then and now.
"If you’re not married by a certain age, it’s still assumed you’re never getting married," she says.
LuPone devours history almost as much as she does ethnic foods (which is a lot). That curiosity is something that’s stayed with her since her earliest days growing up in Northport, when she and friends would poke around some of the old abandoned Gold Coast mansions still standing then.
"I got in a lot of trouble," she says, giggling.
Of course, as much as she loved growing up there, the outspoken actress is quick to note she always knew she’d get out. Still, something calls her back every few years. And in a time when life feels so uncertain, the sight of Northport Harbor and Long Island Sound provides solace for her restive soul.
"Every time I hit Suffolk County, my blood shimmers," she says. "Something happens in my system. I know that’s home. BUT," she punctuates, "I was born with wanderlust. So I don’t have a home. I am a global citizen. I am so excited to be someplace else. I love traveling, discovering different religions, different foods, different manners. So … Northport is the home where I was born. But I’d probably say my roots are … in a suitcase. With a jaunty cap and a passport."
LUPONE ON SCREEN
While Patti LuPone became a Broadway icon for star turns in “Evita” and “Gypsy,” she’s also maintained a steady presence on-screen. Here are some of her standout roles in film and television.
LIFE GOES ON (1989-1993) — Despite her diva status on stage, for years her most recognizable role was that of suburban mom Libby Thatcher in this ABC family drama, the first to feature a major character with Down syndrome. And, yes, she sang the opening theme (“Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da”).
PENNY DREADFUL (2015-2016) — She first guest-starred, then played a creepy alienist in this popular Showtime horror series.
POSE (2019) — A power-hungry real estate mogul … who sings! What could be better?
HOLLYWOOD (2020) — She classed up Ryan Murphy’s Netflix 1940s-set drama (and loved driving the vintage cars).
DISAPPOINTMENT BLVD. (future) — LuPone shot this Joaquin Phoenix comedy horror film last summer. The night shoots were tiring, she admits, but nothing compares to theater’s relentless schedule. “Broadway ain’t for sissies,” she says.
SHARING MEMORIES OF STEPHEN SONDHEIM
Patti LuPone can’t recall the first time she met legendary composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim, who died Nov. 26 at the age of 91. But she can recall her first audition for him.
“It was to replace Bernadette Peters in “Sunday [in the Park with George],” she says, in a text. “He came down the aisle and said, ‘I don’t want any belting.’ I don’t think I had opened my mouth. He intimidated me. I didn’t get the part.”
Despite that somewhat rocky start, LuPone would later go on to star in several Sondheim musicals, on Broadway playing Mrs. Lovett in “Sweeney Todd” and Mama Rose in “Gypsy” (for which he wrote the lyrics), among other productions.
The loss is a tough blow for Broadway, and theater professionals like LuPone who knew and respected him.
When the titan appeared at the first preview for the new “Company” revival, she was struck by how frail he looked.
“I’ll miss the notes from Steve — the good ones, the scary ones, the hurtful ones,” LuPone says. “But always the accurate ones. He always made me better.”