Holed up at her home in rural Connecticut, Patti LuPone has been working furiously during the pandemic. The theaters are dark, but the Northport native doesn’t need a stage to perform. As a bona fide Broadway royal, she has the power to turn even her cellar into one of the world’s most coveted venues.
LuPone has been on a whirlwind virtual publicity tour for “Hollywood,” Ryan Murphy’s Netflix limited series, in which she plays a failed silent-screen actress who becomes a Hollywood mogul with a socially progressive agenda after gaining control of her husband’s studio. (File under the genre: alternative history.)
Between social-media check-ins with her fans, a good many shot from her theatrical romper room of a basement, she has been lending out her formidable talents to award shows, benefit readings and special events, include the starry birthday bash that was held for Stephen Sondheim’s 90th.
LuPone, 71, was supposed to be performing the role of Joanne in the Broadway revival of Sondheim’s “Company,” which came wreathed in raves from London. But COVID-19 stopped the show in previews, leaving many of us lusting in lockdown for her version of “The Ladies Who Lunch.”
We arranged to do the interview by phone rather than on Zoom, because LuPone was coming straight from her morning workout. She swears she has been styling herself for her recent media appearances, but who can bother with hair and makeup these days?
How are you coping with the pandemic?
I’m not handling it well. I worked out and did Yoga With Adriene, a 30-day program. I did Day 1, so let’s see if I can do Day 2. Structure is eluding me. If I don’t do something in the morning, the day’s gone. And I find I have more blue days than I had when this whole thing started, because it’s just going to go on forever.
I’m having a really hard time being stuck in a house all day stocked with food.
We have freezers in our garage and they look like meat lockers. I don’t know who to believe, so we’re stocking it like survivalists.
You’ve been on a media blitz of late.
There’s something to be said about being overexposed in quarantine. I’m starting to feel that. The interviews are primarily about “Hollywood,” which I’m happy to do what I can to promote. But I’ve been getting so many email requests. My husband said I’m busier now than when I’m working.
Was it fun venturing back to the golden age for "Hollywood"?
Ryan said he wanted “over-the-top glamour.” When I went to my first fitting at Western Costume, I walked into the lobby and almost burst into tears. There are all these pictures of Montgomery Clift, Elizabeth Taylor, Humphrey Bogart, Spencer Tracy, Clark Gable, all adorned in their costumes. It was a crazy dream come true for me. As a kid, I knew I was born for this business, but who doesn’t want to be a movie star?
When you’re on a set these days, are you being treated like Broadway legend Patti LuPone?
Yes! [Laughter] In every workspace there are people who love musical theater. So when I was on set, there were people who had no idea who I was except I was the actress in “Hollywood” who was playing Avis. And then there were people who are like, “Oh my God, it’s Patti LuPone.”
Other people know me from notorious things that I’ve done [more laughter], but if you’re savvy in the business, you know I’m a stage actress. When I was doing the TV series “Life Goes On,” people had no idea I was a singer. They had no idea that I had been Evita. That’s perfectly fine with me. I’d rather be known as an actress.
“Hollywood” shines a spotlight on the casting couch. Does Broadway have a #MeToo problem?
I was never approached. I was either shown the door or hired, but I didn’t have to trade [laughter]. I was so rejected! No, I take that back. What I experienced was emotional abuse, not sexual abuse. Emotional abuse at the hands of directors.
You have a reputation for speaking your mind. Were you born tough or made tough?
I was not born tough. I was made tough by this business. Because I was not going to be denied the right to perform. I knew where I belonged, and I knew I belonged on the stage. My personality is controversial. I was getting in trouble when I was a toddler, so nothing is new. But when it came to the ability to work, I met a lot of resistance. It started at school, at Juilliard. They didn’t cast me because they didn’t like my personality.
And then when I was a professional, there was a lot of rejection, a lot of heartbreak, and a lot of developing of survival instinct. Which is necessary. I certainly wouldn’t want my career handed to me. I think the best lesson is failure. The worst lesson is success because then you’re just trying to repeat what worked last time.
Do you think your reputation is unearned?
In Interview Magazine, they asked Mira Sorvino what’s it like working with Patti LuPone. Well, why didn’t they ask what’s it like working with Holland Taylor or Joe Mantello or Jim Parsons. I see that a lot: What’s it like working with Patti LuPone? …
For the most part, I’m a trained ensemble player. I remember getting the most important letter of my career from Zoe Caldwell after she saw me in “Sweeney Todd.” She basically said I didn’t suck the oxygen out of the room, and I understood what she meant, that I was a team player. That’s the way I was trained. It was the roles that created this larger-than-life persona. I am an ensemble player, but when you’re cast as Evita, when you’re cast as Lady Bird Johnson, when you’re cast as Maria Callas, when you’re cast as Reno Sweeney, when you’re cast as Madame Rose — those are larger-than-life characters.
Was “Hollywood” a harmonious experience?
Ryan assembles casts that are happy to be there, and it starts there. It starts with you’re happy to be at work. You’re not carrying baggage onto the stage. This was a very happy company. When you’re working with Joe Mantello, Holland Taylor, Harriet Harris, Mira Sorvino, all bringing their A game, there is no issue.
Would you call the 2008 Broadway revival of “Gypsy” the high point of your Broadway career?
“Gypsy” we did for the love of Arthur [Laurents] and Arthur did it for the love of Tom Hatcher, his partner for more than 50 years.
Didn’t Arthur ban you from his work for a time?
Yes. But whether this is true or not, Tom told Arthur on his deathbed that he had to do “Gypsy” with me. Not because of me but to keep Arthur alive. So there was just love abounding in the rehearsal room and onstage. Arthur rehearsed us in a way that even the smallest role owned their part.
You’ve called Stephen Sondheim and David Mamet your two biggest influences. What did you get from working with them?
They are a challenge, and to rise to the challenge, to be able to achieve accuracy, whether it’s in understanding David’s ideas or mastering his rhythms or understanding Steve’s ideas or mastering his rhythms — I don’t want it easy.
Does Sondheim still make you nervous?
He came to a couple of rehearsals and the last two previews before we opened in London. And he was very, very happy. He actually cried when he was talking to us. We all were just thrilled to death that he was there. All of us were very nervous. We knew he was in the audience. … Everybody was afraid how our deliveries were going to be appreciated by him. He was very happy.
But you know what they say about the best-laid plans. We were supposed to open the Broadway production on his birthday [March 22]. It would have been historical. I am sad for so many reasons. I’m sad for the uncertainty of Broadway, sad for the fact that we are going to be waiting a very long time to come back to Broadway. I think live performance will be the last thing to come back, if it comes back. It’s scary, a scary time.
How was it taking part in the online birthday gala for him?
It was hard. Steve thanked all of us individually for our participation. I wrote to him saying we all wish we could have done better. It’s different when you have an orchestra behind you. I had one AirPod in my ear, so I was singing “Anyone Can Whistle” to what I was hearing out of one AirPod in my ear. I had to do it two or three times, and then I sent it off saying, “I can’t do it any better.” I kind of gave up on it, because it was really hard.
I’m sure it was the same for everybody. We tried to do the best we could under these circumstances. It better not become the way we do live theater.