Patti LuPone: Exclusive East End Interview With The Legendary Chanteuse

Patti LuPone. Photo by Douglas Friedman

I’ll admit it, interviewing Patti LuPone, Broadway legend, was an intimidating prospect. She is blissfully unaware that she has been part of my theater-baby orbit since she originated the role of “Evita” on Broadway in 1979 — all of us Strasberg Studio/Williamstown Theater Festival girls were hoping for “just a little touch of star quality” like LuPone’s.

The three-time Tony and two-time Olivier Award winner has done so much since then, both on stage and screen, and has played some of Broadway’s best roles, like Rose in “Gypsy” and Reno Sweeney in “Anything Goes” and Mrs. Lovett in “Sweeney Todd.” Also, in recent years, LuPone became famous for doing what every actor who’s ever been on stage has wanted to do: plucking a cell phone, mid-performance, from the hands of a rude audience member who was texting nonstop. 

But still, someone who has those kinds of cojones can be intimidating, right? I was ready for anything as the hour rolled around for a Zoom call set up by LuPone’s people and the Bay Street Theater, where LuPone will perform in a benefit concert on July 8.

I’ve been on interviews with celebrities where their manager, agent, publicist, and grandma have been listening in. But when I popped on the call a few minutes early, there she was, Miss LuPone alone, beaming at me from a friend’s kitchen in Springs — just the two of us.

And she couldn’t have been nicer. She is everything I love about theater people — enthusiastic, effervescent, educated, and a little raunchy. Identifying herself immediately as a Long Island girl, LuPone spoke about her background growing up in Northport, her early years in the theater, the pain of rejection and how to handle it, her concert at Bay Street, and her return to Broadway in the fall in “The Roommate” with good pal Mia Farrow.

Patti LuPone. Photo by Douglas Friedman

It’s so wonderful to talk to you, and thank you for coming out and doing this concert for Bay Street.

Are you kidding? I’m thrilled. I’m just surprised they didn’t ask me sooner! I am a Long Island girl, grew up in Northport. And in my teen years, I used to come out to the Hamptons every weekend to party. We’d get out of school at three o’clock on the weekend, and drive out to the Hamptons. We’d go to Hampton Bays, to all of the discotheques that were on Dune Road. And we’d end up at this underground place in Southampton called Breakfast in Bedlam, which was only open from 2 AM to 6 AM. 

I love it! Was there a defining moment in your childhood when you saw a performance — a film or a play or something — and thought, “That’s it, this is what I’m going to be doing”?

It was me, at four years old, on the Ocean Avenue Elementary School auditorium stage, where I fell in love with the audience. I was tap dancing downstage right, looked out at the audience, and thought they were all looking at me. Of course, they were looking at all of us, but I took it like it was just me… I was four. I mean, it’s a calling. I was chosen. It was a force of nature, and I never looked back.

I’m sure there was a long list of parts you have wanted to play or sing, but is there a part that you were like, “I want to play this,” and then finally you got to a place where you could, like Rose or Reno Sweeney?

Well, what’s interesting about Madame Rose, I never wanted to play Madame Rose. Northport, where I grew up, is a very creative town. And there were three kids, three of my peers from school, that created The Patio Players, and they performed great big musicals on Kathy Sheldon’s patio. A couple of years later, they went to the superintendent of the Northport school system and asked if they could have the East Northport Junior High School, for the summertime, to put on plays. They said yes. And so, these kids took over the auditorium, and we put on “Gypsy,” and I was Louise, and Kathy Sheldon was Madame Rose. And I remember the dressing room scene going, “What is she talking about?” I never wanted to play Rose until I played Rose. And I went, “Oh, I get it.” 

Of course, there are roles that I’ve wanted to play that I’ve missed out on, too. More often than not, I have lost the roles that I’ve wanted to play. So, I stopped wanting to play roles, and I’m grateful for what comes to me in the universe because that’s what I’m supposed to be doing. 

There’s such disappointment in this business. I mean, it is based on rejection. It’s just one rejection after another of you, of you, of you, of you. Even though it’s a part, it’s still you that’s being rejected. So, to avoid that anxiety and that depression, I just wait for what comes, and then what comes in my direction is so interesting! I never thought I would play Nellie Lovett in “Sweeney Todd.” I never thought I would take over for Zoe Caldwell in “Master Class.” I saw Zoe do it and wrote her a note saying, “I was just witness to a master class. You, on stage, is that master class.” And then they offered it to me. I was like, “What?” So it is healthier to just trust the universe than to wish for stuff that’s pretty much unattainable.

Patti LuPone. Photo by Rahav Segev

Can you tell me a little bit about the concert you’re bringing to Bay Street? 

It’s about growing up in America. I’m so associated with Broadway musicals, and that is my career, really. I have several signature songs from shows that I’ve done, that people want me to sing. And the last show I did was called “Don’t Monkey with Broadway,” how I basically ended up on the Broadway stage, growing up on Long Island. This one is really about my experience of music growing up in America. 

When I was growing up in the ’50s and ’60s, it was the burgeoning of rock and roll. It was transistor radios, it was disc jockeys on AM radio. You know what I mean? It was Cousin Brucie. It was Wolfman Jack. And then, when I went to Juilliard, it was Alison Steele’s “Nightbird” and psychedelic music. But when I was growing up, it was like the beginning — Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens. It was The Shangri-Las, it was Little Anthony and the Imperials. It wasn’t classic rock. It was just the beginning of rock and roll. And as children, we rebelled from our parents. Right? So my dad listened to jazz. My mom listened to opera and Broadway musicals. I listened to rock and roll. That’s the basis. I’m a closet rocker.

So is that going to come out on stage at Bay Street, some of your rock riffs?

Well, no, because every time I was in a band and opened my mouth, I sounded like Ethel Merman. (Laughs.) I don’t have a rock voice. And that was so disappointing to me.

The show reflects decades of my life. There are certain songs that reflect decades in my life. And there are touchstones that I remember, and we’ve all had this experience where you hear a song now, and you remember exactly where you were when you first heard it and the impact the song had on you. Music has the power to crystallize a moment in time. And the question was, why am I looking back? Well, I don’t know. Maybe it’s because there aren’t that many years left, and this is what informed my life. This is what helped create me as a person. And this music means something to me. Because the Broadway showtunes are written by somebody else, and I’m in character. You know what I mean? It’s still me, but it’s not me. It’s not Patti. It’s Patti interpreting.

I have to say this because I think it’s still true: Northport had a phenomenal music department. I went to school in the Northport School District, where music education was an integral part of our education. In the third grade, we were marched into the elementary school and told to choose an instrument. So, I was awakened to all kinds of music — choral music, madrigals, because I pretty much stayed in the chorus department. I was in the band, and I was in the marching band, and I was in that orchestra playing the cello. So, I was introduced to heavier music than rock and roll and knew where I was going on the Broadway musical stage. But still, to this day, if I’m driving someplace, I will put on the radio and listen to a classic rock station. And it’s just something that…

Patti LuPone. Photo by Hana Mendel

…feeds your soul?


You were in one of the first, if not the first, Juilliard class, right? So who else, remind me, who were some of your classmates that went on to big things?

I was in the school from ’68 to ’72, which was the first group of Juilliard, the Juilliard drama division. And some of our best actors didn’t make it. It was a brutal environment. It was study 13 hours a day, six days a week. The technique of teaching was the bullying back then. I mean, I was in tears every night of my first year. In our third year, they brought in three advanced students, and those of us who had been doing the first two years went, “Advanced in what?” (Laughs.) And it was Kevin Kline, David Ogden Stiers, and Mary-Joan Negro — yeah, really. But we were pissed. We were like, we’ve gone through this boot camp, classical training boot camp, and these guys show up. So, I would say Kevin Kline is probably the most famous person, and David Ogden Stiers.

They don’t train the actors with the Bible that John Houseman and Michelle Sandini created anymore. And yet, when you look at who has come out of Juilliard, over the years, it’s an extraordinary group of actors that have gone on to win Academy Awards, Tonys, huge careers, and all trained at Juilliard. It was an amazing experience. I wouldn’t change it for the world. I wish I had been a better student.

Best advice you ever got? 

I’m trying to think what that would be. (Yells to her friend in the kitchen in Springs.) Jeffrey, what would be the best advice you think I’ve ever gotten? He’s a comedy writer. (Pause.) “Put everything in your mother’s name.”

That is so great. “The Roommate,” can you tell me a little bit about this and returning to Broadway?

I met Mia through Steve Sondheim because we all lived, when Steve was alive, in a county in Connecticut, in the Northwest corner of the state. And I met her, oh my God, years ago. I mean, I can’t remember when I met her, but let’s just say the early ’90s. So we’re friends. Our kids went to the same Montessori school in Connecticut. And what’s exciting is working with a friend. What’s exciting is there’s a shorthand, because we know each other personally. It’s very difficult for actors to go, how do you, how do you do, and then create an intimate relationship. And Mia and I already have that friendship, and it’s about the discovery of these individuals, individually and collectively, with each other. 

Jack O’Brien also lives up in that area, and he’s directing. I haven’t worked with Jack since The Acting Company. Jack directed me in one of my most successful performances with The Acting Company, Kitty Duval, in “The Time of Your Life.” So, it’s kind of exciting to be back with, not kind of, it is exciting to be back with Jack, and on stage with Mia, and hopefully we will create some magic. You never know.

Patti LuPone. Photo by Douglas Friedman

What would you tell your teenage self?

Oh, to work harder. To study harder, to get more serious sooner. Don’t give up the fun, but it’s the rest of your life.

Thank you so much, Patti. We’ll see you at Bay Street on July 8.

Oh, thank you so much. I’m thrilled I’m coming home, please write that. I’m just thrilled I’m coming home. When I left Long Island, I left my family, but we don’t leave our roots. You can’t ever leave the roots. 

Bridget LeRoy

Bridget LeRoy co-founded The East Hampton Independent and the Children’s Museum of the East End, and has been honored with over fifty awards for editing and journalism from various press associations. Follow LeRoy on instagram @bridget_leroy.

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