Just a Little Touch of Star Quality
In 1950, there was Ethel Merman. In 1960, there was Carol Channing. But Patti LuPone is the Broadway diva of the new millennium. LuPone, who is not only a Broadway living legend, but also a successful film and television actress, isn’t afraid to make a few enemies in her memoir, Patti LuPone: A Memoir. Although the book suffers from a redundant and ho-hum title, LuPone delivers with the blazing intensity and brash attitude that has secured her position as the most demanding, explosive and fascinating actress on Broadway today.
Patti LuPone: A Memoir, written with Digby Diehl, is the chronological story of the actress’s entire career, cleverly bookended by two performances of Steven Sondheim’s Gypsy: The first was performed at age fifteen on a friend’s front patio in her hometown of Northport, Long Island. The latter was the 2008 Broadway revival, which earned her a Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical and catapulted her to legendary status.
Readers who are not Broadway aficionados will probably be bored out of their minds. Although LuPone does an admirable job of summarizing her career highlights and throwing in a few gossipy theater stories for good measure, the memoir is not personal or universal enough to translate to the casual readers who know her vaguely from her role as Libby Thatcher in the ‘80s television show Life Goes On. Instead, her journey reads more like a 300-page bio. While Broadway fans will probably be thrilled that LuPone is gracing them with 300 pages’ worth of career benchmarks, readers who don’t know John Houseman from Arthur Laurents may find the book tedious.
But LuPone would urge bored readers to shove off—although she’d probably use harsher language. In her wisecracking and fiery narrative, the leading lady makes it very clear that she has no time for disrespect. LuPone’s most famous feud is with British composer Andrew Lloyd Webber, and she uses her memoir as a platform to take jabs at him. LuPone tells her side of the story like this: Webber, who cast the author in her breakout role, Evita, asked her to originate the role of Norma Desmond in his new musical, Sunset Boulevard. She was publicly promised the role in the United States when the musical moved to Broadway, but the London production received only lukewarm reviews. In a newspaper article, LuPone discovered that Webber had rescinded his promise and offered the Broadway role to Glenn Close instead. “I took batting practice in my dressing room with a floor lamp,” LuPone writes. “I swung at everything in sight—mirrors, wig stands, makeup, wardrobe, furniture, everything. Then I heaved the lamp out the second-floor window.” She used her contract buyout cash to buy a pool for her Connecticut home, which she dubs “The Andrew Lloyd Webber Memorial Swimming Pool.” Underneath a photo of the pool, the author writes, “The only thing missing was the crime scene outline at the bottom of it.”
LuPone has a lot of famous friends, and she’s not afraid to share embarrassing stories. Whether she’s reporting details about producer John Houseman’s private parts or taking Valium with screenwriter Meade Roberts, LuPone tells it like it is. But the author’s most interesting celebrity relationship is her eight-year romance with Kevin Kline—both were young actors in the same class at Juilliard and original members of The Acting Company. LuPone’s relationship with the Academy Award-winning actor is glossed over quickly, even though she hints that he may have been her first true love.
Also missing from the memoir are some of LuPone’s most detonative diva moments, like her dramatic walkout from the Broadway production of Noises Off in 2002 and her fierce public scolding of an audience member taking pictures during her performance of Gypsy in 2009. Instead, LuPone casts herself as the underappreciated workhorse who had to claw her way to the top. Although there is undoubtedly some truth behind her claims, the actress’s history of impulsive outbursts suggests she may have trashed a few more dressing rooms than she’s willing to admit.
But like her portrayal of the iron-willed political leader Eva Peron, LuPone provides a strong voice for a community of creative artists trying to duck the blows of professional criticism. In a pre-Broadway tryout of Gypsy, New York Times critic Ben Brantley’s less-than-stellar review of LuPone’s performance almost obliterated the entire production. “You give the critics the power,” LuPone tells Gypsy producer Roger Berlind. “If you don’t want to do [the show], that’s one thing, but if you don’t want to do it because of a critic, then why bother producing anything? Trust your instincts and don’t give the critics the power.” Berlind took the actress’s advice and brought the show to Broadway. On opening night, LuPone received a glowing review from Brantley. “That quiet crunching sound you hear is me eating my hat,” Brantley writes in his 2008 review. LuPone offers hope for any artist struggling to maintain creative integrity in a world of critics.
“I have been incredibly fortunate over the course of my career to have been associated with some extraordinary dramatic and musical productions and also some rather spectacular disasters,” writes LuPone. “Looking back, I can find gifts and life lessons in every one—even the flops.” LuPone’s story is a journey of ups and downs, friends and enemies, great roles and devastating losses. And love her or hate her, she wouldn’t have it any other way.
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