“Patti LuPone: A Memoir”

Also known as “Ah, But Underneath”

There’s no one quite like Patti. She’s maintained an estimable career, winning all kinds of awards and constantly challenging herself to be a better artist. And while she’s a respected actress she’s also a personality who herself famously quipped “People either love me…or they hate me” on an episode of Will & Grace.

The actress is not without controversy, as evidenced by the theatre gossip, the backstage rumors and her very public blowouts from Andrew Lloyd Webber all the way down to that lone gunman photographer (she doesn’t talk about Penultimate Patti here). She is an animal of the theatre: she eats, breathes and sleeps it and is immensely proud of being an actor.

It pretty much goes without saying that her self-titled memoir has been one of the most highly anticipated theatre books of the year. Written with the assistance of Digby Diehl, the memoir is what you would expect: blunt, entertaining and unapologetic. It’s not as negative as I expected it to be, but it still tends to be an accusatory affair. There appears to be no stone or grudge left unturned along the way, from her years in Juilliard (a harsh education for which she is ultimately most grateful) to the casting debacle surrounding Sunset Boulevard (probably better remembered for its controversy than the show itself). The writing style is perfunctory, and seems an attempt to capture her voice in the writing regardless of how forced it may seem.

The most interesting revelations of the book aren’t the expectant hardballs lobbed at Sunset Boulevard (which accounts for about 50 pages of the book) or the vindication of Gypsy’s triumph but those years spent training and touring in rep as well as a brief section of the book where she reveals her battle with breast cancer. She lets us in on a couple of amusing childhood anecdotes (I was especially amused with her maternal grandparents’ hijinks) but glosses over the early life and quickly plunges the reader into the Juilliard years.

There are a great many interesting things to be learned here: how the department didn’t care for her, her rebelliousness and how she received her first of many criticisms about her poor diction. (John Houseman once shook her violently and nicknamed her “Flannel Mouth”). She constantly talks shop about technique and training throughout, but whenever she does the memoir veers into the pretentious. There were some amusing anecdotes about The Acting Company; however, I never needed to know about John Houseman’s penis or how they all got crabs from the touring costumes.

It’s clear that LuPone has not gotten over many of the wrongs that have happened to her throughout her career, which adds a certain level of bitterness to the whole thing and detracts from sharing in her triumphs. Gypsy was a culmination and vindication of her talent and longevity, but it takes on the attitude  of “I showed them!” which is ungracious and off-putting. Also, if you happen to cross Patti on an unsuccessful awards night or after receiving bad news, watch out. She is unflinching and perhaps too brutally frank about her own temper and the violent tantrums she’s had throughout her career.

For fans of Evita and Sunset Boulevard, she is terse about both experiences. Listening to Evita’s score, she came to the conclusion that Andrew Lloyd Webber hates women because he wrote much of the role in the passagio. Considering herself a dark horse, she didn’t take much stock in the process but claims that most of the stars who wanted the part couldn’t sing it. “There are still probably only a handful of women who can sing Evita in the original keys.” There’s the critical letdowns, the loss of her singing voice, the All About Eve like antics of her alternate and the instant stardom. Then there’s the admission that she was visited by Eva Peron three times.

Much of the book is devoted to the revival of Gypsy, which bookends the memoir. She opens with a prologue about the Broadway opening night and closes with an epilogue about that final show. (At chapter 16 she starts over again repeating much of the prologue, where was the editor?) But I took exception to some of the comments LuPone made about the show.

When I read the script I did not see the “monster stage mother” that had become the standard description of Rose. I hooked into her love for her children and her desire to do only her best for them, however misguided those intentions were. That’s the way I wanted to play her. It was a departure.

It’s not really that much of a departure. Aside from Merman, the women who have played Rose have never fit the mold of “monster stage mothers.” Each characterization of Rose is singular and unlike any other; each star has left an indelible mark on the character, with performances still talked about every time the show comes up in conversation.  The musical features one of the greatest characters of the genre and there are many ways of playing her. I also think that it’s somewhat ironic, because I think Patti’s portrayal shares more parallels with Merman’s interpretation than any of the other actresses. Just because a particular production of Gypsy happens to be the most recent doesn’t automatically mark it as definitive.

I am curious what aspects of the book, if any, fell prey to the legal department. There is a lot of dish, but it also feels as though she’s holding back and the restraint shows. She even so much as mentions that she’s unable to reprint a letter from Andrew Lloyd Webber without his legal permission. Truly in the moment, she paraphrases instead. But it also seemed as though I’ve heard almost all of the anecdotes she tells before. Whether she’s told them in interviews, profiles, or even as banter in her one woman shows, there was not all that much that was “new.” I also wonder how Cynthia Herman feels about all of this.

5 thoughts on ““Patti LuPone: A Memoir””

  1. Ok. Who’s Cynthia Herman?

    Excellent analysis, KD — as always. And I agree that her interpretation of Rose was nothing new.

    What about her anger over Babs recording the “Sunset” tracks. Wasn’t that strange? Haven’t songs from musicals been recording by artists before openings of shows for decades?

  2. Cynthia’s the one who “disrobed” John Houseman…

    I don’t quite get where she’s coming from re: Streisand, that sort of thing was always standard practice. I guess PL was not thrilled that she was not a major music star the way she was.

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