Walking Among My Yesterdays: Sweeney Todd (2005)

Another revival of Sweeney Todd looms on the horizon, this time poised to start performances in the West End next month. I’ll be in London, and have plans to take in a preview of the production which stars Imelda Staunton and Michael Ball (and has sights set on Broadway). In the meanwhile, I thought it would be a fun opportunity to look back on my thoughts from the 2005 Broadway revival, itself a transfer of the previous London revival, directed by John Doyle.

A Day at the Asylum: The Revival of Sweeney Todd

One of my top three musicals, Sweeney Todd, is currently in revival at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre. The show has been re-conceived and economized for 10 actor-musician-singers in what may be the riskiest undertaking of a musical I’ve ever seen. The company never leaves the stage, except for the 15 minute intermission. They are a part of the staging at every given moment, always in character whether playing their instruments, singing/acting in their scenes or just being part of the general atmosphere. Starring Patti LuPone and Michael Cerveris, the show is an overwhelming theatrical event.

The show is told from Tobias’ perspective, with the events of his incarceration being retold by him and other members of the asylum. The show continues in a very abstract, eerie style playing up the intimacy of the story in a way that is entirely unsettling. The Victorian oppressiveness of the Industrial Revolution is not to be seen in the unit set or costumes, especially Mrs. Lovett’s riotous barmaid/slut getup. (God love her, but Patti could’ve been mistaken for Alan Cumming in Cabaret).

I definitely missed the full sweep of the Jonathan Tunick orchestrations, but admired the musicianship and the way the score has been adapted, though I don’t love that buttons have been dropped from the end of some songs (the first break for applause comes 40 minutes into the show). Patti LuPone, who played the role in the 2000 NY Philharmonic concert has gone back to the drawing boards and done a complete overhaul of the character from her broader, more lovable characterization (which can be seen on the DVD of the 2001 San Francisco Phil concert). This Lovett is dryer and not nearly as likable, with an almost catatonic line delivery in most of her scenes. Her costuming adds a great deal to the evening, with her leather miniskirt and torn fishnets. It didn’t happen nearly as much as I would have liked it, but everytime she started on the tuba, the audience went nuts. She also held back on a lot of music, not always brandishing that famous belt voice of hers, but singing in a low-key style that occasionally reached her stratospheric heights. Her acting in the final scene is absolutely breathtaking.

While I loved Patti’s Lovett immensely, I confess that Michael’s Sweeney had to grow on me, but I was singing his praises by the curtain call.  Though both actors clearly are carrying the evening, this particular production is played as an ensemble piece. Everyone is working toward the same goal, and two star turns are really just pronounced ensemble turns. The entire company is worthy of note, but in particular Manoel Felciano’s Tobias was just staggering, taking the character in a direction I never thought possible.

Another thing about the actors playing their own instruments, they had several musical gags during the dialogue. The musicianship was stellar, no one missed a beat or a note. (Props for memorizing that entire score). There is no conductor for the show, but the one actress playing accordion would occasionally guide the musicians along from time to time.

The actual throat slitting scenes created some of the most indelible images of the evening, with the stage lighting suddenly hitting a red glare as that famous factory whistle, a staple of this musical, blew. Each time a murder would take place, an actor (usually Mrs. Lovett) would pour a bucket of blood into another white bucket slowly, and the audience could hear the liquid building inside the buckets. Grotesque symbolic imagery, and it added so much to the experience.

Overall, I have to say I admired the production more than I loved it. I almost felt that the concept itself distracted me just a bit from the character development and exposition, particularly during act one. I found myself early on remarking during scenes and songs “Wow look at how that actor has memorized the lines, lyrics & the instrumental music.” as opposed to keeping focused on the story. However, by the second act I was completely mesmerized. I can easily see how someone unfamiliar with the show might have difficulty following the show (one of the complaints I have seen on the message boards lately).

It’s amazing to see this show work so well with only ten people and no orchestra or conductor (astounding for a work that is performed at opera houses around the world). It’s a tough ticket right now; it was an enthusiastic and sold out house tonight. They’ve recorded a cast album of this particular production, which makes me wonder if it will hold up well on disc as it does in the Eugene O’Neill. This is one not to be missed.

“With One Look”

With the release of Patti LuPone’s memoir, there has been a resurgence in talk about Sunset Boulevard in the message board circuit. The musical of Billy Wilder’s legendary film noir classic was big news and big gossip fodder in the early 90s, with music by Andrew Lloyd Webber. The show opened in London with Patti in the iconic role of Norma Desmond, played in the film by silent star Gloria Swanson (in the performance of her career). However, the reviews for the London run – particularly those of the American critics who flew over – were less than enthusiastic. Thus began a series of events that led to LuPone being replaced for the Broadway run by Glenn Close, who was in the Los Angeles company. Lloyd Webber claimed Paramount studios demanded a movie star in the role and well…you’ll have to read Patti’s book for her perspective on the matters.

The show itself became a vehicle for great female stars, with replacements as notable as the originals. This sort of event hadn’t really happened since the original productions of Hello, Dolly! and Mame in the mid to late 60s. Norma Desmond became a role that women wanted to play. LuPone and Close were both replaced by Betty Buckley. Other Normas in the West End included Petula Clark, Elaine Paige and Rita Moreno. Paige made her Broadway debut with this show, closing the NY production. Diahann Carroll opened Garth Drabinsky’s Toronto production. Many other actresses were interested in playing the role, but the show proved a financial disappointment and was not a juggernaut success like POTO. The set was enormous (and temperamental) with the grand staircase coming down from the flies, etc. It was visually stunning, but I don’t think overall it is a good adaptation of the material. There are some interesting songs, particularly the near-arias composed for Norma. (It’s a shame Sondheim didn’t write his version of it).

It’s not quite the Madame Rose argument, but there are many admirers and detractors of the various Normas who power-belted through the show in the mid-90s. Here are five of them:

Patti LuPone (in the original higher key):


Glenn Close:


Betty Buckley:


Elaine Paige:


Petula Clark:


“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.

Belting at the White House

It was nice to see the Obamas welcoming Broadway performers into the White House last week, something that used to happen more often than it has in recent years. But while watching, I couldn’t help but be reminded of some electrifying performances from years past. There was something in the pacing that was just a smidgen off, with some hairy notes and some languid interpretations of the more ebullient numbers (particularly the Hairspray finale), as though the whole affair were under rehearsed (save for the ravishing Audra McDonald who was practically perfect in every way).

This performance is one that kept popping back into my mind throughout the hour and a half I was glued to the White House live stream. Here’s Patti LuPone, accompanied by the US Marine Corps band belting out “Blow, Gabriel, Blow” from Anything Goes for then Vice President George H. W. and Barbara Bush in 1988. (Say what you will about them politically, they are ardent musical theatre fans and supporters). And suffice it to say, Ms. LuPone completely nails it.


Patti LuPone’s Memoir: a Preview

One of the more interesting books for theatre lovers this year is bound to be Patti LuPone: A Memoir. The two time Tony winning star has never been one to mince words and her book promises to be a blunt, no holds barred look at her career from Juilliard through Gypsy.

Patti made an appearance at BookExpo America 2010 Author Stages to talk about what she had written, and if it’s a sign of what’s to come, we are in for one hell of a page turner.


Drama Desk Awards: Tuesday Night Quarterbacking

The Drama Desk Awards, held Sunday evening, were once again shown via web cast on Theatermania. I recall the time they used to show them on PBS, but I guess that’s ancient history at this point. Anyway, this year the quality of the live stream was better than ever. However, from a technical standpoint there were some unusual shots, angles and closeups. I know it takes place in a glorified high school auditorium, but can’t they place the winners closer to the stage? Most of the time was filled up waiting for them as the presenters looked out during what seemed dead air.

The ceremony itself was rather uninteresting on the whole. Patti LuPone was an adequate host, who got in a couple of laughs but was really just there to keep things moving (at a clip). No performances, nothing too too exciting in terms of winners. The onstage pianist played far too many bizarre pieces, most jarringly “Don’t Fence Me In” every time Fences won an award. Many of the wins had me nonplussed; I was genuinely bored at a second tie between Montego Glover and Catherine Zeta-Jones for Best Actress in a Musical. (They shared the prize with the OCC too). Let’s not go for the trifecta on that front, folks. However, there a couple of surprises including Christopher Fitzgerald’s win for Finian’s Rainbow. Santino Fontana’s unexpected win for Brighton Beach Memoirs provided the most memorable of all acceptance speeches. He was genuinely shocked and completely amazed, and it added to its charm

Another surprised winner was Jan Maxwell, who won for Best Actress in a Play for her superlative comic turn in The Royal Family. She’s likely to be bested by Viola Davis in Fences (who was a Featured winner here) at the Tonys, so it was nice to see her recognized here for that work (Maxwell is a Drama Desk regular, but a Tony bridesmaid). She was very emotional and immediately apologized, “I’m sorry, I’m usually an aloof bitch. Surprises get to me.”

Martha Plimpton inadvertently established a memorable running gag following a spirited non sequitur about Mitzi Gaynor complimenting her shoes. Other Mitzi comments would follow, but the biggest laugh went to Outstanding Solo Performance winner Jim Brochu who started his acceptance with “Oh, and Mitzi Gaynor just told me to go fuck myself.” Brochu, who won for his turn as Zero Mostel in Zero Hour declared F. Scott Fitzgerald a big fat liar, stating, “there are second acts.”

For a ceremony that boasts recognition of Broadway, Off-Broadway and Off-Off Broadway, the deck seems quite stacked in favor of Broadway. I’m not saying it’s a crime, but it just seems that you’re more likely to get it if you’re a Main Stem show. There were five major Off-Broadway wins – The Scottsboro Boys won for lyrics, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson won for its book and When the Rain Stops Falling won for its sound design. Love Loss and What I Wore took home Unique Theatrical Experience and Zero Hour won Outstanding Solo Performance. Other than that, it was all Broadway. Scottsboro and Yank! are now ineligible for Drama Desks next year, so automatically next year’s nominations should be interesting.

Seeing as it was the Lost finale, there were fewer fellow watchers on Twitter and environs this year. However, participants inside the auditorium were encouraged to tweet so that kept it somewhat interesting throughout the night. Let’s hope the Tony Awards are more interesting.

Quote of the Day: Patti’s Encore

“When she returned for her encore, LuPone winked at the event and her reputation as the Terminator of poorly-behaved audience members. While she sang “The Way You Look Tonight,” she was snapping photos — with a flash! — using a disposable camera. The crowd waved and cheered and posed.”

Joe Brown, in the Las Vegas Sun on Patti LuPone’s performance of her solo show The Gypsy in My Soul, where an audience member got LuPwned for texting