I have read many autobiographies in recent years, mainly of Old Hollywood actress I like. But Patti LuPone’s memoir brings something completely new that I have never experienced before. There was something about this book which meant I had to try very hard to put it down at 1am and go to sleep. She speaks so frankly and quite sarcastically about her career and her experiences on Broadway and in London that it is quite impossible not to completely adore her.
She begins her memoir with a preface, detailing her opening night on Broadway playing Mama Rose in Stephen Sondheim’s Gypsy. This comes full circle in the final chapter of the book which describes her closing night on Broadway. The chapters in between tell the story of how she came to be one of the reigning queens of Broadway, with one of the greatest voices the stage has ever heard.
Trained at Juilliard, one of the finest dramatic schools in the country, Patti was a member of The Acting Company and toured US in various productions. In 1978, she was cast as the title character in a musical which would go on to become one of the most famous musicals of all time – Evita. She would be playing Eva Perón in the Broadway transfer of the show, after Elaine Paige had originated the role on the West End. Despite this being a huge break for LuPone’s career, she did not enjoy performing in the show. Like most Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals, the score was incredibly high and she found it hard to sing the score without doing severe damage to her voice. Although the show did not receive positive reviews from the critics, LuPone won a Tony Award for her performance. She left Evita in 1981.
After a number of productions garnering her more scathing reviews, Patti was asked to play the role of Fantine in a new London musical called Les Misérables. Again, the show did not receive positive reviews, but the audience reaction was far more powerful than the opinions of the critics. LuPone tells the story of one performance where she had returned to her dressing room after her performance of ‘I Dreamed A Dream’, as Fantine does not appear in the show again until the very end, as Jean Valjean is dying. She had taken off her costume, microphone and wig when someone burst into her dressing room shouting “LuPone!” Whaaaat?” she replied. “You’re on!”… “Holy Shit!” By the time she had flown down three flights of stairs, her costume, wig and microphone were back on, and she entered the stage. “It’s the only time I have missed a cue” she confesses.
In 1987 she starred as Reno Sweeney in an acclaimed Broadway revival of Cole Porter’s classic musical Anything Goes. She finally started to get the positive reviews she had dreamed of, and the show was a huge success. In 1988 she married her husband, Matt, who she had met the previous year. They married on the stage of the Vivian Beaumont Theatre, where Anything Goes was being performed.
Next comes two chapters which, I confess, were the reason I bought this book. In 1992, Patti was asked by Andrew Lloyd Webber if she would play Norma Desmond in the musical adaptation he was writing of Sunset Boulevard. The story which surrounds Patti’s experience with this show and with Lloyd Webber is shocking and quite difficult to believe. A breakdown in communication between Patti and Really Useful Group (Andrew Lloyd Webber’s company) lead to this being the worst experience she had ever had in the theatre. Media coverage speculating that Patti had not secured the role and that Meryl Streep would be more likely to play Norma was not controlled by Really Useful, and took a huge toll on Patti. She was constantly undermined by the company, for example when they allowed Barbra Streisand to record Norma’s two most powerful songs, ‘With One Look’ and ‘As If We Never Said Goodbye’, before Patti, who was supposedly originating the role, had even recorded them herself. Before Sunset had opened in London, Andrew Lloyd Webber announced that another production was to open in Los Angeles, starring Glenn Close. Patti had a contract with Really Useful stating that when the show was to transfer to Broadway, she would be playing Norma. But with Glenn Close starring in the LA production (which earned her much better reviews that Patti received) it was becoming more and more uncertain who would play Norma on Broadway – even though it was in her contract that Patti would play her.
It was eventually decided that Glenn Close would indeed play Norma Desmond when Sunset Boulevard transferred to Broadway. “I didn’t take it well” she admits (… would anyone?!). “I was hysterical… I took up batting practice in my dressing room with a floor lamp. I swung at everything in sight – mirrors, wig stands, makeup, wardrobe, furniture, everything. Then I heaved the lamp out of the second floor window”. The reason Patti was so angry about this – as well as the fact that she had just been fired – was the way in which she had found out. She had read it in a column written by journalist Liz Smith. Neither Really Useful nor Andrew Lloyd Webber had even bothered to tell her. Patti took a few days break after the bombshell dropped, but she returned to Sunset to finish her run in London. On closing night she requested that no one from Really Useful or Lloyd Webber himself be at the theatre, and they respected her wishes.
After her awful experience with Sunset Boulevard, LuPone sued Really Useful for breach of contract – and she won. She quips that with the money she got from the settlement she “built what came to be humorously known as the Andrew Lloyd Webber Memorial Swimming Pool” at her home in Connecticut. It’s good to know she still had a sense of humour after the ordeal she went through.
She took a year-long break to be with her family after Sunset, and then continued to work. She appeared in several productions of Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, playing Mrs Lovett. Again she was earning the stellar reviews she knew she deserved. The final two chapters describe her experience of being in another smash-hit Sondheim musical, Gypsy. The show opened on Broadway to rave reviews, and Patti won her second Tony Award. She describes the closing night of Gypsy as being highly emotional, with an ovation that lasted more than twenty minutes.
As I said earlier, this memoir is unlike any I have read in the past. The ordeal surrounding Sunset Boulevard was what encouraged me to buy this book, but I didn’t think I would find the other stories as enthralling as I did. She swears constantly and does not hold back in speaking her mind. She is an incredibly strong, resilient and admirable woman, and I absolutely recommend this book to any fan of hers (or even anyone who isn’t… just read it!).