Patti LuPone recently won the Olivier Award for her portrayal of Joanne in the revival of Stephen Sondhem’s Company at the Gielgud Theatre in London’s West End. The production, directed by Marianne Elliott, also starred Rosalie Craig as the reimagined female version of the show’s lead, a character who spelled her name Bobbie instead of Bobby. LuPone was brilliant – as she usually is. We expect that from her by now. But she was brilliant in new and nuanced ways in this role, as we talked about below when I met her in her dressing room at the Gielgud a little over a week before the show was about to close back in March.
I may have seen more performances by Patti LuPone than I have by any other actor. I discovered her during my first few months attending the Juilliard School’s Drama Division in 1975 when The Acting Company, which was an outgrowth of the first few acting groups that attended Juilliard, had a season of rep at New York’s Harkness Theatre (which was demolished in TK) on Broadway and 62nd Street. The season consisted of the musical The Robber Bridegroom, based on the Eudora Welty novel, in which LuPone starred as Rosamund; Marlowe’s Edward II in which she played the title character’s young son; Saroyan’s The Time of Your Life in which she portrayed the streetwalker Kitty Duval; and Chekhov’s Three Sisters in which she played Irina. I have been her fan ever since. I have seen her in Evita, The Water Engine, The Woods, Edmund, Anything Goes, Sunset Boulevard, Master Class, Sweeney Todd, Noises Off, Gypsy, Mahagonny, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, her one-woman-show Broadway and the one she later shared with Mandy Patinkin, Shows for Days, War Paint, and the Company productions at the New York Philharmonic as well as the latest one in the West End. Next up, LuPone will be part of John Cameron Mitchell’s six-hour, 10-episode, 31-song original musical podcast, Anthem: Homunculus.
When I arrived at her Gielgud Theatre dressing room, she was wearing her “dressing room” shirt, a blue one with two patches on it. One patch had Twelfth Night stitched on it. The other was stitched with the name of David, which is a tribute to her close friend, playwright David Mamet. She has appeared in more Mamet plays than in work by any other writer, which led to the beginning of our conversation.
KEVIN SESSUMS:I am curious about the political dynamic of your friendship with David Mamet.He’s so right-wing now.And you certainly are not.You’re both very political. How does that work?
PATTI LUPONE:We don’t talk politics.
KS: Is that the royal “we”? You won’t talk politics with me – or in public?
PL:No.I’ll talk politics like that. But David and I don’t talk politics.I’m too possessive of our friendship.I mean, I’ve got other friends who voted for Trump and I’m still friends with them.I don’t understand them. One set of friends, I don’t even dare ask what they think now.They are lifelong Republicans, but they are also extremely intelligent and sensitive people so obviously I can’t think that they see what is going on and still support this man.There is another one who is a New York City cop.He’s retired and he’s come over here.He might be privy to things – you know, like 9/11 and stuff – that we are not privy too.He came over here and I just wouldn’t shut up about it all and he didn’t defend him.But I don’t think they want to be made to feel like fools or losers because they voted for him.I came of age in New York in the 1980s when this idiot Trump came of age in the 1980s.I know who this motherfucker is.It shocks me that people voted for him and that they were conned by him.That’s his modus operandi.
KS:And then there is the contempt that he feels for the people he conned – as all conmen feel for those they conned.
PL:OhmyGod – and the fact now he says these are my people, these are the people who support me. He says the military support me and the police support me and the Bikers for Trump support me. OhmyGod. He wanted to be in the upper echelon society of New York who would not accept him. So now he’s aligning himself with these people?It’s all about popularity.But also he’s such a slime bag.
KS:I call him The Tacky Know-Nothing Fascist Vulgarity.
PL:The vulgarity.Why aren’t we doing anything about it?
KS: All that said, you seem very happy here in London, Patti.
PL:Very.I’m very happy here.
KS:This is my third trip myself to London this past year.I’ve spent two months in all here in the last year.I feel drawn here now for some reason.Not sure why.
KS:Yes.Sensibility.But I think it’s a nice place to be older.I am settling into my 60s and I think with each new decade you are given a chance to renew yourself.So there is a sense of renewal I feel here.
KS:I know they are obsessed with Brexit here in the way we are obsessed with Trump.But also you don’t pick up the newspaper here and see him and are bombarded with him.You get so exhausted by him in America.
PL:And you’re not reminded daily of how we’ve devolved.
KS:Yes.I don’t want to run away from it and desert my country at this critical historic juncture.But being here, I do appreciate the respite from it all.
PL:I’m distressed here, but I think I’ll be violent back there.I’ve told my husband this.I’m afraid to go home.I mean, I have to go home.But I’m afraid. I can’t call it home anymore.I really cannot call America home anymore.If Trump did anything good, he opened up that ugly Pandora’s Box of who we really are.
KS:I grew up in 1960s Mississippi.I know who these people are in my Mississippi bones.They are the cultural and political progeny of racists and segregationists of 1960s Mississippi who were welcomed as Dixiecrats – we must not forget this history – into the Republican party with Nixon’s southern strategy. I feel frightened like that little Mississippi sissy boy still inside me.I know these people.And yet we were never asked to empathize as a country with the racists of the 1960s as we are being asked to understand Trump’s supporters now.He has given their political progeny agency.That is the difference now.They have a kind of agency they did not have then.They have power. He empowers their ugliness.
PL:I know.I know.Look what the Steve King guy tweeted the other day about the trillion bullets on the right and on the left they can’t decide what bathroom to use.It’s inciting this hostility.I predicted there will be another Civil War in America.I don’t think it’s going to be black against white.But I think anybody who’s got a gun is gonna start shooting.
KS:And yet we can’t forget that Trump got 3 million fewer votes.So that is really not who we are.They have figured out a way to gain power through voter suppression in certain states and gerrymandering and finessing the electoral college.But let’s stop talking about this.We’ve talked about this enough.Let’s talk about you and your happiness in his show.I saw you Thursday.
PL:The Thursday matinee!
KS:I do love a matinee.There is a relaxation to the performances – not a marking of a performance, but a relaxation – that sometimes can find a different kind of performative grace and truth.I’ve come to love matinees.
PL:There is often a strange audience with a matinee.
KS: I’m talking about what’s onstage though not in the audience.I am a student of acting.I was, in fact an acting student. I went to Juilliard like you. You were in Group 1. I was in Group 8.
PL:I didn’t know that!
KS:I saw you in The Robber Bridegroom.
KS:I saw you as the son in Edward II.
PL:No way!No way!
KS:It was during that Acting Company stand at the Harkness Theatre.
PL:Oh my God!
KS:I was in Boyd Gaines’s class. Boyd was your Herbie in Gypsy. Everything connects.
PL:Oh my God!
KS:On Thursday at that matinee, you looked so happy at that curtain call.I’ve seen you in some productions when I’ve wondered if you’re happy in the production.
PL:I think there are very few times I’ve been unhappy at a curtain call. But this company is extraordinary.We are all sensing a loss.We haven’t even together long enough to get sick of each other.It has been the most copacetic company.I have been lucky for the last three or four musicals.Gypsy was that way. War Paint was that way.This is that way.Marianne [Elliott, the director of Company] is this … ah … thing.I don’t even know how to describe her because I’ve used every adjective in the world.But she is incredibly special in how she can put together a company.It is interesting to me how this particular company came together and the responsibility that each of us feels because everyone is a principal, pretty much, while at the same time everybody is playing a featured part. The combination of personalities is extraordinary.Everybody cares, supports, loves each other.If there’s a problem, everybody comes around that person to protect them.And Rosie [Rosalie Craig who played Bobbie in the production] and I look at each other at the curtain call and we just want to burst into tears because it’s been an extraordinary experience.
KS:Well, the play – I call it a play ….
KS:I’m in recovery so I brought that to this production, this musical play.I don’t remember the male Bobbys in the earlier productions I’ve seen drinking as much as the female Bobbie in this production does.
PL:No.That’s one of the things different in this production.
KS:But she drinks so much in this.And your character, to me, is an alcoholic. Seeing Company this time, I thought of it for the first time as a play about alcoholism.From my point of view, it was as if Bobbie were being groomed by your character Joanne to be an alcoholic.I knew yo would be brilliant doing “The Ladies Who Lunch.” I saw you at the New York Philharmonic do it in that concert version and then even went to see it in the cinema.I knew you could do that. You’ve mapped it out perfectly in an emotional and technical way for this production. It’s masterful.There is a I’m-not-moving-from-this-fucking-stool quality to it all.
PL:That’s Joanne – I mean, that’s Marianne.
KS:But the scene itself in which that famous number takes place became new to me.I had never seen that scene in that way. I had no idea that scene was so rich.You and Rosalie mined that scene in astonishing and moving ways.There is that moment you just turn and stare at her and hold it in utter stillness and silence.So much is going on in that moment.It seems a decision is being made not only to allow her to become the next version of you but to enable her in becoming it.It’s stunning.
PL:You’ve … ah .. hit it.I don’t know about the alcoholism.I am definitely a professional drinker in it and Marianne has laced in all that alcohol for Bobbie.And we do get together on that drinking element.And she is mentoring her.Everything you just said.The alcoholism, I don’t think it’s about that. But she does give her husband to her in that scene because of her insecurity and so she is will still be in control of the situation. And he won’t leave her.She will leave him. But all that other stuff, well, the fact that you got all that out of it, Kevin, is fantastic – for what is theatre except the interpretation that the audience brings to it.
KS:We all bring our own narrative with us.
KS:That scene, Patti, haunted me the rest of the day.
PL:Marianne mined the scenes.This was the first musical I ever worked on where the priorities were the scene work and the “Company” and “Side by Side” choreography.No music.That was the least important thing.
KS:People do comment on your doing that ensemble choreography number with the chairs in “Side by Side.” “Patti’s up there moving chairs around with the rest of them,” they say.But I go, “You know what that becomes?That becomes: Patti’s up there moving the chairs around.” Because you do focus on you in the number.You’re going: Look at her, good for her.
PL: Why?We’re all ensemble players.That’s how we were trained.
KS: But people think of you as a titan.Not a diva exactly, but a titan of the musical theatre.
PL. But .. but … but .. but … but .. the thing that kills me is that they have forgotten how I started.
KS:I haven’t.I’ve told you I saw you in The Acting Company.You’ll always be that Patti to me.
PL:Exactly. We called him “Jockey Eddie” when I played Edward III in Edward II.
KS:I know!That’s when I fell in love with you.How many people can say they became your fan by seeing you in Edward II and had a crush on you when you played a boy?
PL:I was cute.I was cute as a boy.
KS:You were.I had an instant crush on you wondering who you were and then it dawned on me that I had seen you the night before as the female lead in The Robber Bridegroom.You know who was sitting in front of me that night up in the mezzanine of the Harkness?Robin Williams and Christopher Reeve.
KS:They were roommates and in their third year at Juilliard when I was in my first.
PL. Right.That’s right. Remember Ellis Rabb? He was known as “Fags and Flags.”That’s what his productions were called: “Fags and Flags.”
KS: Lord. So you live in Kent, Connecticut?
PL:Yes.And Edisto, South Carolina.
KS:Have you ever read the Padgett Powell novel Edisto?It’s about a precocious twelve-year-old boy and his mother known as The Duchess.
PL:No.But I might have it down at the beach.Let me make a note of it though.Wow.
KS:Is that where you know the Trump people, down in South Carolina ?
PL:IknowtheTrumppeopleeverywhere.But, yeah, I see them down there.I said to my husband after we bought the property there, “Why didn’t we ask them about religion, taxes and politics?”Because we are in a blood red state. Oh, dig this.The Chief of Police before he was the Chief of Police was a deputy whatever.They know who I am down there and they watch the house when we’re not down there because we’re not down there that much.He told me he used to come by and make sure the house was safe and he’d sit on my porch and have lunch.I told him he was more than welcome to do that.And in an emergency they want to use our roof for radio control because it’s flat or whatever.Now he’s the Chief of Police and I want to pay him back and I said, “Why don’t you come over for dinner.”But I’m terrified that I’m going to meet his wife.Well, I’m not terrified I’m going to meet his wife.I’m terrified because I don’t know what I’m going to get from him and her.He is a lovely guy, but I was sure they were Trump voters.So she walks in the door – a lovely lady – and not a minute into being in my house she goes, “I hate Trump.”And I was, ohmygod, there are likeminded people down here!There are.What’s a Yellow Dog …
PL: Yeah. What’s a Yellow Dog? I know there’s a Blue Dog Democrat.What’s a Yellow Dog Democrat?
KS:It started in the 19th century I think in the south to describe voters who would vote for a yellow dog before they would vote for a Republican.Blue Dogs are centrists in Congress, I think.They’ve sort of named themselves. Not sure why they are Blue Dogs. But there has always been a seam of southern liberalism to which the Yellow Dogs belong, I think.JimmyCarter was a southern liberal.
PL:I thought he was a great president.
KS:Everyone tells you that with the next generation of southerners that it will change but then the next generation comes along and they become more conservative and you end up with someone like Trump.
PL:What are they afraid of?What are they afraid of?
KS: “The other.”But what this is really about, I think, is that they give his lies agency because he first gives some very dark, bigoted impulses agency and allows them to be in public what they’ve always been in private.
PL:And they’re “Christians.”And you go, excuse me.
KS:I call them theocrats.Theocratic fascists.
PL:I really don’t know the difference between the Islamic radical groups and our far-right Christianity.It’s the same thing.And yet, we’re so self-righteous about it.It’s hard for me to put into words.How am I going to go home and live a peaceful life because the anxiety level is so high and I can’t make sense of how far we’ve lost ourselves?But let’s get back to happiness.I’ve been coming over here since the 1970s.
KS:Yes. Let’s get back to it.Fuck Trump.
PL: OhmyGod.Yes.Back to happiness.So I was one of the three actresses left doing the Bernstein Mass a and somehow I got an audition for Peter Link’s rock opera Iphigenia from that.And I got the part. OhmyGod: a rock musical of Iphigenia.It was done at the Young Vic. This was back in 1971.We had to buddy-up to walk around the neighborhood back then.It was a Public Theatre production.It was the end of the swinging ‘60s.1971.You’d be out all night.We were kids, too.I had a ball here during that.And I’ve come back every decade.1984 was Les Miz and Cradle Will Rock.1990 was Sunset Boulevard.
KS:I saw you in that here, too.
KS:One does not kid Patti Lupone, Patti LuPone.I’ve seen you in a lot of stuff, Patti.I’m a huge fan.I love you.I love you!
PL:Oh, Kevin, that’s so sweet.Well, I love you back. Isn’t it funny, we’re meeting after all these years.I’m a fan of your writing.I had no idea you went to Juilliard.
KS:Margot Harley – who ran the place back then – used to scare the shit out of me.
KS:Did Eudora Welty come to see you in The Robber Bridegroom during that stand at the Harkness?I have a memory of walking Miss Welty back to the Algonquin after that performance. She was part of coterie of people in Jackson, Mississippi, around a theatre troupe there called New Stage Theatre. They welcomed me into their fold and mentored me as a teenager. Am I right in remembering her coming to see you as Rosamund in The Robber Bridegroom?
PL:Yep.Yep.We met her.Of course, she would have stayed at the Algonquin.Of course, she did. Her face was so bright. She had those big teeth.And when she smiled, it was: OhmyGod!She was incredible.And that was such a great production.Those were some of the sweetest moments I’ve ever spent on a stage in The Robber Bridegroom.
KS:I saw Sweet Bird of Youth at the Harkness, too, with Irene Worth and Christopher Walken.
PL:Was it there?
KS:First at BAM, I think. Then it moved to the Harkness.
PL:I saw that production, too!I can see that production now like it was yesterday!
KS:I had never heard of Irene Worth before that production.She blew me away.
PL:Did you not see Andrei Serban’s Cherry Orchard at Lincoln Center?
KS:I saw that, too. But I think that was after Sweet Bird of Youth. I was young and discovering theatre, sure, but those really were amazing days for New York theatre.
PL: Yes.Those were amazing days. You know, people always say, “I long for the days when New York City was bankrupt because, yes, it was dangerous but it was incredibly creative.”It just might have been we were lucky enough to see the last vestiges of that kind of creativity we when we saw that kind of theatre.
KS:You still can see good things though.
PL:You certainly see it here.
KS:I just saw Downstate at The National by Bruce Norris directed by Pam MacKinnon. But that started back in Chicago at Steppenwolf.
PL:I’m going to write that down to see.Right now we’re just packing to get ready to go home.I’ve seen a lot of theatre while I’ve been here because they have alternating matinees at theaters here. I love The National.Couldn’t you just spend a whole day there?
KS:I do sometimes.But this production of Company has been one of the highlights of this trip.Stephen Sondheim and I have a mutual friend and he sent him a note about this production praising it behind your backs.Maybe he didn’t say it to your face.
PL:He did actually.He actually did.He was here for the last couple of dress rehearsalsand our first preview.And he cried.It was so moving to all of us because nobody knew how he was going to react – especially Marianne.I’ve been around him for several production, but I’m intimidated by him like everybody else.And to see the man cry, broke my heart.Well, no, it didn’t break it.We just all melted.I think that he saw that his work is universal.It can be reinterpreted.It can be refreshed.It can be reimagined.I’m so glad that he still feels that way about this production.
KS:He said in the note to our mutual friend that he wished George Furth were still alive to realize he was our J.D. Salinger.
PL:Wow … wow.It is a fantastic book and that is what Marianne did, as we said: she mined those scenes in the book.Those were what our rehearsals were about.You know when you usually do a musical, it’s a meet-and-greet, then: music.Or meet-and-greet, then: choreography.But you very rarely work on the book.And Marianne works on the book.And then the assistant director would have meetings with us and we’d have to come up with backstories for our characters and our relationships.How did we meet, blahblahblah, which is what we don’t do in the states.We don’t do that in the states.Even when you’re doing a play, you don’t have those individual meetings with your partner with another director.When we got to that “Ladies Who Lunch” scene with Joanne and Bobbie, Rosie and I both looked at the bar stools and the table and my first thought was, “I’m not gonna get back up on it if I get off it.”Marianne said, “What do you want to do, Patti?”And I said, “Let’s just sit here and see what happens.”And that’s what she wanted.The thing that was so brilliant is that she kept it all inside the scene. She kept the song inside the scene.And then some place within the rehearsal hall I found it – not sure when, I have to talk to her about this – I turned it all to Bobbie and sang “and here’s to the girls who just watch ..”
KS:I got chills in that moment.
PL:And then two seconds later when the song is over, I say to her “Watch: did you hear what you just said? Watch.”And I’ve played this part and I never made that connection. I’m assuming it’s written about Joanne who is the one that’s just watching commenting on her society,her class.But when we turned it in, it was such a revelation.And to keep the whole thing within the scene was so important.
KS:And there was a stillness that happened in that scene in that moment you turned to look at her and take it all in. The whole show came to nest in the moment – everything that came before it and all that was about to come.It was all nesting right there in that moment at that table.And the audience brings whatever we’re bringing to the table – that table – in that moment, too.. It became – for me – a musical about those two women.It was a moment of grace fluttering into place.
PL:Brilliant. That’s brilliant.But that Marianne’s genius.
KS:I was once talking to Michael Grief about you right after he had directed you in War Paint.Because, you know, I’ve always been fascinated by you.
KS:You know there is a question asked in certain New York circles, “Have you made the gay pilgrimage?”Which means: have you gone to London to see Patti in Company?Anyway, Michael said sometimes its hard to get you into the rehearsal room but once you’re there, you’re all there. He told me that you’re the easiest person in the world and it’s all about the work.Not sure what that means, the getting you there.
PL:Hmmm.Me either.I’ll have to ask him about that.
KS:Maybe it’s just the agent stuff and the business and contract terms etc.
PL: I was just telling someone today that it used to be when we were kids that rehearsal led to performance.We’re finally on the stage and we’re out of rehearsal! Now, to me, it’s all about the rehearsal.It’s all about the rehearsal.Maybe it’s age.Maybe it’s a settling or something where for me the rehearsal is more important than the performance.But I don’t know what Michael means by that.I’m aways there and I’m always ready to work.
KS:Don’t get me wrong, or him wrong.It was a compliment about your being all about the work.
PL: But that’s our training.Is it not?People forget that I’m a trained actor and that I spent eight years of my life training – and it continues to this day.
KS:But that is what I loved so much in that scene we’ve been talking about with Rosie in which the song “Ladies Who Lunch” is kept within it.Because you are who you are, Patti, and you can do that eleven-o’clock number thing and just blow the fucking roof off the theatre and people adore you and we want to scream for you, that we forget about the quiet skill you’ve got and well-honed your art is. That other stuff is part of the service aspect of your being an artist: you give people that kind of moment we long for from you.We long to love you.You’re okay with our longing for that.Okay, you seem to be going, you want that from me then, okay, here it is, I will give it to you, here’s the big moment. But because of that, sometimes one forgets what a great actress you are and how subtle you are.Because a lot of your allure – your legend even – is about Gabriel’s horns being blown.
PL:Right, right, right, right right, right.I just happened to have this big voice.
KS:You do.And it’s amazing.But then you forget: you are great actress.That scene reminded me: You are a great actress, Patti.
PL. Thank you. Thank You. That is a great compliment.
KS: And the genius of it was in that scene when we’re expecting you do blow the roof off with that song, the brilliance we witnessed was your seeming not to do anything in that still and silent moment with Rosalie when you were staring at her in which you were doing everything.
PL:You know how old I am?You know how long it has taken me to get to that place?
KS. It was the stillness of that moment that was revelatory.
PL:That’s what I love about a long run.I’m not the brightest bulb in the bulb box.I never was.But thelong runs have taught me how to edit.I have come to see my pattern.I’m working off adrenalin for the first three months.And then I get bored.I go, ohmyGod, I’ve got nine more months to go.But that’s when I stop acting and then all of a sudden these bubbles are bursting and the work begins.And I always think that the thing to do is to get down to that moment when you’re not doing anything. You’re not doing anything.And where do we look when we’re watching a performance or watching a play?Don’t we always gravitate to the guy or the woman who is just standing there?What are they doing?What are they thinking?What’s going on?The one who’s perfectly still.It is the hardest thing to achieve because one thinks one has to supply and I’ve learned … oh, it takes forever … it’s all that cliché talk too: in the moment … do you know what I mean? … listen … it’s all that cliché talk .. but it’s so true.It’s so true. To bring this full circle back to David – David Mamet.I was talking to someone about David.
KS:He is always about keep it simple. Don’t act. Just say the words.
PL:But if you do that – give each word its proper weight – the emotions come out of that.As opposed to supplying it on top of the dialogue.
KS:The acting teacher Harold Guskin was all about that, too.He emphasized the words of a script over any analysis of a character’s motivation. He even wrote a book about acting titled Stop Acting.Just say the words.Just the words.
PL: They give you all the information.
KS:And then all of a sudden, it begins to give you …
PL: ….the emotional life.Yeah.And the intellectual life. David always says to give each word its proper weight.That’s true.It’s hard to understand what that means, but if you don’t think you need to do more, then that opens it up.But that takes confidence on the actor’s part because most of us are deeply insecure and think we have to do more when we really don’t.
KS:Would you ever live in London?
PL:Yeah.In a minute.But I think I’d live in Ireland.I think the taxes here would kill me. But I think I could live in Ireland.I have a great time in Ireland.
KS:And are they going to do this production of Company in New York?
PL: I don’t know.I haven’t heard anything.
KS:Can they take this company if you do?
PL:I wish they would.
KS:You’ve been a dear to do this, Patti. Truly. Thank you so much.
PL:You’re an angel, love.It’s been such a pleasure to meet you, Kevin.
KS:Yes.It was such a pleasure to meet you, too. Finally.