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Book Review – Patti LuPone: A Memoir

3 Nov

Being Alive: Patti LuPone sings up a storm with a Sondheim classic

In a recent interview for Cabaret Confessional, I was asked some searching questions about my interest in torch singers and in response came up with a phrase – “The ‘bruised’ type of lady singer” – that has been flitting around my mind ever since. I think it sums up what I’m listening for or responding to in a woman’s singing voice, regardless of where she sits in the spectrum of musical styles and genres.

Patti LuPone's new memoir: bruising tales of backstage life

When it comes to representatives from the musical theatre faction, there’s no doubt that Patti LuPone fits the bill on many levels. She is a genuine Broadway Diva. OK, that’s often a carelessly and over used term but LuPone’s qualifications speak for themselves: Broadway’s first Evita; the original musical Norma Desmond; the West End’s first Fantine – that small but pivotal role in Les Misérables, which gave us the immortal “I Dreamed a Dream”; a triumphant Reno Sweeney; and relatively late in a career that’s still going strong after four decades, an acclaimed interpreter of Sondheim’s music and lyrics in a series of revivals that have included Sweeney Todd (Mrs Lovett) and a Tony Award-winning turn as Rose in Gypsy. She has also made some fine albums that endorse her torch-singing credentials, particularly Matters of the Heart (1999) and The Lady With the Torch (2008).

But as she reveals in her new autobiography, Patti LuPone: A Memoir, many of those experiences have been bruising, and one or two left scars that that have yet to heal properly. There is much more to LuPone than her musical career, and if anything, the sections of the book that relate the development of her craft, her association with David Mamet and her life as a working actor, are the most objective, resonant and thoughtful passages. Musical theatre is always fraught. The slings and arrows are so damned personal. Even with Evita, to all outward appearances a career highpoint, LuPone has battles to fight, takes some vicious critical hits and suffers the ravages of vocal damage.

But musical aficionados will skip straight to the lengthy chapters detailing how she won – and, as things turned out, survived – the role of Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard. They won’t be disappointed because she tells her side of the story with hard-eyed, revenge-served-cold clarity.

And what a tale of a leading lady scorned it is. From the moment the casting decision is made, she is undermined and threatened by a swirl of media rumours, receives no support from her producers and is handled by Andrew Lloyd Webber with a bumbling incompetence that contrasts rather starkly with the paternal image he has cultivated towards his would-be stars in BBC talent shows like How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria? and Over the Rainbow. He will not be flattered by this portrait. Even at this distance in time, LuPone’s disdain is chillingly palpable. Tellingly, Glenn Close, the actress who eventually played Norma on Broadway after the smoke and mirrors had done their work, doesn’t escape a well-aimed swipe from LuPone’s primed paw either.

There is no reason to doubt her account of events – presumably it was well vetted by the lawyers before it went near the printing press. So it is hard to avoid the conclusion that she was anything other than betrayed by a composer whose show could only benefit from the rumour-stirred publicity, but who wasn’t brave or courteous enough to tell the woman at the heart of the storm what was really going on. This is one of the juiciest back-stage tales in the history of modern musical theatre. Like so many other episodes in LuPone’s memoir, it offers a salutary lesson in the importance of good agents and hard negotiation. And of holding out for a decent settlement. Which, satisfyingly, is how The Andrew Lloyd Webber Memorial Swimming Pool came about in LuPone’s back garden.

I Dreamed a Dream: not the Susan Boyle version

LuPone is clearly a formidable personality, one forged in the fires of her early, post-Juilliard days as a touring actress, and toughened by traumatic stints in failed musicals (The Baker’s Wife was one such trial but at least it gave her a signature song in “Meadowlark”). I interviewed her once, briefly, on the telephone for an article on the skill of singing Sondheim. She was brisk, helpful and businesslike, juggling our conversation with a consultation with her web master at her Connecticut home, and presumably had one eye on the clock, as she was due in town for that evening’s performance of Gypsy. Warm pleasantries were hardly the order of the day. And that’s pretty much the impression that emerges from these pages. Fools are not suffered. Cantankerous co-stars – Topol in The Baker’s Wife and later, Bill Smitrovich in the long running television show Life Goes On – are handed the Lloyd Webber treatment. The chorus and dancers on Anything Goes are stingingly rebuked as a group of “C-team players” who “approached their roles in the show with a tremendous sense of entitlement and little sense of responsibility”. At the same time, some burnt bridges are restored. A seemingly terminal rupture between LuPone and the legendary librettist Arthur Laurents is touchingly healed when she approaches him about playing Rose in Gipsy.

LuPone makes some percipient observations about professional behaviour and expectations. But she has acquired a reputation for a certain imperiousness over the years and there are also moments when, pleasingly, her inner Diva breaks through. She doesn’t bother with excuses. Ensemble duties on Les Misérables are not for her, she decides, and one day she gets back to her dressing room after expiring as Fantine, kicks off her shoes and switches off the stage speakers, committing the unforgivable actor’s sin of missing her cue.

References to her close family and the occasional co-worker aside, genuine professional warmth emerges most poignantly at the end of the book when LuPone finally gets to play some of Sondheim’s most notable leading ladies. Why did it take so long? She had regularly included his songs in her concert and recording repertoire – her scorching “Being Alive” had become another signature number – but had never been given a sniff at an actual role. Quite simply, it seems that producers didn’t really consider her a ‘Sondheim’ actor.

So when she was first asked to play Mrs Lovett in a concert production of Sweeney Todd, the casting choice came out of left field. “It just wasn’t a part my name would normally be associated with,” she writes. And yet through this initially surprising offer, and a five-year programme of Sondheim productions initiated by Welz Kauffman at the Ravinia Festival, LuPone perhaps finds her ultimate destiny as a musical actress. Her Rose is lauded on Broadway, even by critics who had been the bane of her life, and there is a real sense of music and character combining and being channelled by the actor in a moment of professional completeness.

This is a must-read memoir for anyone who wants to understand better what drives a performer, and an astringent insight into the backstage machinations that are intrinsic to an entertainer’s life. Patti LuPone has certainly earned those bruises but these days, you sense she could hold her own against pretty much anyone.

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Book Review: Bloody Mary, Mary Coughlan

13 Oct

She’s Bad: Mary Coughlan sings up a storm at the recent Tribute to Kirsty MacColl in London

Bloody Mary: not your average showbiz autobiography

If Holiday, Piaf and Garland wrote the torch-singer’s handbook between them, Irish siren Mary Coughlan has spent the best part of her 54 years doing her utmost to surpass to their collective example and write the final chapter.

But despite her best efforts at self-destruction, she has come through the requisite abused childhood, the drug addiction, alcoholism and suicide attempt, psychiatric treatment and hospitalisation, the car crashes (marital and literal) and dodgy recording contracts to emerge as one of the genre’s most magnificent interpreters: a genuine survivor who, in those darkly wry Kirsty MacColl lyrics that she nails so instinctively, has “been an awful woman all my life”. And who has also, with the great torch-singer’s alchemy, transformed that ‘awfulness’ into the sublime ability to hold her audience entranced as she spins her musical tales, with their self-referential undertones, in a voice like honeyed whiskey poured over gravel.

Coughlan’s autobiography – Bloody Mary, My Story (Hachette, published on 4th November) – could have been just another misery memoir. Instead, it’s a raw, often bawdy and rollicking, clear-eyed look at the several lives she’s packed into half a century.

From the prologue, in which she is sharing the hearse with her mother’s coffin and issues a last, desperate plea for a way to take control of the chaos, to the domesticity and gentle optimism of the closing pages, a remarkable lack of bitterness and self-pity is one of the book’s most compelling qualities.

The journey to sobriety requires the ransacking of some pretty appalling memories, but there are also countless high spots and occasional passages of almost Utopian tranquillity. Who would have thought, for example, that the hell-raising Mary who blazes her way across the music business was also a one-time macrobiotic fanatic drifting through a commune-style existence in the dwindling wake of the hippy movement?

The House of Ill Repute: experience and circumstance strike sparks

Coughlan never shirks responsibility for her own behaviour, least of all in the heartbreaking – and frustrating, for everybody who has ever fallen under the spell of her voice or worked hard to make it heard – passages that deal with her alcohol intake and its impact on her children. But it’s always clear that to a great extent, this is a shared responsibility. The sexual abuse she suffered at the hands of the shadowy grandfather and uncle who stalk the early pages, her mother’s textbook denial, and the relentless beatings meted out by her father (there is ultimately rapprochement, forgiveness, a coming to terms) were surely the triggers for teenaged Mary’s break for freedom, her flight to London, and a restless spirit that, even as others spotted her considerable singing talent, would find ever more ingenious ways to undermine and waste it.

Given the amount of time she’s spent under the influence of one recreational substance or another, it’s a wonder that Coughlan can still find her way through the lyrics of a song, let alone recall the finer details of such a roller-coaster life with such clarity. Her professional breakthrough came in 1985, with an invitation to appear on The Late Late Show. Her spontaneous acapella rendition of “Strange Fruit” remains one of the programme’s watershed moments, blasting her into the nation’s consciousness as a fascinating interpreter of lyrics who could stake a claim to her own territory where jazz, folk and blues and meet. Even by that stage, she’d lived a hell of a life and, by her own admission, was hardly prepared for the kind of exposure, expectations and above all, business decisions that come with such rapid stardom.

However – always cunning when it came to camouflaging her dependencies (at one point, she kept the vodka hidden behind a life ring on the seafront close to her home; the book is peppered with such darkly humorous anecdotes) – she found a niche in Ireland’s cultural set, even trying her hand at film acting in Neil Jordan’s High Spirits, and soon found a loyal international audience as a singer. Coughlan’s descriptions of how outward appearances were so at variance with her inner turmoil go well beyond the usual triumph-over-tragedy truisms of the average showbiz autobiography.

Equally, Bloody Mary is a fascinating account of the resilience of a great talent, and how difficult it is to sustain a level of success in an industry that is notoriously difficult to navigate. Personal troubles aside, Coughlan has endured most of the clichéd setbacks familiar to any performer who’s survived beyond their first 10 minutes in the spotlight.

And she clearly is a survivor, indomitable in spite of herself, finally at peace with her talent and, as she says, now singing some of the best material she has ever performed: bleak, Brechtian torch songs that resonate with grim wit, longing and, yes indeed, hope. Bloody Mary offers a powerful explanation of how the clash of experience and circumstance strikes something unique in a singer’s voice and enhances the revelatory quality of the lyrics she sings.

The House of Ill Repute, Coughlan’s most recent album, is being re-released to coincide with the publication of her autobiography, complete with new tracks.