Tag Archives: I’d Do Anything

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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Concert Review – Jessie Buckley at Pizza on the Park

15 Mar

It’s practically impossible for any singer to tackle “The Man That Got Away” without the distracting shade of Judy Garland lurking on the edge of the spotlight. But when Jessie Buckley stepped up to the mic at London’s Pizza on the Park on Saturday, nobody was interested in the ghost of an old legend. Why would you be, when such a vibrant living talent  materialises in front of your eyes?

If it wasn’t for the evidence of her slender frame and a pristine voice that has more than a hint of Doris Day at her youthful best, it would be hard to believe that Buckley is only 20. She’s already been runner-up in the BBC’s find-a-Nancy mission, I’d Do Anything (and now we see why Andrew Lloyd Webber could barely contain his exasperation when the public vote imposed a different leading lady on his production). And last year, she achieved the near-impossible feat of making shrill, shallow Anne Egerman a halfway sympathetic and complex character in Trevor Nunn’s revival of A Little Night Music.

Hushing a busy room in a West End eatery on a Saturday night, and holding the audience’s attention through two sophisticated sets of standards is a tall order for the most experienced, battle-hardened singer. But from the first note, it’s clear that Buckley has the necessary tools – not just the pipes and an appealing, unfussy presentation but crucially in this environment, where the diners tend to know their music, an astonishingly mature flair for jazz.She rips up “Blue Skies”, “Birth of the Blues”, “Dream a Little Dream of Me”, “Love Me or Leave Me” and “Take the A Train”, telling us what a privilege it is to be able to sing such great lyrics. Her phrasing is instinctive, adventurous and occasionally audacious – she’ll try anything , and usually pull it off. And her joy at unleashing this skill, recently discovered and relatively unexplored, free from the constraints of a musical theatre performance, is palpable.

Buckley’s pianist Joe Thompson tells us that he and double bassist Rob Rickenberg don’t care much for singers as a rule. They’re too troublesome and self-regarding. But Jessie, he says simply, has taught them both so much; this is praise indeed from a musician of Thompson’s calibre. The rapport between the three of them strikes sparks – and even if there is the odd moment when discipline dissolves into banter, it is clear that the performance is rooted in complete, mutual respect for each other’s musicality.

But it’s the ballads that linger longest as the memory of the evening fades. “The Man That Got Away” of course, stripped of all that Garland vibrato but losing nothing in the telling of the story – or the conviction that the singer is reliving it. When Buckley sings an intimately wistful “The Way You Look Tonight”, you feel you’re eavesdropping on her innermost thoughts. And when she gazes into the distance on “More Than You Know” she is, whether she knows it or not, joining the ranks of the finest torch-singers who trace their lineage back to the great Broadway star Helen Morgan.

Jessie Buckley is one of the last performers to grace the stage at Pizza on the Park. The room is to close in the summer, depriving London of a venue steeped in showbusiness history. Never mind the overpriced food and the so-so wine list that have been part of its idiosyncratic charm over the years – just catch a rising star in her element.

However, she will launch a new season of cabaret – Live at the Pheasantry – at The Pheasantry in London’s Kings Road on 13th June. She also plays the Delfont Room on 31st July and appears at The Stables near Milton Keynes on 20th August.