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Making It

Emotional Journey for 'First Lady' of Stage

November 19, 2000|SUSAN VAUGHN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Patti LuPone is known to theatergoers for her memorable portrayals of larger-than-life characters such as Eva Peron in "Evita," Norma Desmond in "Sunset Boulevard" and Maria Callas in "Master Class.' "

She's gained a not-inconsiderable following of "LuPonistas"--fans who attend her every show. She can work audiences into a lather simply by stepping into a spotlight and raising her arms to presage the first bars of "Don't Cry for Me Argentina" from the musical "Evita."

LuPone, 51, landed a Tony and a Drama Desk Award for her portrayal of Argentine dictator Juan Peron's wife. She's considered one of the finest Broadway performers of her generation and was the first American to land a principal part in a British Royal Shakespeare Co. production and earn an Olivier Award, Britain's equivalent of a Tony.

She also has frequently appeared on television and in films, playing Libby Thatcher in the 1989-93 TV series "Life Goes On" and including among her credits such movies as "Witness," "Driving Miss Daisy" and "Summer of Sam."

Despite the talent, fame and awards, LuPone's show-biz career has been far from smooth. LuPone is bright, brassy and confident in her abilities, but she admits she's been sensitive to criticism. A reviewer's harsh words or producer's snub could send her despairing.

"You want everybody to understand and accept what you're doing," LuPone said.

Her greatest career challenge occurred six years ago in what's been waggishly referred to as the Great Showbiz Scandal of 1994. After playing Norma Desmond in "Sunset Boulevard" in London, one of the most important roles she'd had to date, Andrew Lloyd Webber passed her over for the Broadway run. When the show opened in New York, Oscar-nominated actress Glenn Close was in her place.

Webber cited the switch as an investors' decision.

Some speculated that he was counting on Close's box-office appeal to fuel ticket sales. For LuPone, the public dismissal, the method of disclosure (she said she learned of her firing via Liz Smith's column) and her replacement by a non-singing actress stung badly.

As the debacle got furiously rehashed in the international media, LuPone took several weeks off to recoup. She also initiated legal action, which eventually resulted in a settlement to her of more than $1 million. She diligently tried to put the incident behind her by traveling, hiking and spending time with her family. But hard times lay ahead.

When she found herself still disconsolate, she realized she might be battling a serious depression.

She sought counseling and was prescribed Prozac, she said. Tensions from the episode also had placed great strain on LuPone's then-6-year-old marriage to cinematographer Matt Johnston.

"We struggled," she said. "I'm a deeply Sicilian, emotional person. Matt said, 'Why are you taking it out on me, Patti?' " They worked hard to regain their closeness.

Then a nodule was discovered on LuPone's vocal cord, which apparently had formed after LuPone unknowingly suffered a minor vascular hemorrhage. She underwent vocal cord surgery.

After healing, she began training with a new voice coach to learn a more operatic method of singing, one that could better protect her voice. "I had been belting [singing without vibrato, a common Broadway singing style], but I don't anymore," she said. "I had been getting by on sheer guts and willpower."

LuPone slowly began to reassemble her personal and professional life. She used part of her settlement money to build what she calls the "Andrew Lloyd Webber Memorial Pool" at her Adirondack-style log home in Litchfield County, Conn. Most importantly, she girded herself for a return to the Broadway stage in the productions "Pal Joey" and "Patti LuPone on Broadway."

LuPone, the great grandniece of Italian opera star Adelina Patti, debuted on stage at age 4, when she tap-danced in a Northport, Long Island, elementary school gig. The applause set her on a career path. By the time she got to high school she was singing in a concert choir and madrigal group, playing tuba in a marching band and cello in the school orchestra, taking voice and piano lessons and studying dance and drama.

"She had the lead in every play from 'South Pacific' to 'My Fair Lady,' " said Jayne Kane, a Long Island middle-school teacher who has known LuPone since they attended kindergarten together. "She captured a lot of hearts."

LuPone also developed a dance act with her brothers called the LuPone Trio that performed at local benefits and concerts.

In 1968, LuPone entered Juilliard's then-new drama program headed by John Houseman. Of the 36 students in her class, only 14 graduated on schedule four years later. By all accounts the training program was grueling. Students put in 13-hour days (including six hours of pre-rehearsal warmups) and were given only one day off a week.

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