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Patti LuPone: Lady's Night

It is 8 p.m. on a Monday night in June, and I am driving a rental car behind Patti LuPone. We are on our way to a karaoke bar in South Carolina -- an idea fueled, no doubt, by the endless parade of red wine spritzers we enjoyed over dinner at a fish shack near her house on Edisto Island. Come on! the two-time Tony winner had said, eyes wide as I paid the check. Wheres your car? I probably shouldnt be driving, I think, but if one knows anything about Patti LuPone its that she doesnt like the word no. And so I get behind the wheel and follow her to Whaleys, a local, nautical themed, a gas stationturnedwatering hole with decorative fish hanging on the walls. Monday is karaoke night. As we enter the joint, an elementary school girl serenades the red-state, blue-collar crowd with a cutesy Poison Ivy. I secretly wish LuPone would look over at that tyke with the microphone and shout, Sing out, Louise! Instead, she sidles up to the wooden bar and, in basically that tone of voice demands, Two red wine spritzers, turning to me and adding: Isnt this a trip? The drinks arrive quickly in these parts, and as LuPone takes a swig, she tells me a story about her first days here five years ago, when she and her husband (a former cameraman) bought the oceanfront lot. Thered been a house on the property once before, she explains, and so the contractor went digging for a water line. Unfortunately, one member of his team accidentally punctured the town water main, disrupting service all over the island. The story going around that night, LuPone says, smiling, is that the movie star blew up the town. She laughs, a girlish giggle that belies her 61 years. The movie star. Obviously, they havent been following my career. That career -- from Long Island cheerleader to Juilliard coed, from the toast of Broadway in Evita to the publicly ousted would-be star of Sunset Boulevard -- is chronicled in her new book Patti LuPone: A Memoir, in stores in September. Its a juicy, breezy retrospective of her career, complete with anecdotes ranging from the ridiculous (Vanessa Redgrave invited her to tea during the original London run of Les Misrables and made her split the check) to the supernatural (she was visited by the ghost of Eva Pern three times) to the obscene (Topol grabbed her breast at a rehearsal for The Bakers Wife). The book is also a love letter to New York City. In 1979, LuPone tells me, Evita was the preferred Halloween costume. I ran into Ed Vita on 14th Street, on his way to the Christopher Street parade. He had the white dress on and the microphone and the blonde wig -- with one piece of hair askew. I didnt realize you had a gay fan base so early on, I say. My best friend in elementary school was gay. What happened with Ed Vita? I said, Im Patti LuPone. He didnt care. He was Ed Vita! Perhaps most surprising, her memoir is something of a recasting, portraying LuPone not as a diva (she hates the word, by the way, thinks it should have stayed in the opera world), but as someone more relatable -- human even. She reveals herself to be a girl who knew at age 4 that greasepaint ran through her veins, who just wanted to perform. Of her so-called bad behavior -- calling in sick during Les Mis over a contract dispute, throwing a lamp out a second story window during Sunset Boulevard she says: Its never been about, My wig is wrong, Im not going on. Its all been about whats in service of the show. Dressed in a white billowed tank top and brown silk clamdiggers, LuPone had arrived for dinner ready to talk, and thankfully, to drink. (For the record, she takes her spritzer with seltzer, not soda: Otherwise you cant taste the wine.) And it must be said: This has been a life. LuPone won a Tony Award for Evita in 1980 but wasnt in another hit show until Anything Goes almost a decade later. Stephen Sondheim wanted her to play the witch in the original Broadway production of Into the Woods, until negotiations broke down. Then Bernadette [Peters] got billing and everything else I wanted, LuPone says, shrugging. The most public (and painful) rejection of her career was the transatlantic shit show that was 1993s Sunset Boulevard. LuPone sucks down a plate of oysters and recounts how Andrew Lloyd Webber made a spectacle of her casting, announcing with much fanfare that LuPone would premiere Sunset Boulevard in London before taking it to Broadway. Until, that is, Glenn Close was cast in the L.A. production of the show and the New York gossip columns had a field day pitting the two against each other. The ache is palpable even now, as LuPone recalls the night she was fired; she found out by reading Liz Smiths column. The emotional fallout nearly wrecked her marriage. No one is born tough, LuPone explains. Joe Mantegna says its water off a ducks back. Hes not from Sicily. Im Sicilian. Its not water off a ducks back. It sits there and it festers. For years. For a second LuPone is quiet. Its show business, she says. Sometimes it fucking sucks. Still does. I mention the current Broadway revival of A Little Night Music and how LuPone would have made a perfect Desiree. Apparently she had the same thought. I called [director] Trevor Nunn, she says, and he never called me back. Of reports that shed take her definitive Gypsy to London, she says shed like to. It hasnt been seen in London since Angie [Angela Lansbury] did it in the 70s, she says. And? She makes a motion, signaling that her lips are sealed. You cant talk about it? I say. And so she briefly explains that she and director Arthur Laurents are now on the outs. I did a TV pilot and Arthur got mad at me, she says. Hes a terrific man. I just want him to be happy. Despite it all, these days Lupone seems happy, finally. I ask what she does on the island. She says this morning she made a homemade sauce, with Edisto tomatoes. I made the beds, she says. I like being a homebody. Not that shes ever home. Shes currently on tour with Mandy Patinkin. She popped up on 30 Rock last season as Judah Friedlanders mother. And then theres the HBO pilot shes signed up for, The Miraculous Year, about a famous New York artistic family. (Oscar winner Kathryn Bigelow directs.) The pilot, if its picked up, will bring her back to New York City, or at least to her house in Connecticut. I ask her to tell me more about New York in 1980, when she was doing her famous cabaret act at midnight every Saturday at a Chelsea nightclub called Les Mouches (now a Medicaid office!). Andy Warhol came, she says. John McEnroe. Stephen Sondheim. Tanya Tucker showed up one night. I went, Tanya Tucker? What the fuck is this? We talk about first loves. LuPones was Kevin Kline, a classmate at Julliard. It became a physical thing in art class, she says. We just started touching each other, and that was it. We became lovers. They were together, on and off, for seven years; the final straw, in a bale of combustible hay, was Klines tryst with a chorus girl from On the Twentieth Century. Its an unresolved relationship so there are issues I wish Kevin and I would discuss, she says, choosing to leave it at that. After this many drinks, one tends to get philosophical, and so I apologize for what comes next. But what I really want to know is where the will to keep fighting comes from. What else could I have done? she says. She tells me about the time she spent in Los Angeles on TVs Life Goes On, playing the mother of a child with Downs syndrome. In the final season, she was barely on the thing anymore, and was able to come back to New York City for a few engagements. She remembers how it felt to step back onstage. Just the depression of the wood, she says, and I knew. The smell of the theater. Oh, yeah. This is it. With that, we leave the karaoke bar abruptly. Lets go, she says, grabbing her keys. She doesnt say why were suddenly in such a hurry. Maybe its the weather; there is a cloud overhead she describes as biblical, and theres another bar she wants to show me before the apocalypse. But I dont think its the weather. I think its something about that karaoke bar. The movie star knows she cant really get up and sing at the gas station, and its killing her. I can watch, she says. As if that would ever be enough. Mickey Rapkin is an editor at GQ. His book, Theater Geek, was published in June.Send a letter to the editor about this article.
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Mickey Rapkin