Patti LuPone takes a musical journey

  • by Adam Sandel
  • Wednesday February 18, 2015
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Patti LuPone. Photo: Richard Termine
Patti LuPone. Photo: Richard Termine

Broadway legend Patti LuPone last came to San Francisco in 2013, when she performed an abbreviated cabaret version of her concert Far Away Places at the intimate Rrazz Room. Now the two-time Tony Award-winner with the powerhouse pipes is coming back. She'll perform the complete two-act concert, with a five-piece band, at Davies Symphony Hall on Mon., Feb. 23.

Far Away Places is LuPone's musical journey of songs by an eclectic list of songwriters including Stephen Sondheim, Cole Porter, Willie Nelson, Kurt Weill, Edith Piaf, and the Bee Gees. She's currently appearing in L.A. Opera's West Coast premiere of The Ghosts of Versailles (through March 1). But she recently took time out of her whirlwind schedule for a phone interview to discuss the highlights of her storied career, and her upcoming San Francisco appearance.

LuPone has performed various versions of Far Away Places in tiny cabarets and at Carnegie Hall, but she isn't daunted by the challenge of adjusting her performance to fit the venue.

"It's all a challenge, just to step on stage," she says. "There are always nerves until there aren't. The key is to understand how to fill a space regardless of its size. I like playing big theatres because I have a big voice. If it's a space with great acoustics, like Davies Hall, that makes it easy."

The Broadway baby has played several San Francisco engagements over the years, including the pre-Broadway run of Evita (which earned her a Tony and made her a star), and several SF Symphony gigs, including the 2001 concert version of Sweeney Todd, which was filmed for PBS. Yet she doesn't notice a particular difference between San Francisco audiences and those in New York. "If you do a good show, every audience responds. If the show is good, they let you know. If it's not, they let you know."

Speaking of not knowing how an audience will respond, LuPone cites the first performance of the now-legendary musical Les Miserables , in which she created the role of Fantine.

"When we opened at the Barbican Centre in London, the home of the Royal Shakespeare Company, [director] Trevor Nunn told us, 'Don't expect anything. They're not used to seeing musicals here.' And at the end, they were on their feet cheering. You never know what to expect."

Known as much for her dramatic roles as her musical theatre tours de force, LuPone recently appeared on Broadway in David Mamet's play The Anarchist, and in her Tony-nominated turn in the musical Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.

Growing up on Long Island, the 5'2" LuPone was most inspired by two other diminutive divas: Bette Davis and Edith Piaf. "The power of their performances was incredible," she says. "They were not the most beautiful women, but they both had tremendous power."

In her best-selling memoir Patti LuPone: A Memoir, she details the ups and downs of her many performances with a candor seldom found in celebrity autobiographies. In our conversation, she admits that some of her roles were especially demanding. "Evita, Sweeney Todd, and Gypsy [for which she won her second Tony] were the most challenging," she says. "Mama Rose in Gypsy was the most physically challenging role, because it needs every ounce of energy you've got."

LuPone is most proud of her New York concert performance of Sweeney Todd in 2000. "It was the quintessential New York moment: performing the music of Broadway's greatest composer, Stephen Sondheim, at Lincoln Center's Avery Fisher Hall, with the New York Philharmonic. That was my proudest moment."

Yet she has no dream roles on her bucket list. "I gave up wishing for roles a long time ago," she says. "I realized that the roles that come are the ones that should."

Her all-too-rare but always welcome television appearances include recent roles on Law & Order SVU, playing herself on HBO's Girls, and most memorably as the Bible-thumping next-door neighbor on last season's American Horror Story: Coven.

"That was great," she says. "How can you complain about shooting a TV show in New Orleans? We had a great director, Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, and a wonderful cast. I was very proud to be a part of it. I was the only one on the show not to play a witch, but I'm going to be in the second season of Showtime's Penny Dreadful. I play a 200-year-old witch who harnesses Vanessa's energy."

The quintessential Broadway star is looking forward to returning to Northern California. "I love San Francisco, and the area north of there," she says. "I love Mendocino. Some day I want to spend an entire summer there."

 

Patti LuPone: Far Away Places, conceived and directed by Scott Wittman; musical arrangements by Joseph Thalken. Mon., Feb. 23 at 8 p.m., Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco. Tickets: (415) 864-6000 or sfsymphony.org/Buy-Tickets/2014-2015/Patti-LuPone-Far-Away-Places.aspx.