Patti Freakin' LuPone
I came late to my love of theater. Scratch that--technically I fell in love at Nichols Theater on the campus of Kansas State University in 1992. The show was called Bent. Let me briefly summarize that amazing show: gay men in concentration camp. I am surprised, in retrospect, that the administration allowed Bent to be staged; Kansas in the early '90s was petrie dish for a particularly virulent form of social conservatism. As a 15 year-old I hardly knew what gay was (though I later realized that "gay" explained every single one of my high school boyfriends), but I was utterly rapt, tears streaming down my face through the entire second act of the show. I can't remember who took me, but they were kind and did not make a big deal about my sobbing and nose-blowing, which continued long after the curtain went down.
I went home and tried to convey to my father something of the spirit of the show, why it had moved me to tears. My parents had dutifully taken me to four or five dull operatic or symphonic performances a year at K-State's McCain Auditorium all through my childhood, and none of them had ever elicited a reaction like this. My at-the-time-slightly-homophobic-but-now-not father was baffled by the intensity of my absorption in the story, my compassion for the characters. I'm pretty sure my parents thought I was a lesbian for a while. It didn't help that I kept bringing home gay guys and saying they were my boyfriends.
Fast forward through fifteen years of complete lack of interest in theater. Chris got us tickets to see Gypsy on Broadway starring Patti LuPone. I didn't know who she was, other than an actress who had appeared on Will & Grace. I didn't know what Gypsy was, or who Stephen Sondheim was. Can you believe I didn't know who Sondheim was? (If you're into musical theater, you're SHOCKED, and if not you're thinking, "Who?") How immeasurably richer my life is, now that I "know" Stephen Sondheim!
Chris says of that show that the actors got half way through it before they really started bringing the heat. I don't remember thinking that. I just remember staring at the stage, holding my breath, and alternately losing myself in the emotion of the performance and marveling at the amazing technique of the performers. Patti LuPone took my breath away. There's no other way to describe it. Her voice, her gorgeous face (at age 60ish!), her amazing ability to convey emotion, her VOICE! When she did "Rose's Turn" and staggered around the stage, I was transfixed with horror.
For those of you as ignorant as I was about Broadway, here's one half of what you have to know about Patti LuPone: she is an AMAZING singer. Truly. Yes, people make fun of her diction, but they make fun of it in the way that they complain about the length of James Joyce's Ulysses. It's a valid comment but everybody knows it in no way detracts from the amazing genius of the work.
Here's a fun little clip from early in La LuPone's career. She is singing a song from the musical Evita (which Madonna butchered horribly--don't ever watch anything from the Madonna Evita). I don't know very much about music or singing or theater, but this song seems really complex; it is a rush of words and very intricate notes that are all over the scale. I actually don't like the song (in fact, I'm not a fan of Evita or Andrew Lloyd Weber), but I love her performance: it's muscular (literally! notice the muscles of her throat working) and yet totally organic.
Here's the other half of what you have to know about Patti: she is, in my opinion, an even better actress than she is a singer. With pipes like hers, she could have spent her whole life honing her singing craft, wearing boring outfits, standing in the middle of a stage in front of a mike stand or putting out albums. But she didn't--when she went to Juilliard, she joined the Drama department. She spent four years getting serious training there and then went on the road with Juilliard's travelling company for four more years.
By the time she landed her breakout role as Evita, she was already a very seasoned actress. As amazing as the "Buenos Aires" performance is vocally, it is even more amazing to watch her face and her eyes and her gestures. Her eyes literally flash, she flirts with the camera, she shimmies her shoulders with delight. She makes a very interesting gesture at :33; it's a more spontaneous version of the stylized gestures the character of Evita makes later in the show.
Check out this clip of her doing "Don't Cry for Me Argentina" at the 1980 Grammies. She is wearing a truly horrible '80s dress and hairstyle and yet her incredible Mediterranean beauty is undiminished. The bizarrely poofy white folds of her gown become a frame for those eyes, those lips, those teeth! She uses them, the tools of her craft, to communicate things about the character that are beyond words. In this particular performance, what's most moving is what happens when she's NOT singing. A consummate actress, she actually brings herself to tears. (For contrast, go to youtube and check out Elaine Paige's extremely adept, yet passionless version of the same song.)
The clip starts out kind of in the middle of the first verse (sorry). First verse, second verse, chorus. All very nice, great singing, great acting. I love that when she violently shakes her head at "I never invited them in" her voice doesn't waver at all. Third verse, partial chorus, musical interlude.
During the interlude (which is very beautiful), the camera cuts away, probably because it's the Grammies, and they're there to film music, not acting. I hate the camera for doing that. You can bet that whatever was playing across her face at that moment was worth catching. Especially because then, when the camera comes back to her face for the third chorus, you see the tears pooling below her eyes.
The performance she gives in the final moments of the song is a tour de force of power and vulnerability.
When she comes back in, she is almost hysterical. Her voice cracks the perfect amount; enough to show you she is moved, but not enough to actually compromise the quality of the tone. It reminds me of aged goat cheese or old stained glass or a really good red wine or sunbeams cascading through dense forest. It sounds like something clean and pure filtered through something darker. Watch her put a lid on the feeling after the "there's nothing more I can think of to say to you" line, even as the flutes trill. Then she lets it out again for the last line, not only through the mature, womanly timbre of her voice, but in the passionate spontaneity of her stylized gestures. She ends the number with her head bowed in surrender, but her arms raised in triumph, a perfect embodiment of Evita's arrogance and humility.
Then her fingers curl, her arms drop, she smiles and bows. She's no longer Eva Peron, she's Patti LuPone from Long Island. She gets a huge standing ovation from a crowd of jaded music industry types. She has utterly seduced them, just as she seduced me when I saw her in Gypsy, 30 years later.