For Patti LuPone – who won a Tony and a host of other awards for her portrayal of for her portrayal of Madame Rose in the most recent Broadway production of “Gypsy” – everything keeps coming up roses.
She recently finished a star turn as the entertainer Samira in John Corigliano’s lavish, let-them-eat-cake opera, “The Ghosts of Versailles,” at the Los Angeles Opera.
She’s about to begin rehearsals for “Shows for Days,” Douglas Carter Beane’s autobiographical valentine to community theater in 1970s Pennsylvania and the force of nature (played by LuPone) who makes it happen. The Jerry Zaks helmer begins previews at Lincoln Center’s Newhouse Theater June 6, opening June 29.
Speaking of roles she can sink her teeth into, LuPone will also appear in season two of Showtime’s “Penny Dreadful” (beginning May 3), which is set in a particularly ghostly Victorian London. She can’t talk about it except to say that it is “beautifully written” by creator John Logan.
An opera, a play and Grand Guignol telly: LuPone has done and can do it all.
“I was trained in versatility at Juilliard, and it never left me,” says the singer-actress, a graduate of the first class of the Drama Division of the Manhattan-based conservatory and a founding member of John Houseman’s The Acting Company, in which she toured nationally for four years. “I don’t have a favorite anything. It’s too limiting.”
Fans will see that versatility on display when the lady with the big voice (and larger-than-life emotions) brings her acclaimed one-woman show “The Lady With the Torch” to The Performing Arts Center, Purchase College May 2. In the show, each of the 17 songs tells a story within the overarching theme of the night’s playlist, which includes “Frankie and Johnny,” “The Man I Love” and “Do It Again,” with “By Myself” anchoring the beginning, middle and end.
“I don’t just sing songs,” LuPone says. “I’m led by the lyrics. I like to tell stories and try to structure them as a play.
“You have to make it interesting for the audience. You can’t have 14 ballads in a row. You’re taking an audience on a journey. It’s like a rollercoaster with highs and lows.”
Working with Scott Wittman, who conceived and directed the show, and musical director Joseph Thalken, LuPone leads listeners on a voyage of unrequited love, the essence of the torch song.
And make no mistake about it, it is a woman’s journey, because men hold all the cards — or at least they did when many of these songs were written (by men) in the first half of the 20th century.
“Ruth Etting, Helen Morgan, Libby Holman, Billie Holiday,” LuPone says, ticking off the names of some of the great torch singers she’s studied. “Rudy Vallee?” she adds with that well-known throaty laugh.
Whether soprano, mezzo or contralto, LuPone says, “there is a wail in the voice, a plaintive quality, a cry.”
Those cries in “The Lady With the Torch” come from a mix of songs that were familiar or suggested to LuPone or discovered by her. There is only one kind of song she won’t consider: “If I can’t do it service, I won’t sing it.”
Such open-mindedness about genres and styles no doubt led her to “The Ghosts of Versailles.” Reviewing the Los Angeles Opera production, The New York Times’ Zachary Woolfe wrote: “It didn’t hurt that the juicy cameo role of the entertainer Samira, created at The Met by the great mezzo-soprano Marilyn Horne, had gone to the Broadway diva Patti LuPone, who dispatched her pseudo-exotic number with daffy charm.”
Though doing opera is no different from theater from a production standpoint, LuPone says, “I was humbled by the voices and the discipline of those singers. But they accepted me. I was like the vaudeville entertainment in the opera. I even made my entrance on a (fabricated) elephant.”
“Ghosts,” she adds, had her singing in a register that brought her back to her junior high school days in Northport, Long Island, where she grew up the daughter of school administrators in a family with musical antecedents. Her great-grandaunt was one of opera’s finest singers, Adelina Patti, acclaimed for her crystalline coloratura. LuPone’s brother Robert originated the role of Zach, the director, in “A Chorus Line.”
Patti LuPone’s credits, of course, read like a dream career — the title role in Broadway’s “Evita,” for which she won her first Tony Award; Fantine in the original London production of “Les Misérables,” for which she won an Olivier Award; Maria Callas in “Master Class,” Mrs. Lovett in John Doyle’s Broadway production of “Sweeney Todd”; Madame Rose in “Gypsy”; Anna in “The Seven Deadly Sins,” which marked her debut with the New York City Ballet.
So great has been her theatrical career that you might forget her fine work on the big and small screens, particularly the ABC series “Life Goes On,” a family drama that broke new ground with its engaging realism, topical storylines and starring role for Chris Burke, an actor with Down Syndrome.
These days, LuPone, a passionate woman of strong opinions, says she watches very little network TV, because it isn’t very good, preferring instead to “computer binge” on such cable shows as “Boardwalk Empire,” “Girls,” “House of Cards” and “Silicon Valley.” Dividing her time between her home in Litchfield County and one on the beach in South Carolina, LuPone is also a big reader of historical novels like Thomas Flanagan’s “The Year of the French,” about a failed 18th-century Irish uprising.
But she also spends a good deal of time vocalizing and working with a vocal coach — depending on whether she’s in a play or a musical — and doing aerobics and weight training. After all, she says, she’s getting older.
To which we would add, and only better.
“The Lady With the Torch” is at 8 p.m. May 2 at The Performing Arts Center, Purchase College. Tickets are $95, $80, $65 and $55. The $220 package includes a prime orchestra seat, a VIP meet and greet with Patti LuPone, the after party and complimentary valet parking. (Or if you already have your ticket, you can add on $125 for these amenities) The $135 package includes the orchestra seat, after party and valet parking. (Add $40 for these if you already have your ticket.) The college is on Anderson Hill Road between Purchase and King streets. 914-251-6200, artscenter.org.