Few theatrical stars command as much respect, admiration and awe as singer and actress Patti LuPone. Since taking charge of the Great White Way with her spellbinding, Tony Award-winning portrayal of the title character in “Evita” in 1980, LuPone has been regarded as one of the brightest lights of the Broadway stage, appearing in such masterworks as “Sweeney Todd,” “Noises Off,” “Can-Can” and “A Little Night Music.” Earlier this year, she completed a stint on Broadway in the production of “Gypsy,” for which she won a second Tony Award in 2008 playing Rose, the ultimate hellbent stage mother.
LuPone, 60, has appeared in a host of movies, including “Witness,” “Driving Miss Daisy,” “City by the Sea,” “State and Main” and “Heist.” She also had roles in television shows such as “Will & Grace,” “30 Rock,” “Ugly Betty” and “Life Goes On,” a series in which she co-starred from 1989 to 1993.
Although LuPone has long been a revelation on large stages, one of her newest projects celebrates her triumph on a considerably smaller one. While LuPone was earning her Broadway cred in “Evita” back in 1980, she would dash to the far west side after each Saturday night show to perform her cabaret act at a nightclub called Les Mouches. That weekly tour de force became a cult hit, attracting stars and beautiful people galore. Late last year, Ghostlight Records released “Patti LuPone at Les Mouches,” a digitally restored recording of a performance from that time that finds her tackling a set list so varied as to include “I Got Rhythm” and “Mr. Tambourine Man.”
Now, LuPone is doing a concert tour with Mandy Patinkin. Bankrate caught up with her recently to talk about her cabaret recording, her Tonys and the state of the theater in troubled times.
Bankrate: Why release this cabaret concert recording after 29 years?
Patti LuPone: Because we found the tape. It was quite a wild ride back there 30 years ago, every Saturday night at midnight at Les Mouches. We were given tapes by the sound guy every Saturday night. He said, “Here’s your performance.” And I would go, “Aw, jeez, another piece of junk I got to carry around.” I think I threw out a majority of those tapes. It was my quaker phase: Less is more. But David (Lewis), my musical director, actually held on to quite a few.
Bankrate: You would sing there at midnight, after performing earlier that evening on Broadway in the demanding role of Evita. How did that affect the nature of these late night performances?
Patti LuPone: I was just so delighted to get out of the blond wig that I was giddy when I got down to Les Mouches. That was a very, very hard part, Evita. So I was really quite thrilled to get out of the wig and go down to Les Mouches and be myself.
Bankrate: So it was you at your freest, in a sense?
Patti LuPone: Yes, absolutely!
Bankrate: How does singing in a nightclub setting differ from singing on the Broadway stage?
Patti LuPone: It doesn’t really. But I realized that I learned more about presenting a musical by performing in cabaret than I had ever learned at Juilliard as an actor. There’s just something about not wearing the mask of the character. One is vulnerable, exposed. I have to look at the audience, but I’m not looking at the audience as Evita or as Rose, but as Patti. So either I tell the truth, or they can see me lying. It taught me an enormous amount. After performing (cabaret), I would go back to “Evita” with a renewed performance.
Bankrate: How would you pick your songs for these late night performances?
Patti LuPone: I didn’t pick any of them. David Lewis picked them all. I just showed up and went, “OK,” because I was completely overwhelmed by “Evita.” Not that I would have known what to do, anyway. I’ve never put together a cabaret act, and that’s what he does.
Bankrate: In that show, then, I’m assuming you sang some songs you hadn’t been very familiar with. Did you come out with an added and possibly surprising appreciation for certain types of music?
Patti LuPone: No, because I’ve always listened to all kinds of music. Rock ‘n’ roll was my favorite; I wanted to be a rock ‘n’ roll singer as a kid. I knew I had a Broadway voice, but I wanted to be a rocker. I used to listen to every kind of music. My dad would listen to jazz, my mother listened to opera, and I listened to rock ‘n’ roll. There was always classical, jazz or Broadway show tunes in the house. So there was always a lot of different music.
Bankrate: Who were some of the famous people who would watch you perform at Les Mouches?
Patti LuPone: Andy Warhol was there. I had a friend who was a money manager — and a very rich man — who brought all of these people to Les Mouches because he was a bon vivant, and he was responsible for bringing all the unusual types. The showbiz types were coming to see me, but the Andy Warhols, the Cheryl Tiegs and the Ron Duguays all came through Richard Weissman because he would supply people with things to do, and people would go because he was a great entertainer, a bon vivant. I miss him.
Bankrate: What was Andy Warhol like?
Patti LuPone: Very shy and very sweet.
Bankrate: Do you still perform in cabaret settings?
Patti LuPone: Yeah. It’s a great lesson and a great place to go and sing the songs you want to sing.
Bankrate: You had a pretty great year last year, winning the Tony Award, among others, for “Gypsy.” Considering that you’re already a pretty major figure in American theater, does winning the Tony affect your career at all?
Patti LuPone: We’ll see (laughs). I won’t know until after I leave the show and I’m lugging that Tony around.
Bankrate: Based on your experience, do you anticipate it will affect your career?
Patti LuPone: No. It won’t. I don’t think the Tony has the same effect that the Oscar has. It didn’t affect me last time I won.
Bankrate: I’m surprised to hear that because you were the new, fresh face then. That Tony didn’t help launch you to a certain extent?
Patti LuPone: No, no. I’ve always said the Tony gets you into better restaurants. That’s about it.
Bankrate: Well, there’s nothing wrong with being in better restaurants.
Patti LuPone: Exactly right. But you know, Broadway has changed. It’s not as glamorous as it used to be. First of all, it’s not open anymore. At 21 (a restaurant), which used to be a speakeasy, the last serving is at 9:30. I actually called them and said, “This is Patti LuPone. Can we come for dinner? We’ll be there at 11:00.” They said, “Oh no. Last serving is 9:30.” I went, “What? You were a speakeasy!” There used to be a plethora of late night restaurants that would be open for the actor/theater crowd. Since 9/11, there hasn’t been that kind of business.
Bankrate: Has it really not picked up since 9/11?
Patti LuPone: I think they just shut their doors. I could be wrong. Maybe it’s not 9/11. Maybe it’s the fact that the ticket prices are so high that nobody goes out. I don’t know.
Bankrate: Performers in general don’t follow the economy or finances really closely. Have you been good about keeping a close eye on that stuff over the years?
Patti LuPone: No. I’m the same way, except I did tell my former accountant to take everything out of stocks because I didn’t understand it. Accountants put your money in stocks because they’re bored all day long, so they want to play with it. If I don’t understand it, I don’t want my money in stocks. So I have no money in stocks.
Bankrate: What did you do instead?
Patti LuPone: They’re in CDs, Treasury bonds.
Bankrate: Because you wanted it to be in something that you grasped?
Patti LuPone: I just wanted to be able to understand. It’s like, I’m a land baron. I’m not a gambler. I invested in real estate.
Bankrate: Considering everything happening there, is that working out for you?
Patti LuPone: I’m not selling anything yet. I hadn’t planned on selling it. What I did was I bought and built, bought and built. And so far, I can pay my mortgage.
Bankrate: Where did you buy and build?
Patti LuPone: Connecticut and South Carolina.