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Patti LuPone Returns To "Gypsy" As Rose

Patti Lupone in the final scene of "Gypsy" at City Center, summer, 2007
AP Photo/The Publicity Office
When Patti LuPone was in her early teens, she appeared in a local Long Island production of "Gypsy," put on by what she says was "a group of kids that got together in the summertime. It was just kids who loved musical theater."

LuPone played Louise, the ugly duckling daughter who grows up to become that classy swan of a stripper, Gypsy Rose Lee. Even then the committed professional, she threw herself into the role… and the stripping.

"I actually Krazy Glued my belly button shut because I put a jewel in there," she says. "I went, `How am I going to keep it in there? A little Krazy Glue.' (The next day) I woke up, and my belly button was stuck together. It got terribly infected."

Such are the memories of her first stage experience with the remarkable Jule Styne-Stephen Sondheim-Arthur Laurents musical that is now having its fourth Broadway revival since first arriving there in May 1959 with Ethel Merman as its star.

Madame Rose, the ultimate stage mother who pushes and pulls daughters Louise and June into show biz, was a role many think the intensely theatrical LuPone was born to play. After all, she was Broadway's original "Evita," London's Fantine in "Les Miserables" and Norma Desmond in "Sunset Boulevard," Reno Sweeney in the Lincoln Center Theater reworking of "Anything Goes" and, most recently, Mrs. Lovett in the 2005 Broadway revival of "Sweeney Todd."

Among those intrigued by the idea was Tom Hatcher, who, for 52 years was Laurents' partner.

"He (Tom) shared every aspect of my life," says Laurents, who wrote the book for the show. "And when the whole idea of doing `Gypsy' with Patti came up, and this was a couple of months before Tom died (in October 2006), he said: `You should direct her in it."'

So Laurents, at age 90, accepted the offer. He led a critically acclaimed, three-week engagement last summer at City Center. Now, he's helmed the production at the St. James Theatre where LuPone is holding forth with most of the City Center cast including Boyd Gaines as Rose's ever-loyal, sweet-tempered beau, Herbie, and Laura Benanti as Louise.

"You know what's interesting?" LuPone wonders during an interview before an afternoon rehearsal. "We're really dealing with the book scenes. When Arthur and I talked the very first time about this, he said he wanted to cast actors. And as a result, the thing that is equally as important as the music are the book scenes."

LuPone sits in a tiny office in a 42nd Street studio. She's dressed entirely in black, stylish yet casual and ready to rehearse.

"`Gypsy' is a play," she explains. "All musicals should be plays with music. They should all have as strong a book. The information in it is succinct, precise."

According to Laurents, one of the reasons director and star get along so well is that they both love to rehearse.

The show is "about the need for recognition, which is a need for love, and it's very clear in this production," Laurents says. "And I directed this unlike I've directed any other musical. ... We spent an awful lot of time sitting around the table and examining literally every line in the book and in the lyrics.

"I did a totally new `Rose's Turn' (the show's big finale) for Patti than was done at City Center. I didn't feel it was right for her. Whoever plays Rose determines the tone of the production. And it had to be for Patti: what Patti is and what Patti does."

LuPone has a superb voice and is a superb actress, says the director, known for his no-nonsense, direct manner. "That's a combination you don't find (too often)," he says. "Merman was ... you heard that voice and you were blown away, but she really couldn't act."

LuPone grew up listening to Merman's cast recording and always has loved the music. "Anything Ethel did was like ... you were thrown against the back wall, just listening to her," the performer says. "She was incredible."

Yet except for her own teenage revival and watching another high school production, LuPone has never seen "Gypsy" on stage, although she does love the Rosalind Russell-Natalie Wood movie. And she did tackle the role of Rose for the Ravinia Festival in Highland Park, Ill., in 2006 during a vacation from "Sweeney Todd."

"When people say, `What's the role you are dying to play?' ... I don't know. It's what I'm doing. And I've always said what was so interesting about my career is the surprise of what I am given to play."

That has led to detours from musical theater, turns that have sent LuPone to the concert stage and, surprisingly, to opera.

Right now, she has four separate concert acts. Three she put together with longtime pal Scott Wittman, best known as the co-lyricist for "Hairspray." They are called "Lady With a Torch," "Matters of the Heart," "Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda": show tunes, love ballads and torch songs.

And then, there's her fourth, a show called "An Evening With Mandy and Patti" that features LuPone and Mandy Patinkin. "We had a partnership on stage with `Evita' and it's never died," she says. "He was my anchor in that show. And I love being on stage with him."

Wittman extolls LuPone's commitment to whatever she chooses to sing.

"We will pick a song and the first thing she will go for is obviously the lyric," he says. "Her commitment to the acting and the content of the material is so strong that by pure force of nature and will she takes you in on it."

And it comes through in her singing of Styne's music and Sondheim's lyrics in "Gypsy," he says.

"The score is so perfect for her. She has that drive as a person and ... she's a terrific mother (she has a 17-year-old son, Josh)," Wittman adds. "Patti is like a lioness. And you get that in her performance in `Gypsy,' that Rose is protecting these children, sometimes to their detriment."

For LuPone, real training began with her years in the Drama Division of New York's Juilliard School. She was among the actors in its first graduating class (among the others: Kevin Kline) who went on to become founding members of The Acting Company and tour the country, doing plays in rep.

Opera was a surprise for her.

"Isn't that wild?" she laughs, talking about her recent appearances in such diverse, musically complex works as Marc Blitzstein's "Regina" - an adaptation of Lillian Hellman's "The Little Foxes"- at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.; Jake Heggie's "To Hell and Back," for the Baroque Philharmonia Orchestra in Palo Alto, Calif.; and the Weill-Brecht masterpiece, "Mahagonny," for the Los Angeles Opera.

LuPone says she was particularly surprised when asked to do "To Hell and Back," a modern-day version of the myth of Persephone dealing with spousal abuse in which she played the heroine's supportive mother-in-law. "And they were surprised I said, `yes,"' she says with a laugh.

For now, LuPone is luxuriating in a chance to be on Broadway again.

"I am really glad and grateful to God that I can do this. I am going to be 59 in this role less than a month after we open. I've got to be the oldest Rose." Lupone's birthday is April 21; Merman was 51 when she opened in the show.

"Knock on wood, that I can maintain it," Lupone says. "But right now I am feeling pretty good. You build muscle. There's no mystery about it at all. It's keeping that muscle flexed and strong. It requires the doing of it."

And that doing has been LuPone's life. If she didn't act, what would she do?

"That's a good question. Because I don't know how to do anything else. I have been doing this since I was 4. And I worry about that. I am not a knitter. I am not a gardener. I have no hobbies. When I don't act, I like to take to my bed, which is good because I am storing up energy."

"I think if I could afford to, I would sell all my worldly possessions and end up with just a passport, a suitcase, my husband and whoever else wanted to travel with us and travel the world," she says. "I am a tourist. I am a hobo. A fan. I want to see the rest of the world ... not just America."