Playing at the Leicester Square Theatre, London until 23rd June.
It’s not often we get a real live Broadway musical theatre legend in the West End and fans, among them Adele, were out in force for Patti LuPone’s opening night at the Leicester Square Theatre.
A belter in the Ethel Merman tradition and an actress who sings rather than a singer who acts, nobody ever accused LuPone of being soothing or subtle, but she knows how to hold an audience and you don’t get two Tony Awards (Evita 1980, Gypsy 2008), an Olivier Award (Les Miserables and The Cradle Will Rock, 1985) and Tony nominations for The Robber Bridegroom (1976), Anything Goes (1988), Sweeney Todd (2006) and Women On the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (2011) unless you tick plenty of boxes.
What she has brought to London is as much chat show as concert, with fast-talking Broadway radio host Seth Rudetsky acting as warm-up act, interviewer and accompanist, and she has some trenchant views on theatre to impart.
For a start she took no joy from doing Evita despite all those Broadway gongs: “I’m convinced Lloyd Webber hates women because it’s such a difficult score,” she told a packed house, and in the past she is quoted as saying the show “was the worst experience of my life”.
She claims: “I never wanted to do it but I knew I had to. I was never that keen on that sort of musical. I was trained as a classical actor – I wanted to be in Mamet, I wanted to be in plays. If it was going to be musicals, I wanted to be a rock‘n’roller.”
Of course, she later, in 1993, departed from the same composer’s Sunset Boulevard at the Adelphi and was replaced by Glenn Close – “negotiations from the very beginning were ugly. It was a ‘here’s a $1.98 – take it or leave it’ situation.”
Asked whether she would ever ask Stephen Sondheim to write a part for her, she replied: “Not likely, he’s a scary man. He doesn’t write for individuals, he writes an idea. I wouldn’t have the guts to ask.”
And she’s been known to throw plenty of wobblies on stage when an audience doesn’t behave itself, even having people ejected (thankfully, all was sweetness and light on Sunday).
She deplores mobile phones, texting, recordings being made and photographs being taking, saying: “Where’s the elegance? It distracts and destroys the intimacy between actor and audience.”
It was all lively stuff but it was the songs most had come to hear and she gave us ten of them, starting with ‘Everything’s Coming Up Roses’ from Gypsy, then into the charming ‘Sleepy Man’ from her first musical The Robber Bridegroom, a show that never came to London.
She filled the show with all the usual suspects – Evita (‘High Flying Adored’ and ‘Rainbow High’), Les Mis (‘I Dreamed a Dream’) – she was the original Fantine at the Barbican in 1985 – and Oliver! (‘It’s A Fine Life’ and ‘As Long As He Needs Me’) in which she appeared on Broadway in a short-lived revival in 1984 “despite my terrible Cockney accent!”
In between, there was a funny send-up of an Edith Piaf classic with a real cabaret song ‘I Regret Everything’, a belting ‘Don’t Rain On My Parade’ from Funny Girl and a laying-it-on-with-a-trowel version of Sondheim’s ‘The Ladies Who Lunch’ from Company, which she finishes off by showering the front rows with a, presumably fake, Martini brought on by the barman as a prop.
In truth, we have heard most of these songs sung better elsewhere but, hey, it’s not every day we get a chance to see a genuine diva and London is all the better for her week-long presence. Her garrulous sidekick, Rudetsky, presents his own show Deconstructing Broadway at the same venue on 22nd June at 9.30pm after the main event. For all lovers of everything Broadway, that double-header should be a gas.