By Matt Smith . . .
“And there it is. The sound of no applause,” the legendary Patti LuPone laments following her opening number. She’s center stage at the Shubert Virtual Studios within New World Stages in New York City, for Patti LuPone: Live from the West Side, the first of three separate virtual concerts spotlighting women on Broadway, that premiered last Fall. Having traded the basement for the bright lights in favor of live performance, she’s fully aware that an in-person audience is nowhere to be found. (“It’s very disconcerting up here,” she says, gesturing toward the screen. “How’s it feel for you?”)
Still, she knows it won’t stop her from entertaining… and given that, she delivers an eclectic evening that is brassy, sassy and uniquely Patti in all the ways you’d want it to be.
The concert, an abridged and updated version of her 2017 offering, Don’t Monkey with Broadway, itself preserved for posterity on the Broadway Records label, astutely answers the question, “How did I become a Broadway performer?” and explores the origin of her life-long love affair with the Great Bright Way. With Joseph Thalken beside her at the piano, she maneuvers through all facets of her illustrious career, from the turkeys to the triumphs, while musing on the demure roles she always thought she’d play growing up — the roles that shaped her childhood — and the songs that accompanied them.
Simply put, in an attempt to rectify years of “song envy,” LuPone bulldozes through a variety of ditties from shows in which she appeared as a kid, but whose iconic numbers she was deprived of singing, on account of being cast in another role.
What results is delightfully delicious. It’s simply pure fun — and frankly, refreshing — to see this inimitable Grand Dame let loose and lose herself in such atypical selections as “I Cain’t Say No,” “Let the Sun Shine In,” and, perhaps most surprisingly, “Big Spender.” And, as brazen as she is in her delivery (honestly, what more would you expect?), you can tell she’s grateful for the moment. There’s truly nowhere else she’d rather be… she loves it — all of it — with her whole heart. She has a connection to these songs, after all, and lives in each lyric and each moment, allowing those memories and whatever defined that time in her life to envelop her as she sings — not because, as she explains, she then had any clear understanding of them, or any strong connection to the reason behind why they were being sung; she just sang it to sing it. And that’s what makes it so irresistible to watch.
But of course, it’s still Patti LuPone and, never one to disappoint her fans, she peppers in passes at Gypsy, Evita and “four by Steve,” ‘cause we all know no concert of hers would be complete without them. Of the four, however, she conveniently forgoes the standout “Ladies Who Lunch” (you’ll have to pay up for that one, whenever that is), but gives us a stirring rendition of “Being Alive,” whose poignancy is all the more punchy as we navigate our current reality.
Meanwhile, interspersed throughout the action are fan-submitted questions that lighten the mood and create the feeling of connection where it’s otherwise absent…. to which she also responds with her dry, deadpan delivery and sass.
But, as with most evenings like these, though it appears to be all “fun, laughs, and good times,” on the surface, if you strip all that away and really zone in on what she’s saying about her journey — commenting on the mind-bogglingly steep rise in ticket prices or the overall Disney-fication of Times Square — you’ll find she’s making a much deeper, larger statement.
Don’t monkey with old Broadway. These are the songs that shaped her childhood, that ignited her passion for music, for theatre, and convinced her she had a place within this crazy community, and a longstanding career in this wacky business of show. In eradicating the theatrical landscape of old — with malls in Times Square and theaters named after airlines — it’s erasing a part of her.
And as powerful and prevalent as this concept was in its original incarnation, it’s all the more sobering to think about now, when the state of theatre — at least for the near future — is essentially nonexistent.
“I’ve worked these 20 blocks of Manhattan for most of my life,” the icon explains. “I’ve loved it, I’ve hated it. It’s knocked me down. It’s lifted me up. It has supported me creatively and financially. It’s been mean to me and I’ve been mean right back. But I never thought it would just… disappear.”
To that end, it’s perhaps all the more poignant that she ends her show in her fullest form, aptly delivering “Give My Regards to Broadway,” as a salute to the city that never sleeps, with its people soldiering on, its structures still standing through darkness and its general sense of persistence through all obstacles. It’s celebratory, evoking the feelings of days past, and filling us with the hope we so desperately need.
That’s what she’s doing. As she strolls through her repertoire — and though throwing a multitude of shade and side-eye toward her early flops — she’s recognizing the beauty in otherwise tumultuous times, turning gripes into gladness and fear into festivity.
Which is to say, on a larger scale, we cannot always control what happens — either to us personally, to our industry or to our world. But we can control how we react… and take stock in the fact that whatever disaster may strike, we can always choose to seek out a reason to smile.
While we all may be “spiraling down the rabbit hole of anxiety and despair,” LuPone here reminds us to remember the good times and, as she does, find the beauty amid the mess. Because even in the thick of it, at the end of the day, as she concludes, “life is just a bowl of cherries.” And we’ll most certainly drink to that.
Patti LuPone: Live from the West Side played The Shubert Virtual Studios within New World Stages (340 W. 50th Street) as part of Dallas Summer Musicals’ Women on Broadway Concert Series last Fall. A recording of the original concert, Don’t Monkey with Broadway, is available on Broadway Records. For more information, visit www.broadwayrecords.com or www.pattilupone.net.