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Patti LuPone: The Diva Dishes

Broadway's original Evita is back in ''Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown''

Patti LuPone's reputation as a diva precedes her. ''It's been since Evita, so it's been — what? — 30-odd years?'' she asks, unamused, over a late-afternoon lunch of sparkling rosé and French onion soup at Cafe Un Deux Trois in Manhattan's theater district. Now 61, LuPone concedes she wasn't exactly an angel while channeling the notorious Argentinean first lady Eva Perón on Broadway, the role that made her a star. ''But they,'' she adds tartly, meaning the theater set, ''want you to be a bitch.''

Juicy roles and juicy conflicts are hallmarks of her career, which has spanned four decades in theater, television, and film. Besides her 1979 breakout in Andrew Lloyd Webber's Evita (which scored her a Tony), she has dazzled theatergoers in Anything Goes, Sweeney Todd, and Gypsy (for which she won a second Tony in 2008). The Long Island native played Libby Thacher on the ABC drama Life Goes On, Lady Bird Johnson in the TV movie LBJ: The Early Years, Dan Aykroyd's wife in Driving Miss Daisy, and Judah Friedlander's mom on 30 Rock. And now she's delivered her feisty take on it all in Patti LuPone: A Memoir, a new behind-the-scenes tale that leaves no betrayal unmentioned. ''It's been toned down considerably,'' LuPone says of the book's take-no-prisoners vibe. ''I put a lot of stuff in there, and one of the first notes I got from my editor was that I complained a lot.''

Still, even though she doesn't want the 324-page tome to be a ''bitchfest,'' it's full of great dish, mostly from the theater world. In two chapters on Evita, the actress talks about beating out Meryl Streep, Barbra Streisand, Ann-Margret, and Faye Dunaway for the role — as well as her famously demanding backstage behavior. ''I never asked them to change the color of my wig or to kiss and wash my feet,'' LuPone explains. ''I was always just asking for the things we needed to help us get on stage. It's always been about the show.'' Mandy Patinkin, who starred alongside her as Che Guevara, backs her up. ''I thought and think the diva reputation is horses---,'' he says. ''She was playing a diva. But it's good for selling tickets.''

The best parts of Patti LuPone: A Memoir come during two rage-filled chapters about her time working on Sunset Boulevard, Lloyd Webber's 1993 stage adaptation of the cult 1950 movie about a silent-screen star. LuPone headlined the London production, with a contract stating she'd open it in New York, too. But Lloyd Webber — the composer-producer who made her a star in Evita — publicly fired her in favor of Glenn Close. ''Do I think Glenn Close was complicit in what happened to me? Hard to say,'' LuPone writes, citing Lloyd Webber's ''total disregard'' for her. ''But what I do know is that from the time she was announced, I never heard from her.'' (LuPone was paid an undisclosed amount of money to go away, while Close went on to win a Tony for the role.) Even 15 years later, she's still sour on Sir Andrew. ''I'm never going to work with him again,'' she vows. ''It was a cruel experience.''

There are, however, moments of joy laced throughout the memoir. One chapter focuses solely on her relationship with revered playwright David Mamet; she starred in many of his plays, including 1977's The Woods and 1997's The Old Neighborhood. ''There's a danger to his work,'' LuPone says. ''I love that moment where I can say, 'I'm here — not in a play.''' As you might guess, Mamet has only praise for the actress. ''She's a great artist,'' he says. ''It's what appeals to me — it's what appeals to everybody. What you see is what you get.'' And the book is hardly the final act of her career: She's shot a pilot for HBO (the Kathryn Bigelow-helmed The Miraculous Year) and is returning to Broadway as nutty ex-wife Lucía in the musical adaptation of Pedro Almodóvar's 1988 film comedy Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, which opens Nov. 4.

For such a supposed diva, LuPone seems serene, chalking everything up to destiny. ''It's been a hard career, it's been a phenomenal career,'' she says in a moment of reflection. ''It's been incredibly interesting, it's been incredibly difficult. As David Mamet once said, the universe is unfolding as it should.''

OTHER STARS ON STAGE

Brooke Shields seeks a miracle in Leap of Faith, a new musical based on the '92 movie, playing in L.A. (opens 10/3)....Patrick Stewart and T.R. Knight explore A Life in the Theatre on Broadway (10/12)....James Earl Jones and Vanessa Redgrave topline a Broadway revival of Driving Miss Daisy (10/25)....Star Trek's Zachary Quinto stars in an Off Broadway revival of Tony Kushner's AIDS-era elegy Angels in America (10/28)....Al Pacino plays Shylock in The Merchant of Venice on Broadway (11/7).

Originally posted Oct 01, 2010 Published in issue #1123 Oct 08, 2010 Order article reprints