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LuPone thrills to 'Todd' Broadway star featured in S.F. concert version of Sondheim musical
Octavio Roca, Chronicle Music Critic
Sunday, July 15, 2001
©2001 San Francisco Chronicle


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"Singing," says Patti LuPone, "is the most natural thing I do. And singing is also the hardest thing I do. But if indeed 'music be the food of love,' then I am fat and happy."

The trim Broadway diva should be especially happy this week as she takes on the tragicomic role of Mrs. Lovett in Stephen Sondheim's "Sweeney Todd" opposite George Hearn, backed by the San Francisco Symphony.

The concert version, which brings to life the sizzling score note-complete, will be conducted by Rob Fisher and directed by Lonny Price. LuPone first sang in "Sweeney Todd" last year with the New York Philharmonic, in a Lincoln Center celebration of the composer's 70th birthday that has already become part of Broadway history.

Surprisingly, "Sweeney Todd" is LuPone's first Sondheim show, a meeting of music and musician that was bound to happen sooner or later.

"I always looked upon Stephen's work as the essence of this art form," LuPone said. Actually, Sondheim songs including "Being Alive" and "Not a Day Goes By" have been staples of LuPone's concert repertory. "And I always wanted to decipher a complete Sondheim score for myself -- you should put in the newspaper that Stephen should write a new show for me," she said, laughing. "But for now I got to prepare Mrs. Lovett with Stephen, so I feel very, very lucky."

The composer has been lucky as well. Last year at Lincoln Center, LuPone made a sexy, saucy and young Mrs. Lovett. She was at insolent ease with the rhythmic intricacies and dramatic nuances of Sondheim's music and was almost innocently comfortable in the bizarre and ambivalent moral climate of this still-most-shocking of his shows. As for Angela Lansbury's original interpretation and the way an entire generation learned to think of Mrs. Lovett, LuPone can only "thank God that I was trained as an actor as well as a singer."

"My jaw dropped when I saw Angela and Len (Cariou) in 'Sweeney Todd' on Broadway," LuPone said. "They were eerie. They were wonderful. But when it came time for me to play Mrs. Lovett, well, you can't be distracted by someone else's performance. No real actor can. The challenge, the real pressure, is in building a character, whether you are creating a new character or re-creating one someone else already made. You have to make it your own."

LuPone has been making words and music her own throughout her career, and she has few regrets. Sure, she briefly had second thoughts about turning down "Les Miserables" on Broadway after her triumph in the original London production for the Royal Shakespeare Company. "But it was the right decision," she said. "I realized that it couldn't get better than what we had at the RSC, that we had perfection.

"Later, when I saw it in New York, I was crushed," LuPone said. "The company obviously had not been given time to rehearse the roles and make them their own. They were doing caricatures of the original."

One original creation that caused regret, though not for her own performance, also had its roots in London: Norma Desmond, the mad and murderous heroine of Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Sunset Boulevard."

LuPone had earned a Tony as well as a Drama Desk Award in 1979 for her portrayal of Lloyd Webber's Evita on Broadway, and by all accounts she maintained a good professional relationship with the volatile British composer.

In London, she won the Olivier Award for both "Les Miserables" and "The Cradle Will Rock."

She survived "Pal Joey" with Bebe Neuwirth ("Bebe's great," LuPone said. "No, really. Of course, that's the only time I've worked with her.") She received personal kudos on Broadway for her performances in the underrated "The Baker's Wife" ("The problem there was we never had a baker," she recalled) and "The Robber Bridegroom" (which she considers her "favorite" among her musical roles) as well as for a major revival of "Oliver!"

As is well known, in 1992 LuPone was handpicked by the composer to play Norma, winning the role over such much-publicized contenders as Lansbury, Meryl Streep, Liza Minnelli and Julie Andrews. LuPone opened in "Sunset Boulevard" in London in 1993 with every intention of starring in the role on Broadway. Then the composer changed his mind and cast Glenn Close as Broadway's Norma, a public humiliation that has few parallels in musical theater history.

"It was very hurtful," LuPone said. "It affected my entire life. People would ask me what I'd do if I ever ran into Lloyd Webber, but the real question is what my husband would do to him if he ever ran into him!"

The pity is that LuPone's vocal instrument, with its sensual and vulnerable top, powerful belt and utterly feminine textures throughout the range, flatters Lloyd Webber's music. To hear her sing "Don't Cry for Me, Argentina" or "As If We Never Said Goodbye," as LuPone did in her previous San Francisco concert in 1996, is to experience musical theater history as a thrilling miracle.

"But I can't sing that music anymore," LuPone said. "It's too loaded emotionally. It brings up too much for me and it hurts."

Perhaps it's just as well. LuPone is in the unusual position of knowing the work of both Lloyd Webber and Sondheim, today's giants of the musical theater, from the inside. She is not shy about sharing her views on the subject.

"You can't compare the two, Sondheim and Lloyd Webber," LuPone said as she settled one of the longest-running arguments on both Broadway and the West End.

"One of them is a genius, the other would like to be one.

"Sondheim," LuPone said, "is the real thing."

'Sweeney Todd' The San Francisco Symphony's concert version of Stephen Sondheim's 1979 musical thriller plays at 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday in Davies Symphony Hall, 201 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco. Tickets: $15-$75. Call (415) 864-6000 or go to

The San Francisco Performing Arts Library and Museum presents stars Patti LuPone and George Hearn and director Lonny Price in conversation about "Sweeney Todd" at 2 p.m. Saturday, 401 Van Ness Ave. Tickets: $20. Call (415) 255-4800.

LuPone on CD: a selected checklist "Sweeney Todd" (New York Philharmonic Special Editions): Singing the role of Mrs. Lovett for the first time in her career, Patti LuPone not so much banishes memories of Angela Lansbury as makes one hear myriad new possibilities in Sondheim's music. This is a live New York Philharmonic recording of the version the San Francisco Symphony plays this week.

"Matters of the Heart" (Varese Sarabande-Lazylay Records): LuPone's most recent and in many ways most satisfying solo album, not least for her absolutely right rendition of Sondheim's "Not a Day Goes By."

"Heatwave: Patti LuPone Sings Irving Berlin" (Philips): Enough said. As an added attraction, LuPone is backed up here by John Mauceri and his Hollywood Bowl Orchestra.

"Patti LuPone Live" (RCA Victor): A brassy, touching reconsideration of much of LuPone's repertory, including a souvenir of her underrated Nancy in "Oliver!"

"Evita" (MCA Records): The best sung and most exciting among the several audio and video versions of Andrew Lloyd Webber's masterpiece.

"Anything Goes" (RCA Victor): In this 1987 Lincoln Center cast recording, LuPone and Cole Porter's Reno Sweeney are one fine match.

"Les Miserables" (Royal Shakespeare Company): The original and still the most heartbreaking recording of the epic musical that fascinated the world.

"Sunset Boulevard" (Polydor-Really Useful Records): Norma Desmond will forever remain LuPone's most controversial role. Listening to this original cast recording in hindsight -- after several competing divas have wrestled with some or all of this brilliant but imperfect music in the studio -- it is safe to say that Lloyd Webber was a tad rash in underestimating LuPone.

Patti LuPone's Web site has news on recordings and concerts as well as a disarming road diary from the diva herself. Go to

Opera or not, 'Sweeney' sings

Is "Sweeney Todd" the great American opera?

Whether it is an opera at all, a musical or something else altogether, Stephen Sondheim's 1979 tale of murder, madness and meat pies is one of the most fascinating and original scores ever created for the American stage.

As to what to call it, the composer has not helped by dubbing it a "melodramatic operetta" 20 years ago and a "musical thriller" in time for its New York Philharmonic concert last year. That set of performances, the climax of what turned out to be a yearlong celebration of Sondheim's 70th birthday, consolidated the place of honor "Sweeney Todd" holds in the American canon.

The piece has held its own as a hybrid. Harold Prince's original 1979 Broadway production, a savage and brilliant affair, famously starred Angela Lansbury as Mrs. Lovett and Len Cariou as Sweeney. The bar was raised even higher when George Hearn stepped into the title role in 1980. The miracle of Hearn's monumental performance opposite LuPone at Lincoln Center last year made it clear that there was little room for improvement on Prince's original direction, but still there have been surprises.

New York City Opera was the first of several companies to take the score into the operatic repertory, where the piece was a hit with opera lovers. A scaled-down version with reduced sets and musical force off-Broadway was dubbed "Teeny Todd" by wagging tongues but nevertheless enjoyed a healthy run and was flattered by a clever parody in "Forbidden Broadway."

Declan Donnellan's acclaimed 1993 version for London's Royal National Theatre brought together the looniest of all Mrs. Lovetts, Julia McKenzie, with the improbably likable Sweeney of Denis Quilley, all buoyed by Paddy Cunneen's streamlined version of Jonathan Tunick's original orchestrations. At Lincoln Center last year, Sondheim's epic musical ambitions were perhaps fully realized for the first time.

The San Francisco Symphony's ""Sweeney Todd'' this week brings LuPone and Hearn together again. The combination is important: the mix of classical and popular artists, the visceral excitement of the contrasts within Sondheim's thrilling creation. ""Sweeney Todd'' may or may not be an opera. But there is no question that it is a masterpiece.

E-mail Octavio Roca at

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