Acting Nobody Patti Lupone Set Her Cap to Be Evita and Beat Out Faye and Raquel
When Raquel Welch, Meryl Streep and Faye Dunaway put out feelers for a plum stage role, what's a director to do? Well, Harold Prince bypassed all of them in casting the U.S. version of the London smash Evita. His surprise choice to play Argentinian First Lady Eva Perón: little-known New York actress Patti Ann LuPone, 30. "It's fun," says Prince with Barnumesque aplomb, "to make a star."
For a moment there, LuPone didn't know if it was make or break. When the musical opened a pre-Broadway run on the West Coast in May, the Los Angeles Times called her "shaky." Then came gossip column reports that LuPone would be replaced by Elaine Paige, star of the London company. Prince himself rushed to Patti's defense. Not only was she staying, he said to the assembled cast—but her performance was a "f---ing gem." Two weeks ago Evita moved on to San Francisco with LuPone more in command. "She has that hypnotic quality of great performers," says Prince. Besides, he believes, "The role calls for a white sound, a pure sound that cuts through screaming crowds—like Patti's."
Eva Perón has become as charismatic to theater people as she was to Argentinian workers before her death from cancer at age 33 in 1952. The musical by Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber, who previously collaborated on Jesus Christ Superstar, has left LuPone resolved to make a pilgrimage to Argentina before she's finished. "Evita was a very sexual animal," notes the actress. "Men responded to her and she used that to get ahead. She was a whore. She became a saint."
LuPone has herself been living a near-saintly existence of late—and not exactly by choice. In 1978 she broke off a seven-year affair with Tony-winning actor Kevin (On the Twentieth Century) Kline. "Am I ever going to have a beau on a moonlit night again?" she moans. "I'm lonely. The phone never rings."
Fame, come her Broadway opening September 25, may change that, but LuPone has some admitted quirks. To save her voice for a performance, she refuses to talk in the morning and spends her days doing exercise and little else. After the final curtain call, LuPone heads home. "I'm an Italian who doesn't drink," she explains.
But Patti has the proper devotion to family. The youngest of three, she grew up on Long Island, where her mother worked as an administrative assistant at C.W. Post College. Her parents divorced when she was 13 and her father moved West to teach education at the U of San Diego. Her brother Robert was the original Zach in A Chorus Line. His twin, Bill, gave up the stage and became an ecologist.
Patti was a founding member of John Houseman's acting company at Juilliard. (Robin Williams and Chris Reeve studied drama there later.)Then, after four years on the road with the troupe, LuPone tackled Broadway in works ranging from David Mamet's The Water Engine to Studs Terkel's short-lived Working. Her most visible moment was a nude scene in The Robber Bridegroom. ("Thank God for a class in group grope at Juilliard," she says.) Then Hollywood came calling with bit parts in King of the Gypsies and Steven Spielberg's upcoming 1941. During that filming the good word came about Evita. "I cried," she recalls. "I always cry—even with makeup. It's more dramatic if it runs."