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An interview 21 months delayed: Patti LuPone talks 'Company' back on Broadway

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Here's a story I've told for the past 21 months. March 2020 - we were minutes from interviewing Patti LuPone about her role in Broadway's most anticipated opening - a revelatory and gender-bending restaging of Stephen Sondheim's signature 1970s musical, "Company". My phone began to buzz and blink - Broadway shut down - some kind of virus. I told the PR people, OK, we'll pick it up when you open in a couple of weeks. Well, 21 months later, "Company" is finally here.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COMPANY")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As Company, singing) Phone rings, door chimes, in comes company - no strings, good times, just chums - company - late nights, quick bites, party games, deep talks, long walks, telephone calls.

SIMON: I spoke with Patti LuPone the morning after the opening preview, where we saw Stephen Sondheim, who received a standing ovation as he took his seat. Just a few days later, of course, he died at the age of 91. We talked about Sondheim's exquisite music and lyrics with Patti LuPone, who's been one of his best-known interpreters. But first we talked about the new production's choice to cast a woman as Bobbie - that's with an I-E - 35 years old, unmarried, iffy about commitment - rather than having a man play the role as originally written.

PATTI LUPONE: I think it's more poignant with a woman in the role of Bobbie - because women are asked that question all the time. When are you going to get married? The clock is ticking. A guy - a 35-year-old man boinking gorgeous women and not married is really not a big deal - good for him.

There's one line for the other gender bend, which is the - Amy, Paul are now Jamie and Paul. So it's a homosexual couple. And they're going to get married. And Jamie says to Paul, just because we can doesn't mean we should. And I tear up every time I hear that, considering the fight, you know, to have same-sex marriage legalized, etc.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GETTING MARRIED TODAY")

MATT DOYLE: (As Jamie, singing) Pardon me, is everybody there? Because if everybody's there, I want to thank you all for coming to the wedding. I'd appreciate your going even more. I mean, you must have lots of better things to do - and not a word of it to Paul. Remember Paul? - you know, the man I'm going to marry, but I'm not because I wouldn't ruin anyone as wonderful as he is. But I thank you all for the gifts and the flowers. Thank you all. Now it's back to the showers. Don't tell Paul, but I'm not getting married today.

(LAUGHTER)

LUPONE: So to hear that is pretty powerful.

SIMON: You, of course, play the signature role of Bobbie's somewhat older and more - uh...

LUPONE: Jaded...

SIMON: OK.

LUPONE: ...Friend.

SIMON: I didn't know what to say in front of you.

LUPONE: (Laughter).

SIMON: And I knew as we walked into the theater that you were going to sing "Ladies Who Lunch," and you were going to get a standing ovation.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE LADIES WHO LUNCH")

LUPONE: (As Joanne, singing) Here's to the girls who stay smart - aren't they a gas? - rushing to their classes in optical art, wishing it would pass.

SIMON: And I have heard you sing that song in Sondheim tributes. I got to tell you, you did it last night in a way I hadn't heard before. It was fresh all over again.

LUPONE: The thing about that song - it's oversung. It's oversung. It's just - we know that song. And we know - I mean, you just - it's every year, somebody's going to sing that song. But I do think that because I am singing to - I'm telling another woman about these other women - these ladies who lunch - and because I remain seated, it - that's Marianne's direction - Marianne Elliott, who's - who has directed - conceived - this particular production of "Company" - which is where I would always rather be. I'd always rather be in the scene in character than, you know, OK, it's your turn now, Patti. Knock it out of the park. I'd much rather be in the scene.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE LADIES WHO LUNCH")

LUPONE: (As Joanne, singing) Another chance to disapprove, another brilliant zinger, another reason not to move, another vodka stinger - I'll drink to that.

SIMON: A couple of songs that always reach me, that reach me in a different way - "Another Hundred People."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ANOTHER HUNDRED PEOPLE")

BOBBY CONTE: (As PJ, singing) Another hundred people just got off of the train and came up through the ground while another hundred people just got off of the bus and are looking around at another hundred people who got off of the plane and are looking at us, who got off the train and the plane and the bus, maybe yesterday. It's a city of strangers. Some come to work, some to play.

LUPONE: Yeah.

SIMON: And then, you know, the song "Being Alive," which you have done individually at Sondheim tributes over the years.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BEING ALIVE")

LUPONE: (Singing) Somebody need me too much. Somebody know me too well. Somebody pull me up short and put me through hell and give me support for being alive. Make me alive. Make me confused. Mock me with praise.

SIMON: The line, alone - I know it.

LUPONE: Is alone...

SIMON: I'm - I'd rather hear you sing it.

LUPONE: Oh (laughter). Oh, it's a deeply emotional song. Alone is alone, not alive.

SIMON: Yeah.

LUPONE: Alone is alone, not alive. I mean, Stephen's lyrics - I mean, he reveals himself - whether he wants to or not - in every show. You see what - how deeply human he is, how deeply sensitive he is. And he just nails the emotion - the universal, you know, feeling. And that song is incredibly - it became an AIDS anthem, actually, in the day. It's a very powerful song - very powerful song.

SIMON: You are famous for not liking the presence of iPhones in theaters.

LUPONE: Right - yeah.

SIMON: People taking pictures, people making recordings - you've stopped shows. I want to give you an opportunity to talk about that.

LUPONE: Well, you know, first of all, it's illegal. It's prohibited.

SIMON: Yeah.

LUPONE: So why do people think they're exempt from the rule, you know? And why do people think they - I mean, that's the problem with the country right now. So many people think they're exempt from the law or exempt from the rule. But what's the problem with putting everything down for two hours, giving yourself over to the event? We have lost that in our world of - you know, we record it as opposed to experiencing it.

SIMON: Does theater have a particular role to play now? And Broadway, obviously - but I'm also thinking of, you know, community playhouses, of high school plays. Now that it's back in person, is there a role to play?

LUPONE: I think our arts are given short shrift, period. And art is the soul of a nation. We need to see. We need to experience what we are going through. We need to see points of view that will inform us. I mean, theater should definitely be educational. Theater should absolutely reflect what's happening. And I don't know where we are in the world anymore because in a minute we'll have brains the size of peas because computers will take care of everything. I forgot how to spell the minute I learned about a computer. I don't know how to spell anymore. I don't know anybody's telephone numbers anymore. So I feel helpless.

SIMON: P-A-T-T-I.

LUPONE: Yes, indeed. Thank you (laughter).

SIMON: Yeah.

LUPONE: But the interaction with people inside of a theater...

SIMON: Yeah.

LUPONE: ...Is essential. The voices of playwrights, especially, will be essential.

SIMON: Patti LuPone is back on Broadway, finally, in the new interpretation of Stephen Sondheim's "Company," directed by the British director Marianne Elliott. Thank you so much for being with us.

LUPONE: Thank you for having me, after all these months (laughter).

SIMON: After all these months - it's good to finally get the chance. Thank you.

LUPONE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
Matthew Schuerman
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