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Don’t call Patti LuPone’s show a cabaret act

🕐 4 min read

Broadway icon Patti LuPone is singing show tunes and telling a few stories. By all means come, but don’t call it a cabaret act.

“I call my show a concert,” LuPone said with gravitas, as she spoke recently by phone from her home in Connecticut. Just to fact-check herself, she went to her computer and Googled “cabaret.” The distinction, her research revealed, is that at a cabaret, people are sitting at tables and usually eating.

“The only times I have ever done cabaret were at Feinstein’s 54 Below, at Les Mouches while I was doing ‘Evita,’ and last week in Worcester, Massachusetts,” she said.

She had no intention of adding that most recent gig to the cabaret list. When she and pianist Joseph Thalken showed up at Worcester’s 150-year-old dignified-looking concert venue, they were surprised to see chairs arranged at 34 tables.

“They just decided it was a cabaret show,” LuPone said.

Once the lights dim, there had better not be any chatter or clanking silverware while LuPone performs her relatively new set, “Don’t Monkey Around With Broadway.”

The concert doesn’t include any numbers from the new musical “War Paint,” in which LuPone plays cosmetics empress Helena Rubinstein. The show debuted in Chicago over the summer, and LuPone still hopes it will end up on Broadway. Instead, she sings American songbook selections by composers such as Richard Rodgers and Cole Porter, plus newer numbers she has long been associated with, including “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina” from “Evita.”

LuPone, 67, won her first Tony Award for playing the title role in the original Broadway production of “Evita” in 1980, and her second for playing Rose in a revival of “Gypsy” in 2008. Her nominations include performances as Reno Sweeney in “Anything Goes” and a tuba-playing Mrs. Lovett in a 2005 revival of “Sweeney Todd.”

Yet LuPone, who has also had television roles, most notably that of the long-suffering Mrs. Thatcher on “Life Goes On,” says it’s only because of concerts between gigs that she became such a formidable musical theater performer.

“I have learned more about stage presence from doing concerts than I have from any musical or any acting class at Juilliard,” LuPone said. “They helped me through some lean times. I don’t know what older actresses who can’t sing do. Sit around waiting for the phone to ring?”

Being alone onstage, she said, taught her how to engage an audience. “In musical theater, you have a character as a mask and a fourth wall. In a concert, you don’t have that. You have to look the audience in the eye, and if you can do that, you can connect with the audience,” she said. “I’m looking for the person I cannot reach. I’m either going to convince him, or I’m going to have to ignore him.”

As noted far and wide last year, LuPone can ignore only so much.

During a performance of the off-Broadway comedy “Shows for Days,” the actress improvised a scene that required her character to interact with a patron in the front row and, instead, snagged a cellphone belonging to a woman who had been texting throughout the first act.

“I got the phone! I got the phone!” the actress recalled exclaiming to the cast once she got backstage. She then gave the device to a stage manager, who gave it to house management, who returned it to the patron.

“I regret that,” LuPone said. “I should have made her come get it from my dressing room. That’s what I should have done.”

Audiences in Chicago were much better behaved, she noted. “I think a phone rang once during the entire run. I was so impressed.”

LuPone’s character in “War Paint” had plenty to compete with onstage without battling gadgets in the audience. As Rubinstein, LuPone had to duel vocally with Christine Ebersole as her rival, Elizabeth Arden. LuPone’s performance won praise, but the musical by Scott Frankel, Michael Korie and Doug Wright received mixed reviews that could hurt its chances to land on Broadway.

The effort will still be worth it, LuPone said, even if “War Paint” is not her next “Evita.” “At my age, to be offered an original role in a musical? Of course,” she said. “I’m lucky to be in the theater.”

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