When Broadway, TV and film star Patti Lupone was last in Raleigh 38 years ago, touring with The Acting Company, she was not yet a household name. But those who saw her here sensed the presence of a major talent. Just three years later, she burst into Broadway legend with her Tony-winning performance in “Evita.”
Now, many long-running, award-winning musicals later, Lupone returns to Raleigh Friday and Saturday for concerts with the N.C. Symphony. Slyly titled “Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda,” the concerts give Lupone the chance to sing numbers from musicals she wasn’t cast in, as well as many of her signature songs.
Although equally comfortable in Broadway plays (“Master Class,” “Noises Off”), TV series (“Law and Order,” “30 Rock”) and film (“Witness,” “Driving Miss Daisy”), Lupone’s true home is the stage musical. The long list of her triumphs include originating Fantine in “Les Misérables” and Norma Desmond in “Sunset Boulevard” in their London premieres, as well as starring in acclaimed revivals of “Anything Goes” and “Gypsy.” She has also become the go-to performer for concert performances of Stephen Sondheim musicals televised on PBS.
Although this is Lupone’s first return to Raleigh, she’s no stranger to North Carolina. She’s performed concerts in Boone, Greensboro and Chapel Hill and has even sung the national anthem at a Durham Bulls game. Lupone also sees a lot of the state when driving with her husband and son from her Connecticut home to their South Carolina island house.
By telephone, Lupone spoke about her concerts, her career and the current state of Broadway. Here are excerpts of that conversation:
Q: Welcome back to Raleigh. You made quite an impression here in 1976 in “The Robber Bridegroom.”
A: Yes, because I was naked as a jaybird in one scene! That production was one of the greatest times I’ve ever had on stage. I think I’ll be singing “Sleepy Man” from that show in my concert here.
Q: What can we expect in these concerts?
A: Some songs are from roles I wanted to play and never got the opportunity, some are from roles I would never get to play and some are from those that I did play. The concert runs chronologically through my musical life. I don’t want to reveal all that I’ll be singing, but one hint is that I played Nellie Forbush in “South Pacific” in high school.
Q: When did you start doing concerts in addition to your stage work?
A: During “Evita,” someone said I ought to do a club act. At first I thought, you’ve got to be kidding, I can barely sing this show. But I wanted to sing some lighter, comic numbers, so I started doing an act at midnight on Saturdays and did it 27 weeks running. I’ve been doing concerts ever since.
Q: What do you like about concerts compared to musicals?
A: Concerts have taught me how to play to an audience better than any of my formal training. You can hide behind a wig and a costume playing a character, but not in a concert.
Q: Do you feel you’ve done it all now, or are there things still on your to-do list?
A: The thing that excites me about my career is the surprise element. I don’t plan anything because I always think that if I do, it’s not going to come true, and if I don’t, something interesting will come along. For instance, I’ve just been invited to sing at the L.A. Opera.
Q: You sing opera too?
A: I’m not an opera singer, but this will be my third operatic performance, following Jake Heggie’s “To Hell and Back” and Kurt Weill’s “Mahagonny.” Now the L.A. Opera has invited me to play Samira, the exotic entertainer, in John Corigliano’s “The Ghosts of Versailles” next year. You know, I’m related to the famous opera singer, Adelina Patti, through my mother, whose maiden name is Patti. My name is made up of the last names of my parents.
Q: Your concert reflects classic Broadway fare. What do you think about 21st-century Broadway?
A: It’s pretty pathetic. There are some shows that I like, such as “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder” and “Once.” But now I don’t want to work in the Broadway district anymore. If we had some visionary producers we’d be in better shape, but it’s only about the almighty dollar now.