(Photo by Rahav Segev)
MW: Is there a point in a career where you gain a certain level of stature that you don’t really worry that you’re not going to be employed again?
LUPONE: Well, it depends on how much money you’ve saved. [Laughs.] Other than that, no. I worry about the show I’m about to do now. Will it run? I don’t have anything other than the show. My calendar’s been cleared for it, and if it doesn’t run, I’m free as a bird for several months, which you don’t want. You want to be able to work.
MW: What show is it?
LUPONE: It’s called The Anarchist. A play by David Mamet.
MW: I can’t imagine a Mamet show won’t run. Is it a good piece?
LUPONE: Yeah, I think so. But I’m doing it, I’m not watching it. So it will be up to the audience to decide.
MW: What are you playing?
LUPONE: I’m playing the prisoner. Cathy, the prisoner.
MW: What kind of role is it? Can you say?
LUPONE: I can’t really – I’m in rehearsal for it. It’s an argument between a prisoner and her parole officer.
MW: Sounds interesting. When does it open?
LUPONE: Nov. 13 for previews, but Dec. 2 is the official opening.
MW: In the meantime, you’re coming to Strathmore. What can we expect there?
LUPONE: Not a lot of show tunes. [Laughs.] Not a lot of show tunes. It’s called Matters of the Heart, and it’s with piano and a string quartet. It’s a show we put together years ago, actually. It tells the story of the various aspects of love. I hope the audience likes it.
MW: Is there any reason they wouldn’t?
LUPONE: You never know how an audience reacts.
MW: I can’t imagine that. They’re coming to see you regardless of what you’re singing. I imagine they’d love it if you sang the phone book.
LUPONE: [Laughs.] Thank you. That’s sweet.
MW: Seriously, you can start with the A’s and work your way to the Z’s. We’d just have to find someone to compose it. Which makes me wonder if you have a favorite composer? Is there a composer that you just adore singing?
LUPONE: All of them, really. But especially Steve Sondheim. First of all, he’s produced, so you know you’ll get a production. [His work is] very difficult to perform, and so in order to achieve his lyrics and his intricate melody lines you’ve actually accomplished something. But there are lots of composers that are wonderful – and wonderful to sing. I just wish the new ones – the ones that are not as famous as Steve – are allowed to get produced. It’s a sad state of affairs when we have retreads of musicals, as opposed to supporting our young composers and lyricists and playwrights and growing with them. I know it’s expensive, but take a chance for crying out loud. You know what I mean? That’s the best way to say it.
MW: Over the past 20 years or so, have you sensed a difference in the way things are approached on Broadway?
LUPONE: Yeah, I think so. First of all, I really, really, really resent – first Giuliani, and now Bloomberg – what they’ve done to Times Square. It’s just an arcade. I can’t wait for it to go tawdry and dangerous again so we can get the streets back. It’s just horrible what it has turned into. And one of the reasons it’s upsetting is because there’s no focus on the stage or the theater. It’s people staring at themselves in the Jumbotron. I’m not sure people who go into Times Square anymore know that there are theaters on the side streets.
I think a tax should be levied on all of these major, major, major producers that however much money they make they have to take part of that money and support young playwrights and young composers. As long as there are producers that take their chances with material we’ll be okay, but if the new idea is shut out, we’re in big trouble. So, yes, Broadway has changed – a lot.
MW: Speaking to the actual physical makeup of Times Square, I agree with you. The last time I visited, I was mortified that there was a Toys R Us looming large in the midst of it. I went to school in New York the ‘70s and we used to travel uptown to Times Square all the time to play in the pinball arcades and to watch as the prostitutes mingled with the theater-goers in their furs as the shows let out. It was a dangerous area, but somehow it never felt threatening. Just interesting, unique and alive. Now it’s just homogenized.
LUPONE: It’s just horrible. Tourists are just stopping in the middle of the sidewalk. You want to shout, ”Sidewalk means walk!” But the fact is that the producers are second-guessing the audience. They’ve come to New York to see theater. Don’t think you are putting it on in a small community in Kansas. You are putting it on in New York City and Kansas has come to New York to see it. Have some courage!
MW: Do you think the courage is coming these days from regional theaters?
LUPONE: I do. And off-Broadway. I do, I do, I do.
MW: There are tons of theaters in our area that develop new works – Signature, Studio, Arena Stage. Would you ever consider playing one of those venues here?
LUPONE: If it’s a good project, of course. Absolutely.
MW: Are you hearing this Eric, David and Molly? Okay, so the big question always is, “Is Broadway dead?”
LUPONE: No. Can’t kill it. As long as kids are learning how to tap-dance in toe shoes in Florida, you can’t kill Broadway.
It’s the quality of material that’s the problem. Art is the soul of the nation, so I’d really like to see more questions posed and ideas discussed onstage in our art than cookie-cutter or mindless stuff. Audiences are not dumb. Make them reach. They’d be very happy to.
MW: Speaking of art, there’s been an interesting shift in popular culture. Television used to be regarded as the stepchild of the visual arts and cinema the pinnacle. Now, in a bizarre turnabout, television has actually taken over, in general, as the dominant art forms in terms of richness of drama and character development.
LUPONE: And daring. And courage. It’s fabulous.
MW: Your show, Life Goes On, was one of the first to my recollection that actually took an approach similar to what TV dramas take now.
LUPONE: And it got canceled.
MW: It still ran for four years. In many respects your show was ahead of its time in the way it approached drama.
LUPONE: I agree with you.