HERBIE: Honey, don’t you know there’s a depression?
ROSE: Of course I know, I read Variety!
HERBIE: Don’t you know what it’s doing to vaudeville?
Two days before her final matinee as Mama Rose in Gypsy, Patti LuPone cried herself to sleep. It was the best thing that could have happened. “I slept like a baby, and I thought I’d pretty much gotten my tears out. It was sort of like closure for me,” she says. “I hate that word.”
In fact, there were a few tears left to be shed. The 3 p.m. show on Sunday, January 11, would be the last of what LuPone calls “probably the best experience of my life.” Gypsy was supposed to run through March, but the economy had other ideas. “When you start to see the small houses, you know the end is near,” says LuPone, who, from her Tony Award–winning run as Evita in 1979, has animated some of theater’s greatest divas. But Mama Rose is arguably the greatest diva of them all. “Other people, from forever, have said, ‘This is the role you should play,’ ” says LuPone—including her longtime friend and fan Stephen Sondheim, the lyricist of Gypsy.
The saga of LuPone as Rose goes back more than a decade. In the late nineties, director Sam Mendes told the actress he was interested in casting her in a revival, but by the time it finally went up, in 2003, Bernadette Peters was the star. It turned out that Arthur Laurents—the legendary writer who did the book for Gypsy, in 1959—had banned LuPone from his shows after she pulled out of negotiations to be in Jolson Sings Again, in 1995. Two years ago, LuPone took on Rose for the first time, at the Ravinia Festival. Producer Scott Rudin saw the performance and implored LuPone to pick up the phone and ask Laurents for another shot. The call would last three hours, and by the end of it, she had persuaded him to let bygones be bygones. Not only that, at 91, Laurents decided to direct LuPone himself, in what would be her second Tony Award–winning performance.
With the end of the run comes some relief—“Sorry-grateful” is how LuPone describes it, borrowing a line from Sondheim’s Company. “I climbed Mount Everest,” she says. “This role, at my age , I was almost going to say it’s not healthy.” About six months in, LuPone didn’t think she was going to make it, until a nutritionist set her straight. “It’s monstrous, energy-wise, physically, emotionally, and vocally.” And yet, there’s talk of a potential run in London. Is LuPone ready for one more turn in the part she was born to play? “If I’m strong enough,” she says. “I don’t think it’s the last time.”