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.”
11 a.m. Wake-up Call
All Photos by Gillian Laub
Two Hours to Curtain
LuPone does her daily warm-up routine. Here, she uses what she calls “my prison door.” When she saw the Gypsy audience shrink to 900 (in a theater with more than 1,600 seats), she wrote: The beginning of the end.“My line was, “I could see the writing on the wall, so I started writing on the wall.’”
One Hour to Curtain
Among those who visited her dressing room was lyricist Scott Wittman, a longtime collaborator who’d caught a red-eye to be with her. “It’s important to go through those experiences with friends,” he says. “I told her stuff to make her laugh, none of it printable.”
Greeting Paul Huntley, who designs all of LuPone’s wigs, before donning Mama Rose’s curls for the last time.
Suiting up with dresser Lolly Totero and, almost out of frame, childhood friend Pam Lyster.
Five Minutes to Curtain
Last-minute vocalizing, accompanied by the show’s conductor, Joseph Thalken. Keeping her voice in shape was a constant challenge. “I have the chops because I have phenomenal training,” she says.
A rare moment in a quick-change booth toward the back of the stage. “It’s a high-energy act where if I’m not singing, I’m running,” says LuPone. “There are two places where I can rest.”
“All I Need Is a Girl”
“I lie down on a love seat during this song,” says LuPone, “basically to reenergize for “Everything’s Coming Up Roses’”“which closes the first act. “I’m listening to the singing, to the applause. I’m thinking of life. I’m not so Method that I can’t think of anything but the theater.”
A warm hug from Laurents. “I’m thinking, “Thank God this particular ugliness that was part of my career has been resolved,’” LuPone says of getting beyond their issues. “Thank God the cloud has lifted.”
LuPone’s old dresser, Lyle Jones, returns for a farewell massage while his replacement, Lolly Totero, attends to the second-act shoes.
LuPone with her young cast. “The people that were the most upset about this closing were the kids making their Broadway debut,” she says. “It was their first experience with this kind of death.”
“It’s a trial to get through a final performance without breaking down into tears,” says LuPone. “We didn’t succeed.”
A backstage embrace with co-star Boyd Gaines.
Preparing for LuPone’s last and biggest number, “Rose’s Turn.”
LuPone belting out her showstopper: “I didn’t have to worry about Tuesday. I could scream at [Gypsy] before the last song, which is what Arthur always wanted me to do. I could scream within the song, which he didn’t necessarily want me to do.”
LuPone takes a bow with co-stars Boyd Gaines and Laura Benanti.
Sondheim and Laurents thank their star, and vice versa.
“Patti was like a lion tamer that day”the audience was so rabid she had to control them,” says Wittman. “It was positively Greek.”
LuPone toasts the cast (husband Matt is to her right).
Ensemble member—and former “Legally Blonde” contestant—Emma Zaks.
The Dressing Room
“She doesn’t gather any moss,” says Wittman. “That’s a real life in the theater. You’re together for a really hot time and then it ends and you move on to the next experience.”
LuPone gauged the mood of fans outside as “just over the top. They were grateful, thankful that they had this theatrical experience. That says a couple of things: We did a really good job, and the theater is in a really bad place.”
Patti and Matt head home to Connecticut after dinner with the cast at Angus. “I go through my emotional gestalt,” she says, “but when it’s over, it’s over. All I did was hug the few people that I saw and said, “I can’t say good-bye. Parting is such sorrowful sweat.’”