On Monday morning Patti LuPone received her eighth Tony nomination, in recognition of her portrayal of Joanne, who brings the house down — up? — with the devastating anthem “The Ladies Who Lunch” in Stephen Sondheim and George Furth’s “Company.” Marianne Elliott’s gender-flipped revival of the show, starring Katrina Lenk, opened in December after a long pandemic delay.
How did she make the song her own? “When I rehearsed with Marianne,” she said of the show’s director, “I saw the high bar stool and I went, ‘I’m not going to be able to get down off this bar stool and get back up. I’ll just sit here.’ And that’s what Marianne wanted.”
She continued: “So it’s all about direction. If you have a good director, your interpretation becomes unique to you. And you’re not imitating anybody else.”
Speaking from her New York City apartment, she took time to honor her co-stars (“Katrina Lenk, she holds our production together, she’s a brilliant leading lady”) and the audiences who come in to “Company,” too: “They are unbelievably respectful. They keep their masks on and there’s no phones going off.” Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.
Does being nominated for a Tony ever get old?
It’s something that we aspire to as actors. Because it’s a validation of our work. So no, it never gets old. How does this one feel? I don’t know. I just woke up. It feels great. I mean, it’s been a journey — a heartbreaking, confusing, joyful journey. Heartbreaking because of Covid and the lockdown and the effect that it had on all of us.
When we came back for our first rehearsal, everybody was raw. We were numb, we were scared, we were not sure if we would rehearse and perform and be shut down again. [The “Company” revival was in previews when Broadway shut down in March 2020.] But this is one of the most extraordinary companies I’ve ever been in, due to the fact that they’re all professionals. There’s no children in the show. There’s no first-timers in the show. These are veteran performers. And we bonded as human beings, recognizing in each other that we all felt the same way.
Who is Joanne?
She’s an unhappy East Side lady. She is a lady who lunches. I’m not of that class. I’m middle class, Long Island, working parents, there was never enough money. One day, way before I was ever thinking about Joanne, I went to Steve’s house in Connecticut with my musical director because somebody wanted me to sing “The Ladies Who Lunch” and I wanted his approval and his direction and his notes. At the end, he said, “I didn’t think you’d understand the song.” But I think that we’re all humans. And the lyrics are quite clear. So who do I think she is? I think she’s an acerbic, unhappy, rich woman who covers her flaws with a biting sense of humor.
Stephen Sondheim died in November, two weeks before opening. Did that change the show?
It’s intense. On the night we found out that he had passed, I said, “Who will make me better?” I don’t think there’s anybody that is as difficult, complex and exacting, as Steve. Steve made me better. Every time I performed a role, he made me better. He’s the taskmaster, he’s the ultimate. I know that sounds ridiculous, but the longer he’s not with us, the more I miss him.
What was it like knowing that your co-stars could be out with Covid-19 at any moment, that you could be out?
We had our understudies with us from the first day of rehearsal. And they are extremely well rehearsed. We had a moment where it really was who’s on first. There were more understudies onstage than there were principles. And they kept the lights on. They kept the show going forward. They are an extraordinary group of talented individuals who know their job. They’re just incredible. They deserve their own Tony Award. They really do. When I was out, I don’t know what happened. But I have really good covers. The thing is, do you embrace your responsibility? And these people did.