What It Means to Be a Diva: Patti LuPone in Gypsy
January 15, 2009
For those of you who expect this blog to deliver on topics of pop music, today’s post marks a short diversion into Broadway show tunes, without which the popular music industry would not exist.*
I love live music. I love live theater. I even love live musical theater. Within that genre, I especially love Sondheim; among performers, I love Patti LuPone. That’s why, when I heard that Gypsy was closing–in less than a week!–I had to get tickets. I called up Agent Taco, asked if we had plans for Saturday, and then bought the cheapest available tickets (I *don’t* love Broadway pricing.)
Patti LuPone is a diva, in every sense of the word, and she was my real motivation for attending the show. As I explain to my students in my music history class, the term “diva” was not new when VH1 applied it to “Divas LIVE” in the mid-1990s. Before we get to the divine Patti, a little background on the diva.
Surprisingly, the word’s implications have remained somewhat consistent throughout its history. Starting in the early 1800s, with the rise of bel canto opera in Italy, women singers received a new emphasis: most often, a soprano would perform the lead role, sometimes inserting her signature songs from other operas into each performance, and always, always demonstrating a virtuosity that would overwhelm and enchant the audience.
On the flip side, the diva often makes more demands than your average female performer. She is not known for quietly settling into a role, or for taking affronts from the audience or other performers in stride and unruffled. No, a diva makes demands. And she can make demands because she is just that good.
Of course, we have added a lot of gendered aspects to the diva (no one really talks about “il divo” anymore, though he did exist in bel canto), but the two important sides remain: she has a lot of talent, and, because of that talent, she can be demanding.
Patti Lupone’s show-stopping performance on Saturday night brought that out. As Mama Rose, her brassy, wide-ranging, full-chested voice finds a perfect characterization. And I could definitely call her a diva for that alone, since the character herself is also somewhat of a diva, a pushy stage mother who desperately wants her children to succeed in vaudeville.
But LuPone’s performance was more than this. It was, in fact, show stopping. As in, the show stopped. In the second to last scene, a tense scene between Gypsy (Laure Benanti) and Mama Rose, a cell phone rang. Both performers visibly cringed, and a piece of the drama of the moment disappeared.
This tense scene leads directly into “Rose’s Turn,” Mama Rose’s “I-coulda-been-great” moment. The performer, whether LuPone or anyone else, has to put everything into this moment. In the New York Times review of the show in March 2008, Ben Brantley wrote of this scene: “In “Rose’s Turn,” in particular, Ms. LuPone takes you on a guided tour of all Rose’s inner demons, from sexual succubus to shivering infant. (Be warned: they will live in your head for a while.)”
Nothing, however, prepared me or anyone else for what did happen. LuPone entered the stage, began the song, took off the grubby smock, revealing her more form-fitting red dress, and then…
“STOP! Stop the music!” The orchestra stopped. “WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE?” A pause, confusion. “I saw you take a photo THREE TIMES! You heard the announcement before the show and at intermission. Who do you think you are?” LuPone stood stubbornly on the stage, refusing to continue until the offending party had been removed.
By now, most of the audience was in LuPone’s court. I certainly was–who did that person think he/she was?
Finally, after a tense minute or so, a voice came over the loudspeaker, saying that the offending party was no longer in the theater; cheers erupted throughout the theater. LuPone addressed the audience, stating that there had been an erosion of manners in the country, but that she would do the song from the top.
… And it was amazing, filled with the swirl of emotions that someone truly angry (as Mama Rose is with Gypsy/Louise at that point in the show) and disappointed and egotistical and regretful would bring to it. I’m sure it would have been wonderful to see uninterrupted, but, you know, I wouldn’t trade what I saw for a run-of-the-mill, paint-by-numbers Broadway show. Instead of being perfection, it was an unforgettable experience.
Cheers to you, Patti LuPone, for demanding what you do deserve.
*One could argue that the constituent elements of rock n roll were more “of the people,” i.e. hillbilly and race records. However, the music industry prior to the advent of rock n roll largely depended upon the popularization of Tin Pan Alley novelty songs and show tunes. The structure that this industry created later allowed for the genre of rock n roll to flourish.