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Patti LuPone Remembers It Well!

TheaterMania reviews Patti LuPone: A Memoir, Sarah: The Life of Sarah Bernhardt, and South Pacific: Paradise Rewritten.

By New York City
Patti LuPone has long been hailed for her magnificent singing voice and acting ability, but with her new book, Patti LuPone: A Memoir, she proves that her authorial voice is just as powerful. Hilariously forthcoming and blunt, LuPone (with the aid of co-author Digby Diehl) tells it like it is and names names in recounting the backstage bad behavior of her co-stars and collaborators. Just as important, she is equally honest about her own part in her many behind-the-scenes dramas. The result is a thrilling and engaging read for anyone interested in the secret workings of the theatrical elite.

Certainly, LuPone has a lot of love to spread around when it comes to some of her colleagues, including Mandy Patinkin, George Hearn, and Kevin Kline (her longtime paramour in the 1970s). As a proud Sicilian (whose grandparents were allegedly bootleggers!), she rewards the loyalty of her friends with copious affection and praise, while cursing her enemies.

In fact, LuPone is at her wittiest when she is elaborating on her unhappiest experiences. Her prose is particularly acidic in her fifth chapter titled, "The Baker's Wife, or Hitler's Roadshow." In it she deconstructs all that went wrong with the out-of-town tryouts of the infamously flawed Stephen Schwartz-David Merrick venture, and saves her harshest criticism for her co-star Chaim Topol. (Perhaps more surprising is that she also loathed working with her Life Goes On costar Bill Smitrovich.)

LuPone also talks about her Tony-winning performance in 1979's Evita, which came at a terrible price to her physical and mental health. And she aptly recalls her humiliating experience with the musical Sunset Boulevard; in which after having played Norma Desmond in London, she learned she would not reprise the role on Broadway from reading a gossip column.

But for many readers, it's the older, wiser, and calmer Patti that may be the real revelation. Armed with a healthier attitude and placed in a healthier working environment, LuPone has reached even new career heights in the past decade, and she simply cannot lavish enough praise on her collaborators in Sweeney Todd and Gypsy (for which she won the 2008 Tony for Best Actress in a Musical). Like those must-see performances, LuPone's memoir is a must-read.

Next Page: Sarah: The Life of Sarah Bernhardt

Sarah Bernhardt is the golden standard when it comes to great actresses of the stage, yet very little of her craft is preserved beyond a few grainy films and audio recordings. So it's particularly impressive that noted author Robert Gottlieb largely succeeds in the daunting task of bringing the divine Sarah to life for 21st-century readers in, Sarah: The Life of Sarah Bernhardt.

Gottlieb's opening chapters betray an annoyance with the lack of reliable information on Bernhardt's early years. Just as many actresses still do today, Bernhardt made a conscious effort to obfuscate her age, so from the first sentence, it is clear that Gottlieb is unsure of her actual date of birth. (Is it 1843? 1844? 1841? Who can really be sure?) Being a child of the stage, Bernhardt recounts dramatic and thrilling anecdotes about her adolescence in her own memoirs (extensively quoted in Gottlieb's book), most of which Gottlieb views with a strong dose of skepticism.

Gottlieb shines when he lets go of the quest for empirical data in favor of presenting the legend of Bernhardt. For instance, what was her relationship with the alleged father of her son, the Prince de Ligne? Were they star-crossed lovers? Was it a plot all too similar to her signature play La Dame Aux Camelias? Or was it simply a one-night stand gone horribly wrong? Gottlieb explores all of these scenarios with a theatrical flourish.

He also liberally speculates on who might make up her pantheon of lovers, including Victor Hugo, Napoleon III, and Edward, Prince of Wales. The truth may be lost forever, but what is not lost on Gottlieb or his readers is the fact that all of this scandal and intrigue added to Bernhardt's fame and contributed to her meteoric rise as the world's first international actress-superstar.

Madonna, Jennifer Lopez, and Lady Gaga should all credit a huge portion of their respective business models to Bernhardt. Not only did she receive worldwide notoriety through scandal, proving the old adage that all publicity is good publicity, but she keenly positioned herself at the forefront of the fashion and art worlds. As Gottlieb simply states, "She made fashion." A wisely-included photo gallery of roles proves this point: Bernhardt knew how to wear a costume well.

The book also focuses a particularly strong light on the anti-Semitic criticism and occasionally violent attacks that Bernhardt had to cope with throughout her life. Despite this, she continued to tour some of the most inhospitable places in the world for Jews and push the envelope as an artist. Her 1899 portrayal of Hamlet (portions of which are now viewable on YouTube) stands out as a particularly bold move for the game-changing actress, who never seemed to tire of her craft and worked until the last days of her life.

Next Page: South Pacific: Paradise Rewritten

Jim Lovensheimer's South Pacific: Paradise Rewritten is the first volume of Oxford University Press' Broadway Legacies Series (edited by Geoffrey Block) and the latest in a growing canon of serious scholarly examinations of the American musical theater. Here, Lovensheimer not only expands upon Block's earlier work, Enchanted Evenings, but he places South Pacific in the political and social context of post World War-II America, as well as contrasting the artistic choices of the original Broadway production to later incarnations like the 1958 film and Bartlett Sher's 2008 Lincoln Center revival.

Lovensheimer painstakingly researched South Pacific by digging through the yet-to-be-catalogued Oscar Hammerstein and Richard Rodgers collections in the Library of Congress. By doing so, he provides his readers with a rich history of Hammerstein's politics, which is crucial to understanding the sensibilities that went into writing South Pacific.

As a member of the Hollywood anti-Nazi league, Hammerstein was investigated by the FBI for potential Communist sympathies. While certainly no Communist, his revelation to South Pacific director Joshua Logan that, "I hate the military," and his progressive attitudes about race put him squarely in the category of "liberal elite."

Indeed, Hammerstein's lyrical criticism of the rising management class in post-war America is clear in a song titled "The Bright Young Executive of Today," which was eventually cut from the show. (Lovensheimer has included a full version in his very helpful appendix.) One wonders if its inclusion would have fueled the arguments of those on the political right who criticized South Pacific's message of racial harmony -- most notably evidenced in the then-controversial song, "You've Got to be Carefully Taught."

Lovensheimer's research also shows that South Pacific's anti-racist messages were much more pronounced in earlier drafts. However, Lovensheimer carefully considers the balancing act that comes when writing a musical for the Broadway stage. Rodgers and Hammerstein wanted to challenge their upper middle-class audience, but they still needed them to buy tickets.

Perhaps most heartening, Lovensheimer is a real champion of the "open text" approach to musical theater, by which musicals are forever works-in-progress that should be re-edited depending on the times. He specifically cites Sher's award-winning revival, which restored a lot of the more controversial material that was removed for the 1949 production, as an excellent example of how a revival should be done and how to keep a show from an earlier era relevant to today's audiences.


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