From Far Away Places to American Horror Story: A Candid Conversation with Patti LuPone

The two-time Tony Award winner takes on Kurt Weill, Mayor Bloomberg, Lena Dunham, a coven of witches, and Carnegie Hall.

Patti LuPone has a lot on her mind these days. Not only is the two-time Tony Award-winning star of Gypsy and Evita adding a second act to her acclaimed concert Far Away Places, but she's in the process of filming six episodes of American Horror Story: Coven. And she spent her summer on the road, taking her concert acts to clubs around the country.

But it's Far Away Places that's taking up her attention right now. After debuting the one-act version of this travel-inspired concert at 54 Below in 2012, LuPone is putting the finishing touches on Act 2, which will see its New York premiere at Carnegie Hall on November 7.

In the midst of LuPone's busy schedule, which now finds her regularly traveling to New Orleans for American Horror Story and recently shooting two episodes of HBO's Girls, the star made some time to chat with TheaterMania. As one expects, the delightful conversation was filled with her unique brand of candor.

Patti LuPone
Patti LuPone
(© Tristan Fuge)

Tell me about the genesis of Far Away Places.
It was time for a new show. To continue to get booked on the performing-arts circuit, one has to come up with new shows. [Director] Scott Wittman and [musical director] Joe Thalken and I got together. I expressed to Scotty my desire to sing [Kurt] Weill, because it's something that has eluded me in my career until I got the opportunity to play Leocadia Begbick in Mahagonny. During the early part of my career, I saw Happy End go by, I saw Threepenny Opera go by, and I wondered why I wasn't in any Weill, because I thought I was perfectly suited for it.

Your voice is perfect for Weill's music.
And also my persona is perfect for Brecht and Weill, but it never happened until Mahagonny. Scotty knew all of the Weill songs and did not want us to be an entire Weill evening. He thought it would be too down. I chose the songs I wanted to sing, and he surrounded them with the stuff that would lighten the atmosphere so it wasn't an all-Weill night. We just worked on the second act at the beginning of last week. As far as I know, there are only two Weill songs in the second act.

And the rest?
The rest are Tom Waits, Kris Kristofferson, David Yazbek, Billy Joel, Leonard Cohen…Scotty was throwing them at me. He would send me the songs and Joey [Thalken] would find the music and make MP3s. It's very unusual music [for me]. But, it's been thirty-plus years after Evita, and it's time for the audience to accept me not singing Evita, Anything Goes, et cetera, but let me continue to tell stories through great composers.

What kind of music do you listen to?
Everything, actually. The first thing I turn on is classical music. My favorite composers are the ones that tell the story. I love Wagner. I love Mahler. Prokofiev. The programmatic music. I listen more to classic rock because I don't like the contemporary music very much. My favorite band was The Band, and nobody compares in my mind with The Band. I don't listen to the contemporary pop artists. They all sound alike, anyway.

Most of them don't have staying power, either.
It's derivative, it's all the same, it's stupid, I don't like it. I started listening seriously to jazz. I also love the Big Band era, the thirties and forties. I will turn on WFUV on Sunday nights to hear the big bands. I do not jump to Sirius and Broadway showtunes. When it's on, I love it but that's not the first thing I go to.

One of my favorite parts of the first act of Far Away Places is your version of "Bilbao Song" from Happy End. Do you have a bar like Bill's Beer Hall, a place that went from dive to "very bourgeois"?
Do I have one? They're all gone…Actually, there's one that still exists in my hometown in Northport called Gunther's. I never hung out at Gunther's. When I was growing up, you didn't go into that bar. They were badasses in that bar. Badasses in that bar. [Laughs] You would tiptoe past Gunther's 'cause you didn't know if someone was gonna come flying out the door. It was intriguing.

McHale’s used to be the stagehands' bar, and everybody would go to McHale’s, and it's gone. I can't stand Bloomberg. And you can print that. I really can't stand King Mike, and I cannot wait until he's no longer mayor. He doesn't live in the common world. He's made it very difficult for us serfs.

You've been vocal about your dislike of Bloomberg's Times Square and its pedestrian mall.
Oh my god, don't even start. I can't get to work. [New York] is a commerce city. It's not a Parisian city. It's not Paris, it's not Copenhagen. It's a city of commerce.

Are you still shooting American Horror Story: Coven, or have you already finished up?
I've just begun. I've only shot three scenes and I've got six episodes.

Did you watch the show? Were you a fan?
Every episode, every season. It's sick, gruesome, and gory. [Creator] Ryan [Murphy] is doing a great job, and he's got a great team of writers [and] has assembled an incredible cast.

Who do you play?
I play Joan Ramsey, who moves next door to the Academy. The Academy is a school for the training and development of the contemporary, modern-day witches. Nobody knows that they are witches. In my very first scene, something happens and I suspect. But I am a holy roller. I am the religious right.

Sounds just like you.
[Laughs] I keep wondering if I'm gonna be the last one standing with a burning cross or if I'm gonna come to a grisly end. I think I'm probably gonna come to a grisly end.

Judging by the first two seasons, it seems like Coven is an incredibly intense show to shoot. How do you and your fellow cast members unwind?
I haven't been there long enough. I've had a breakfast and a lunch with the cast. Denis O'Hare is a conduit for the rest of us. He'll text those of us [who] are in town. We all met for brunch on a Sunday and walked around the French Quarter. Lily [Rabe] and I convened for dinner and Sarah [Paulson], Jessie [Lange], and Denis joined. I think it's an eating club.

You're doing a few episodes of Girls, too?
I shot two episodes of Girls, which was thrilling. It was a riot. I play a fictional version of me, with Lena [Dunham] and Andrew Rannells. My husband is played by Reed Birney. I'm really thrilled to be on that show.

Are there any roles you've played in the past that you'd like to reexamine, if given the chance?
Probably all of them. I could probably play them better now, with a little bit of time. I'd love to do one night with Mandy [Patinkin] in Evita. It's been denied us twice by the famous asshole. They wanted to do it at the Hollywood Bowl; Seth [Rudetsky] wanted to do it for the Actors Fund. It's been denied us. One night of Evita. That would be fun.