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Theater actor Patti LuPone remembers Stephen Sondheim

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, HOST:

Broadway lost a giant this past Friday. Stephen Sondheim died at age 91, leaving behind an extraordinary body of work and a lasting legacy in American musical theater. The legendary Broadway actor and singer Patti LuPone starred in six Sondheim productions, including the current revival of "Company." She's a two-time Tony Award and Grammy Award winner. More important to this, she shared a friendship with Sondheim spanning decades. And she's with me now to talk about him.

Patti LuPone, welcome.

PATTI LUPONE: Thank you very much.

FOLKENFLIK: First, let me say I'm so sorry for the loss of your dear friend. How have you been remembering Stephen Sondheim over the past few days?

LUPONE: Oh, it's complicated.

FOLKENFLIK: Yeah.

LUPONE: You know, musical comedy as we know it is gone. Sort of the genesis of it, the formula of it is gone with Stephen. And it's just hard to process what happens now...

FOLKENFLIK: Where it goes from here.

LUPONE: ...With musicals. Yeah, yeah. And then it's - it'll be - it just won't be the same when not getting a note from Steve...

FOLKENFLIK: Yeah.

LUPONE: ...You know? It just won't be the same, if I do another Sondheim musical, not being - not getting, you know, a very specific, sometimes harsh, but always one that improves the performer note from Steve.

FOLKENFLIK: Well, so it sounds like it meant a lot to you. What drew you to his work and to those roles he created?

LUPONE: He is - he was very emotional, had a - you know, a very deep well of emotion. He was searingly intelligent. And a lot of people have written to me today. He wrote the soundtrack of our lives. He didn't sugarcoat or dismiss human frailty. He wrote about it. His music and his lyrics are incredibly complex. And to achieve a melody line and to achieve articulation and enunciation in his lyrics, it elevates you. It makes you feel as though you can call yourself - truly call yourself an actor or a singer.

He's hard to accomplish. He's hard to - it's a challenge. I remember when I was doing "Sweeney Todd" with the New York Phil. And there's a duet between Sweeney and Nellie in "More Hot Pies" or "God, That's Good." I can't remember. I got - keep calling it "More Hot Pies." But I think it's "God, That's Good" - where he's talking about his chair. And there's three runs that Nellie - we await that (vocalizing).

And each one of them, three runs, are different. And I said to Steve, I'm trying. I'm really trying to make the distinction between the notes in the three different runs. And he said, well, I sang that when I wrote it, and I don't sing.

FOLKENFLIK: (Laughter).

LUPONE: I didn't know what he meant by that. I didn't know he'd meant, you mean I don't have to do it right? (Laughter) I didn't know what he meant.

FOLKENFLIK: Maybe he meant, hey...

LUPONE: He was...

FOLKENFLIK: ...If a guy like I can do it, surely you can pull it off.

LUPONE: Well, (laughter) - but he was basically saying that he wrote the notes. He didn't necessarily sing them when he wrote them. So - but I'm not sure what he meant by that. And I just endeavored to do it correctly. The notes were very close together and different. All three runs were different.

FOLKENFLIK: You used the word hard a moment ago, that this stuff was hard. You know, and I - look; I'm a guy who likes Broadway musicals, from "Hammerstein" to "Hamilton." Sondheim, at first to me, seemed kind of difficult and dissonant. But over time, I feel like - maybe it was when I saw "A Little Night Music." But I really came to appreciate the beauty and ache of his work. What was he going for?

LUPONE: Yes. You just said it, the ache of his work. Yeah.

FOLKENFLIK: What was he going for there? Why was he different?

LUPONE: He was - oh, how do I say this? There's a lot - there was a lot swirling around in his body. And as with all of us, there's complication. There's complexity. There's confusion. There's clarity. And so how do you write that? You write it, and you hope that it's relatable. And it is if you listen and you - you know, you allow yourself to hear the emotional line of his music.

FOLKENFLIK: Patti LuPone, do you have a last memory or moment that captures Stephen Sondheim in your mind that you'd like to leave our listeners with?

LUPONE: Well, I would have to say it was the last time I saw him on the first preview where - oh, God, it's difficult.

FOLKENFLIK: Yeah.

LUPONE: He was quite frail. I suggested to Marianne and Chris (ph), our producer, that we should have a pre-show communication with the audience because of the complexity of the opening number, because of the emotional impact of this event after a pandemic closing 10 days before opening two years ago. I mean, it was loaded with emotion. And Marianne asked me if I would just say something to Steve. And that was my last sort of face-to-face with him. I didn't go to the drinks party afterwards because I - frankly, I was exhausted, and I didn't want to. And I'm sorry that I didn't. But I wrote to him, and our emails crossed actually a couple of days later. I couldn't believe that our emails literally crossed. I wrote to him to say, sorry, Steve, that I didn't go to the drinks after show. I just was exhausted, and I wanted to go home. And not a second later, I got his email going, sorry, I didn't see you at the drinks thing. And I thought, oh, my God. You know, in some way, we were connected.

FOLKENFLIK: Yeah. We've been hearing the voice of Broadway legend Patti LuPone, helping us to remember another titan of Broadway, Stephen Sondheim. Aren't they a pair? Patti LuPone, thanks so much for sharing your memories of your good friend.

LUPONE: Thank you so much for having me on, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.