Gary Janetti on Patti LuPone
The Star at the Edge of Dreams
I grow up in Queens in the ’70s. During this period there are tons of commercials for Broadway shows. I become obsessed, studying each one with the concentrated focus of a brain surgeon. But the commercial I was most fixated on was for Evita starring Patti LuPone. Every time it came on it was like a jolt of cocaine coursed through my 12-year-old body. “What’s new, Buenos Aires?” she sang. What was new, Buenos Aires? I was desperate to find out. And then of course “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina,” her arms open wide. Mandy Patinkin is in it, too, but he’s clearly no match for Patti. When I die I hope this commercial is the last thing that flashes through my mind. I’d never heard of Patti before Evita, but it was like she had always existed.
I buy the original cast recording and listen to it for hours. I learn every word. I am Eva, I am Che, I am Juan Perón, I am even the mistress who gets thrown out into the street (whose one song, “Another Suitcase in Another Hall,” Madonna steals for herself in the movie, telling you pretty much everything you need to know about Madonna).
Several times a year, once we’ve saved enough money, my parents let my sister Maria and me go into the city to see a Broadway matinee. We take the express bus into Manhattan for a 2:00 p.m. Wednesday performance of Evita. I don’t have a child but I can’t imagine the excitement on the day of its birth could come anything near to what I feel that afternoon. The soundtrack buzzing through me like a drug. I haven’t eaten in days, my stomach too unsettled with anticipation. “I’m coming, Patti.” I downplay all of this to my sister, of course. We’re both very excited, don’t get me wrong. But she is excited in the way in which a sane person would be, saying things like “I can’t wait.” Meanwhile I’m thinking, “Can’t wait?? That doesn’t even begin to cut it!” I’m undone, every nerve ending vibrating, I haven’t been able to concentrate on another thought since we got the tickets over a month ago—if my heart were beating any faster I’d have a stroke!
“I can’t wait either,” I say.
We go to Bun and Brew for lunch. Dark and filled with theatergoers and business people, it’s all too impossibly sophisticated. Of course this is actually a shithole but I don’t know that because I’m 12. The burger goes down like a fistful of sand, so anxious am I about the show you’d think I was starring in it. “I’m almost there, Patti.”
We arrive at the theater 30 minutes early. Panicked at the thought of having to go to the bathroom during the show I force myself to pee so many times it looks like I’m cruising the men’s room. We are shown by the usher to our seats in the orchestra and handed our programs. Off to the side but not bad. The musicians filing into the pit, the remaining theatergoers being seated, so pumped am I with adrenaline right now that I could lift a car. In the minutes before the show starts I quickly open my Playbill to read Patti’s bio when a small slip of paper falls out onto my lap:
Today’s matinee will be performed by Nancy Opel.
What?! I shove the paper in my sister’s face. “Did you fucking see this?!” Maria says something like, “I’m sure she’s just as good.” “JUST AS GOOD AS PATTI?? THAT’S NOT POSSIBLE!!” I have never felt such rage in my life before and all of it is directed at Nancy Opel. I hate Nancy Opel. The orchestra begins to play. This can’t be happening. I sit with my arms crossed. Every fiber of my being devoted to letting Nancy Opel know just how much I loathe and despise her.
(Today you would go online and you would know exactly which performances someone was or wasn’t in or they would announce it on Twitter or Instagram and something as horrific as this would have been avoided. I couldn’t afford to see Evita again nor would the thought ever have even occurred to me—this was it. Evita starring Nancy Opel not Patti LuPone. What cruel joke of the universe was this?)
From the second the show began it was apparent this was not going to sound like the original cast album that was playing in my head. Let me make one thing clear right now, Nancy Opel is not Patti LuPone. (Years later I see Nancy Opel in another show where she is brilliant but I can’t help myself from thinking “you’re still not Patti.”) She didn’t look like her, she didn’t sound like her, and I was having none of it. Sitting there with my arms crossed, completely unimpressed. “What’s new, Buenos Aires?” she sang. I didn’t give a fuck. At the end of each number I would listlessly clap. Yawning every time she opened her mouth to sing just to let her know that I was on to her. At intermission I became the jaded theatergoer. Yes, I was enjoying the show. The sets, the costumes, all marvelous. Yes, Mandy Patinkin is splendid. But don’t you think the girl playing Evita is a little too, well, not Patti? At the start of act two when it was time for her to sing “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” it was all I could do to keep from jumping onto my seat screaming “IMPOSTER!”
“She was good,” my sister says later when we’re walking back to the bus stop. “Uh-huh,” I say, barely able to muster the enthusiasm to speak “she was fine.”
Now when the commercial for Evita would come on it was like a kick in the stomach. “Why wasn’t Nancy Opel in the commercial if she was so fucking good, huh, Maria?!”
Evita runs for several more years and the commercial with Patti continues to play even after she is long gone from the show. But I feel nothing now.
It’s not that I believe that Patti and I are fighting, that would be insane. But something is broken between us.
When I am 19 I attend a summer acting program at Oxford University. It’s not actually affiliated with Oxford, the courses are just being held there, but it sounds suitably exclusive at the time. Brideshead Revisited but with a Queens accent. This is literally months before I come out (my hand already slowly turning the closet doorknob), and considering the entire male population of England also seems to exist in that limbo state somewhere between straight and gay it’s the perfect place to pass my final weeks of nonspecific sexuality.I wait excitedly for the day when Patti will come. I can’t help but feel there is some unfinished business between us.
The teachers are mostly members of The Acting Company, a theater group founded by long-dead actor John Houseman. In order to avoid any awkward questions, I have outfitted myself with an imaginary girlfriend who lives in Bermuda (I don’t know why). So sad to think I wasted my 19-year-old beauty that summer on a nonexistent girl who I didn’t even bother to give a name instead of meeting some pale, doe-eyed, flopsy-haired Brit. I drop the ruse halfway through the program (so little caring is left in me at this point) saying something like “oh, yeah, no, I ended things with . . . her.”
I sound quite callous, which I like. At this point I think if a man even brushed up against me I would’ve exploded out of the closet, so ready was I to move into a phase of my life that didn’t involve bottling up every emotion until it led to crippling headaches. But that didn’t happen. What did happen was that one of our teachers had a friend in London who was rehearsing a new musical and she would be coming by one day to teach us a class. And this person just happened to be Patti fucking LuPone. How is anybody even friends with Patti LuPone, I wondered. But this teacher was. And I told him how much I wanted to meet her and what she meant to me (just basics, not enough to scare him), and he said that he’d tell her and that he was sure she would be happy to meet me. This was all too much to process. “So . . . here we are again, Patti.”
(One of my classmates at “not really Oxford” is David Schwimmer, who would go on to star in Friends. We are very friendly that summer and hang out with the same general group of people, which is pretty hard not to do considering there were only about 20 or so of us in the program. I remember David taking his “craft” very seriously at 18, so I wasn’t surprised when later he became famous. I mention this because ten years after we graduate from this program and I have just started writing for TV in Los Angeles I go to a Friends taping and after the show I’m brought down to the set by a coworker where I see David. Now at this time I’m new to Hollywood and dealing with celebrity, so I mistakenly treat David as I would any other person I had been friends with ten years previously. I say hello. He looks at me confused. Could I possibly be talking to him? “It’s me . . . Gary . . . from Oxford.” Still he looks around. I start to feel dread. “We took an acting program together for two months, remember?” And then I begin to list all the things that happened that summer that might jog his memory. Still nothing. Now I’m completely unhinged. Did I even go to Oxford? Was I ever even 19?? “I’m sorry, that was such a long time ago,” he says. Then he holds his hand out and introduces himself to me, “I’m David.” Yeah, I know who the fuck you are. I didn’t realize at the time that I was in the rearview mirror of his fame and he was not looking back. Or maybe his past didn’t exist anymore, whereas mine only became crisper, clearer, moments playing back like scenes from a favorite TV show. He is part of my memory even still. Even now. And when members of the Royal Shakespeare Company come to teach a master class at the end of the program and several of us are chosen to perform scenes, I can still see David and his scene partner performing just before I am chosen to perform next with my scene partner. And I can still remember the feeling I had when I did well. I can still feel the smile on my face. I remember being nervous to follow him because he was so good. I remember us all eating in the dining hall and going to the National Theatre to see Ian McKellen in Coriolanus and I remember us drinking beer at the picnic tables along the Thames before the show and I remember him coming with me to buy a suit in London because I was going to be returning to New York on the QE2 because my dad worked for Cunard Line and I found out I could go for free (but I couldn’t afford a suit and my roommate, another
I wait excitedly for the day when Patti will come. I can’t help but feel there is some unfinished business between us but I decide I won’t mention this. Or maybe I will. Maybe Patti and I will get along like a house on fire and she will instantly see my full potential. “Who is this kid? He’s got something really special!” And she will invite me to coffee or dinner and when I reluctantly (not really) tell her about not seeing her in Evita and how devastated I was she will be charmed and we will laugh. And it will have all been worth it because it would have brought us to this moment. Life is funny like that, I’ve heard people say. And I wanted to say it, too.
But she doesn’t ever come. Patti. She is rehearsing for a role in a new musical we’re told. (This musical is Les Misérables. I know.) She is sorry to have to cancel. Or so says my acting teacher. This young man. Who doesn’t seem young to me then but really must have been only a few years older than the rest of us. And he tells me he mentioned to her that there was a student very much looking forward to meeting her (as he told me he would) and she tells him to tell me how sad she is to have to miss me. And it’s fucking Nancy Opel all over again.
And the program ends and I sail back alone on the QE2 to New York (which I don’t think is weird at the time but it is, very). And I wear the suit my roommate David (not David Schwimmer) lends me to dinner for formal nights on the ship. (And I bump into him again many years later, this roommate, long after I have mailed the suit back, when he, too, has become a successful actor and he remembers me and I him.) And I go back to college and I come out and I meet a boy and I graduate and years later I go to Greece and meet another boy, who will become my husband, and on the night we meet we talk until morning. And he tells me about seeing Patti LuPone sing “I Dreamed a Dream” from Les Miz on TV in Canada. And I think, I could fall in love with this person. And I do. And and and and and so many ands later and here I am.
Oh, but to see that commercial. Evita’s arms outstretched, proud, defiant. It was like a door had opened and Patti was welcoming me. “Come in,” she said. “Come in.”
Excerpted from Do You Mind If I Cancel? by Gary Janetti by permission of Flatiron Books, a division of Macmillan Publishers. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.