PAtti LuPone and Jonathan Bailey starred in a rerun of Stephen Sondheim’s musical Company in London in 2018. The couple, who had Netflix hits with Hollywood and Bridgerton respectively, caught up to talk about rehearsal room nerves, the best night of the week to see a musical and the Covid crisis for the arts.
Patti LuPone: Johnny, you are the biggest star in the world!
Jonathan Bailey: No bigger than Patti LuPone!
PLP: Much bigger and sexier. Next season of Bridgerton is all about you, right?
JB: Supossely Yes. More about me and my ass.
Chris Wiegand: When did you first meet?
PLP: On the first day of rehearsals for Company. I was very shy. Everyone else knew each other. They told us to choose partners to dance and no one chose me!
JB: That first day we were doing icebreaker games and confidence exercises, which require you to be as exposed as possible. You don’t want to be the person to drop Patti in a trust exercise! You wouldn’t think for a second that Patti LuPone would be flustered on the first day, but you came back on stage having said you wouldn’t do any more musical theater. It took the director, Marianne Elliott, to get you back into the rehearsal room. You came to London.
PLP: The standard set by British actors is very high, so getting into rehearsals with them is somewhat intimidating. It was the same when I did Les Mis in 1985. In London, acting is a time-honored job unlike what it is in the United States, where it’s like, “I want to be a star and make a billion dollars.”
JB: My perspective was: yes, I have worked in London before, but, my gosh, I have never done a musical in the West End and I see myself as someone who is predominantly known on television, so can I prove myself? Anxiety is a leveler: Anxiety never changes. The structure of the theater is always: show up, get the job done, be there and be nice and work hard. It’s about being as honest, technically accurate, and as healthy as possible to do the program.
PLP: For actors, so many people go through our lives in such an intense way. You have an intense emotional experience with them and then they leave.
JB: It is like a love story. You can’t explain it, only another actor will understand. You kept me company. It had the pattern song, Getting Married Today, and you had performed it before. When we were rehearsing, you whispered to me that it was all about the rhythm and letting the rhythm do all the work, so you could navigate. That completely unlocked him.
PLP: That is giving it back. People have rescued me in desperate moments on stage. You need that kind of support. This is not a competition, it is a community. We are all here for the same reason, which is to do the best we can on stage, individually and collectively, for an audience.
JB: Theaters are like holy places – you hear the stories of past performances and people who have struggled to find that sweet spot on stage and have succeeded, and failed, in the very space before you.
PLP: There’s a story about Laurence Olivier after the curtain call: he’s cursing, yelling, banging on his dressing room door. Everybody is surprised. They send to the dressing table and he says, “Sir, what’s up? You were brilliant tonight. “Olivier responds,” I know, and I don’t know why. “He’s elusive.
JB: It is an alchemy that you cannot identify. I was in a production with a very famous actor a few years ago, and he said to me sadly one night, “Oh, I’m on tapes.” I asked, “What’s going on?” He said, “Well, I gave my best performance last night.” I said, “Yeah, you were great!” He said, “No, no, no. It was one in the morning and I was having a joint! The answer to that for the modern actor would be, maybe just have a little joint in between …
PLP: I did that once when I was in school, which was like a million years ago. It was an opera and I was in the choir. I smoked marijuana and all I did was look at the audience and thought, “Everyone knows I’m high!”
JB: Narcotics aside, if you stagger during the day when you’re performing, you feel like by the time you take the stage, at least half the audience can smell it on you.
PLP: If I’ve done the work in the rehearsal room, I don’t have to worry about going on stage. One time, I was doing The Cradle Will Rock, and I was having a really bad time with this guy. [a boyfriend]. I went through the rehearsal period for the show and all of a sudden there were previews, and I was like, Damn! I did nothing! She hadn’t really rehearsed because she was thinking about him. So I thought of three adjectives and that was my performance. Then when I was doing Les Mis in London, I was still having a hard time with this guy, and he broke up with me, and I let out a groan that woke up Michael Ball, who lived in the same house. And I took the square bottle to Hampstead Heath in my pajamas. I don’t know how I did the show that night, but that particular experience informed I Dreamed a Dream for the rest of the run.
JB: You can put on the straitjacket in a way of saying a line You will try anything, you will do a cartwheel before going on stage and it will turn out the same way. Your best performances are in the shower the morning after the show!
PLP: Is it because the pressure has been removed? Any role is revealed in some strange way after the fact. David Mamet taught me very early: wipe your feet at the door. Leave all your personal things outside, leave the paper on the stage. So I’m not obsessed with it, but you don’t leave your characters behind, they are part of you.
JB: A couple of months at the Company my dream began to dominate. I felt like I was in the middle of that song at 2am. Sometimes your character won’t let you wipe your feet at the door.
PLP: You have to have a little coldness in your heart. You have to be completely emotionally open, but don’t let it take over your life. The roles I would love to return to are Nellie in Sweeney Todd and Rose in Gypsy. It was incredibly difficult, physically, to do Gypsy. Boyd Gaines was leaving the stage panting. Does not stop. In musicals, you are stronger at the end of a race than at the beginning. The loudest voice is Saturday night; the weakest is Monday night because you had a day off. What I love about a long run is the muscle you build, the physical technique, the mental strength. We have all been off stage for almost a year. I wonder if I have the ability to accelerate that energy again.
JB: At Company, we were all behind you in your scene. We listened every night and there was a fresh new crunch every night.
PLP: Before the show, I like to watch the audience. I want to know who I’m playing with. I want to find the guy who is least interested in being there, and that’s the guy I need to get to that night. Our culture needs to remain expressive, it is the soul of a nation. In America, the entertainment industry was left out of the two original stimulus bills and my community is decimated. I’m not just talking about the actors. I’m talking about curtains, staplers, costume houses, stage shops, ushers, porters, box office people, deli, restaurants, all the people who support and make a living from our theaters. All decimated. Why are we considered third-class citizens in my country? My whole career has been like this. Especially for a stage actor.
JB: Our government had their “Fatima” campaign – suggesting that a dancer retrain to enter the world of cyber! That was our government’s suggestion: that anyone who considers himself a performing artist should retrain. That was very simple and clear about our value. But this is the moment when we are all talking about communication, identity, having a quiet moment to discover who we are. Well, go to the theater to find out who you are. See how he responds to that strange and fickle thing that happens in the theater – it reminds you how it feels to be alive.
CW: What are the shows you watched that made you both feel alive?
PLP: The productions that I remember to this day are Marat / Sade by Peter Brook, with Glenda Jackson, and her A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Those productions transported me. When I got back on the street, things felt different. When I was a kid, it was less the theater that did that, but the Bette Davis and Busby Berkeley movies.
JB: My grandmother had a costume box, that was my idea of transforming myself and having a safe space. I remember seeing Oliver! when I was six years old and had vertigo in the theater, I feel it even when I go to the theaters now. There had been no sense of professional art in our family, but I told my parents: I’m going to do that! After a year, by chance, they detected me. I ended up playing Tiny Tim with the Royal Shakespeare Company in A Christmas Carol at the Barbican in 1995. I remember the smell of dry ice, makeup, sweat, the detergent they used to clean the costumes. All these actors were around the pool table and you would hear the actors being called to the Pit and the main stage, and I was just thinking: these are the most extraordinary people I will ever meet. I still see actors perform and I don’t understand where their acting comes from. That wonder has never left me.
PLP: Me neither. You know why? We are still fans.
CW: Patti, you were in the teasers with Company on Broadway when theaters were closed for the pandemic in March 2020.
PLP: We were days away from opening when there were rumors that Broadway was closing. We thought we would be back in two and a half weeks. We were allowed to go back to the theater, and I went to clean up my personal things and put my costumes in clothes bags. There was only the phantom light on the stage. I realized on the way home to Connecticut that I was saying goodbye to my life at the theater and I burst into tears. They have spent nearly 50 years in the theater. It was terrifying and heartbreaking. There was a silver lining because in my career I hadn’t spent so much time with my family. I went home and saw spring and summer, and it was beautiful to be home and to live life.
JB: For an actor who works in theater, there is 10% of you who never turn off because that phone is going to ring at some point and you don’t know what it will mean. You are an actor because you are defined by the idea that you could wake up tomorrow and the phone could ring. It’s a battle cry for us in the theater now, we have our war paint on.
PLP: Art is not celebrated in my country. It’s a tragedy. But I was really happy to see the performances at the Biden opening, where they saw the diversity of the people who live in this country.
JB: How hungry were we all for Amanda Gorman’s poem? The sense of physicality he had. That was theater, right? The words traveled through her body. It was a beautiful acting moment. That was exactly a moment to show everything we’ve been talking about. The world stopped and looked.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism