In Ryan Murphy’s Hollywood, a seven-episode Netflix series, LuPone portrays Avis Amberg, the wife of a studio head whose work is relegated to the kitchen. But not for long, thanks to Murphy’s 1940s corrective where power dynamics shift in favor of the underdogs and outsiders in this alternate reality, a fantasy depiction of Tinseltown’s Golden Age reimagined as diverse, inclusive, and unabashedly queer.
That LuPone, 71, portrays a grand Hollywood dame and housewife-turned-studio head—in, of course, only the most glam fur-fringed couture—should be no surprise given how she’s been commanding the stage through a variety of extravagant personas for a half-century. In 1979, as Eva Perón, she won her first Tony for Evita; her second win came in 2008, for her portrayal of Rose in Gypsy.
On Broadway is where she was throwing back martinis in Stephen Sondheim's 1970 musical Company, as Joanne, until the pandemic lockdown forced theaters to shut down.
Now quarantined in rural Connecticut with her husband, Matthew Johnston, and son Josh, LuPone has been doling out delicious bits on social media. In one video she posted to Twitter, she channeled Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard, making a dramatic entrance from her basement steps. When we connect via phone, I tell LuPone that she might actually be happy that, for once, this conversation is occurring between phone lines, not on Zoom. “You’re right,” she says, roaring with laughter. “It really is the Brady Bunch.”
Do you have any more basement videos in the works?
My problem right now is focus and structure. If I don’t do something in the morning, I’m in bed till 4:30 in the afternoon. So my kid—we’ve come up with a couple more. We just have to get down to it. We have to get up in the morning and go, “OK, now we’re gonna do the video.” We have two plans. So we’ll see.
The problem, Chris, is it has to be spontaneous. It’s the only way it’s funny. The day after my birthday when I was so hungover I went, half-asleep, (slurring, drowsy) “Let’s…go…make…a…video, I’m...re—a—dy.” (Laughs.)
If it weren’t for COVID, you’d be throwing back martinis on Broadway in Company. So I’m happy to hear you’re still throwing back martinis—or something!
Well, last night we had frozen strawberry daiquiris, but that was really the first time, because I was texting with a friend of mine and she said, “Go have a daiquiri,” and I went, “You know what? That sounds like a good idea.” And we seem to have all the fixings for it! So my kid made daiquiris for my husband, himself, and me. Then I had red wine, which wasn’t too smart. What I’m drinking a lot of right now is red wine. And I’m just trying…you know it’s really easy to let yourself go!
Have you completely let yourself go?
No! No! I’m holding it together. I have to! (Laughs.) Years ago a friend of mine, when he was on unemployment, I said, “What are you doing, Tony?” He said “I’m preparing for my comeback!” So, Chris, I’m prepping my comeback!
You made me teary when you recently sang “Anyone Can Whistle” for Stephen Sondheim’s virtual 90th birthday party. Do you like performing virtually?
What was difficult about it was the technical aspect. My kid was filming it and I had one AirPod in and I’m going, “I can’t really hear,” and then my kid said, “You’re pitchy,” and I was like, “WHAT DO YOU MEAN I’M PITCHY. I’m NEVER pitchy!”
There’s always the fear that, you know, you’re gonna sound like shit. And Stephen’s thanking everybody who partook, and I wrote him back and I said, “The rub is that we all wish we could’ve done better.”
You were singing “The Ladies Who Lunch” in Company, which Meryl Streep, Christine Baranski, and Audra McDonald performed during that same birthday celebration. What did you think of their version?
(Explodes into a thunderous, dragged out cackle.) When it was over, I went, “I’ll never be able to sing “Ladies Who Lunch” again!”
Yeah? Because they set the bar?
No. I don’t think they set the bar—I think they trashed the number!
They set the bar for trashing the number?
Yeah, exactly! That’s what I think! I mean, I say that with great humor, but I’m not going to be able to sing it without thinking of them doing it. (Laughs.) This is all joke, by the way! This is all humor!
Let’s talk about Hollywood. Does it feel good to be part of a project that’s beaming with hopefulness in a time when hope seems harder and harder to find?
Yes, yes, yes. And I hope that is translated across the board. It’s hard. It’s really, really hard. I mean, I’m having a hard time. We all are. I’m not unique. And my problem is, I don’t know who to believe anymore. I’m so confused by what everybody’s saying. It’s just…I just…ahh. And you can’t stick your head in the sand because any minute now we’ll be “heil Hitler”-ing (President Trump). So I’m just really confused. I’m confused, I’m lost.
Is Hollywood the gayest thing you’ve ever been a part of?
Is it? Let me think.
Consider that pool party scene—all those naked men, penises hanging out.
If someone decides to reimagine your life in 70 years, what parts of it would you ask that they keep factually intact and which parts would you allow them to reimagine?
All of it! I think they should keep it all factually intact! It’s been a rebellious life. And it’s been interesting. I hope it’s not over—the rebellion part, and the interesting part. No—they don’t have to reimagine anything. It’s been a lot of fun.##
Chris Azzopardi is the editor of Q Syndicate, the LGBTQ wireservice. He has interviewed a multitude of superstars, including Cher, Meryl Strrep, Mariah Carey, and Beyoncé. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Vanity Fair, GQ, and Billboard. Reach him via Twitter @chrisazzopardi