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Stage secrets

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[Times photos: Fraser Hale]
The Broadway Theatre Project students perform Free to Be You and Me, with Ashley Arcement uplifted. Patti LuPone, one of Broadway’s top actors, watched the performance and spoke about the ups and downs of achieving success in the performing arts.

By JOHN FLEMING

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 28, 2000


Aspiring performers get straight talk from stars along with top-notch instruction at Tampa's Broadway Theatre Project.

TAMPA -- Patti LuPone's performance in Evita was one of the defining moments in musical theater. She won the 1980 Tony Award for best actress and played Argentina's Eva Peron for almost two years.

Twenty years later, LuPone looks back on the experience with something like loathing.

"I never went onstage with confidence," she said. "I just prayed I could get through it on sheer will power and guts. I don't think I ever sang that show without fear."

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Students J.R. Patton, left, and Larissa Auble seize the opportunity to get Patti LuPone’s autograph after her session. “Show business is a tough environment. It’s a constant affront to your person,” LuPone told the students.
Though LuPone has voiced her unhappiness with the role that made her a diva before, her revelation last week was still remarkable for its candor. It came during a question and answer session with students in Ann Reinking's Broadway Theatre Project at the University of South Florida.

"This may seem odd considering who I'm talking to, but musical theater is my least favorite thing to do," she told the students, most of whom would do anything to have a career of any kind in musical theater, much less the stardom of LuPone.

"Because of the stress, because of the lack of dedication, I find it difficult to perform in musical theater in New York," she said. "There were dancers in Evita who would do only half a show, and the stage manager actually allowed that."

Later, in an interview, LuPone explained that she objected to Actors Equity rules that made it hard to replace cast members in long-running Broadway shows. "Equity has allowed chorus members to own their roles, and they're punching a time clock," she said. "You can't be creative, I don't think, beyond a year. At some point, you start phoning it in."

In Evita, LuPone never had the option of taking it easy. The wide vocal range of Buenos Aires, Rainbow High, Don't Cry for Me, Argentina and other numbers punished her voice. She was onstage for much of the show and had 14 costume changes.

"It was one of the most difficult parts to come down the pike," she said. "It was the worst theatrical experience of my life, save one -- both Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals, I might add."

The reference was to her misadventure in Sunset Boulevard. She originated the role of Norma Desmond in the London production but -- in a breach of her contract with Lloyd Webber -- was replaced by Glenn Close when the show went to Broadway. "We don't talk about that," said LuPone, who reportedly received a $1-million settlement from Lloyd Webber in 1994.

Since then, she has worked more in straight plays, such as David Mamet's The Old Neighborhood and Terence McNally's Master Class, in which she played Maria Callas. In May, she sang the role of Mrs. Lovett in a concert version of Stephen Sondheim's musical Sweeney Todd with the New York Philharmonic.

At times, LuPone was almost brutally frank in her presentation to the students, but she had a point to make. "I'm simply telling these kids that it's not as easy as standing on a stage and singing," she said. "Show business is a tough environment. It's a constant affront to your person."

Yet there was also a tender side to LuPone. When a group of students performed a choral number from The Civil War, she teared up, dabbing at her eyes with a hankie. "That was very, very moving," she told them after it was over. "The thing, beside your talent, is your purity. Always remember who you are now, because you are unique people."

The students responded to LuPone's honesty about the ups and downs of a life in the theater.

"The thing I learned is that if you're in the spotlight, or if you've succeeded, everyone looks at you as a star, but you're still a normal human being," said Tyler Hanes, 17, from Atlanta. "Everyone screws up, everyone has a story, and they were in our shoes once. That's what inspired me."

A place for actors to grow

The Broadway Theatre Project is 10 years old, and artistic director Ann Reinking is pleased at how it has developed. Though she is best known as a dancer and choreographer, she stresses that the project is not just a dance program. Singing and acting get equal weight.

"In the beginning, because of my background, it was easy for me to find people in the dance world to come and teach and to get stars who were from my neck of the woods, artistically," Reinking said. "And in the beginning, people who were attracted to the program were people who wanted to dance a lot. But then the music department became healthy because singing and dancing go hand in hand. It was getting the acting department up to the same par that took a little bit of time.

"It really is now, and has been for several years, a genuine musical theater program where you study all three disciplines."

The number of students, or "apprentices," in the project has gone from 51 in 1991 to this summer's 130. They range in age from 14 to 24 and come from all over the country and from other countries, though the majority are from the Southeast United States. The $2,350 tuition includes room and board in a dorm, and 25 percent of the students are on scholarship. They're taught by Broadway luminaries such as Ben Vereen, James Naughton and Gwen Verdon, as well as USF faculty members and other theater teachers from the bay area and New York.

It can be an intense bonding experience for the students.

"It's so wonderful to come together with a group of people who feel the same way," said Sarah Wolter, 18, from Phoenix. "When you're artistic or weird or whatever, you always feel like the odd man out, especially in public schools where there's no funding for that sort of thing in the first place and barely any interest. And then you come here, and everywhere you turn people are on your level and have the same passion for theater. The three weeks that I get here are enough to get me through another year of my life."

Reinking, who modeled her project on Jacob's Pillow and the Williamstown Theatre Festival, a pair of summertime arts festivals in western Massachusetts, has received offers to move it elsewhere. She remains committed to Tampa, where she once had a home and was married to Jim Stuart, former executive director of the Florida Aquarium. Her longtime associate Debra McWaters, former chair of the USF dance department, lives in Tampa.

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Dance legend Gwen Verdon, left, instructs students Ashley Arcement, top, and Jacob Pinion during a dance workshop for the Broadway Theatre Project.
"I don't want to go anywhere," Reinking said. "People have been good to me here. The facilities are great. Life and work depend a great deal on loyalty, someone's handshake you can count on, someone's word you can count on. That bond's never been broken here, so I have no right to break that bond."

At the end of each summer's three-week program, Reinking directs the students in a show at Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center. The performances are impressive. They include new dances by Reinking, a Tony Award winner for her choreography in the revival of Chicago. Last year the revue played to capacity crowds in two shows. There are matinee and evening performances on Saturday.

Sometimes, students go from Tampa into a Broadway show. "Two kids were hired directly out of the program to go into Footloose," said Reinking, who has cast seven alumni in companies of Chicago and Fosse, the Tony-winning musical she co-directed and co-choreographed. She had her eye on several students this year for a tour of Chicago that will be seen in Sarasota and Clearwater.

So, in a way, the project has become a vehicle for scouting talent.

"It gets back to faith and trust," Reinking said. "You can't do musical theater if you don't trust one another. It's too collaborative. With the apprentices, they know me, I know them. I know how they work. I've trained them in the work ethic I like. When it's appropriate, and if I can hire somebody, I know what I'm getting. And my producers have been very happy, too."

A spiritual spin

On the same day LuPone talked about the harsh reality of professional theater, Phylicia Rashad took an almost spiritual approach in her presentation to the students. But first she answered the inevitable question.

"What was it like working with Bill Cosby?" a student asked.

"He's a master," said the woman who played Clair Huxtable on NBC's Emmy-winning The Cosby Show, the No. 1 show on TV for five straight years.

"He has mastered himself in the performing art. He has mastered the understanding of rhythm. You know, rhythm is everything. It was a wonderful experience. But had I not had years of theatrical experience and training, I don't think I would have been up to it."

Rashad, who portrayed Cosby's TV wife again on the sitcom Cosby, said she received "the best piece of advice" about acting from him.

"He told me, "I want you to look at me, listen to me,' instead of just coming in on cue," she said.

"The reason actors are told in theater to come in on cue is so the audience doesn't get ahead of you, so the energy in your work doesn't lag. Now what Bill was saying was to take time to look at him and trust that the audience would still be with me. It changed my understanding. Even if the rhythm of a scene is such that you have to keep it going, it's taking time to look at people and connect on a real level, as opposed to saying your line on cue."

Rashad told the students about moving to New York in the 1970s after graduating from Howard University. She lived at a YWCA, got a job as a temporary typist and started making the rounds to auditions. Eventually, she was cast as a Munchkin in The Wiz and as an understudy to DeeDee Bridgewater as the Good Witch, but when Bridgewater left the show, she was passed over for the role. She had to struggle a few more years before landing a major part on Broadway.

"Progress was very, very slow," Rashad said, until she was about 30. It was then she was introduced to the practice of meditation, which led to what she called "a powerful secret" that helped her achieve success as an actor.

"I learned that if I performed with the idea of giving service, or making an offering, the freedom I felt was unbelievable," she said. "Before, I used to have moments when the inspiration was so great and the performance would be so smooth, but the next time I'd go back and I couldn't find that again. I'd wonder where did it go, how do you find that, how do you get there again? When I came to understand that acting is offering, acting is service, then I could get there every time."

Rashad, whose teenage daughter and niece accompanied her to Tampa, said she hoped the project's students would learn that a career in the theater didn't have to be all-consuming.

"I would like them to understand that developing as an artist does not mean shutting out the rest of life."

At a glance

Broadway 2000, a revue by the Broadway Theatre Project, 3:30 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday in Ferguson Hall of Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center. Tickets are $25. Call (813) 229-7827.

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