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LuPone’s showstopper

When the Broadway diva chastised a texter, it highlighted problems with Vegas audiences

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Seeing Red: If you go to see Patti LuPone, you’d better have your cell phone turned off.
Photo: Joan Marcus

The last thing I posted online before the lights came down for the start of Broadway legend Patti LuPone’s concert on Sunday was this: “Realized I’ve never been in the Orleans Showroom before. Lumpy seats. Wonder how Patti will react if I tweet her show.”

It was a joke, of course, that harked back to her onstage explosion in January in New York when an audience member during a performance of Gypsy was shooting photos. “Stop taking pictures right now!” she shouted, breaking character and halting the show to berate someone who later turned out to be a sanctioned journalist. “You heard the announcement, who do you think you are? How dare you?”

That was the stuff of YouTube glory, but it also struck a nerve among anyone who’s ever been in a showroom or a movie theater and had the comfort and focus provided by darkness disrupted by someone’s electronic this-or-that. The Gypsy incident is so legendary that you would think that anyone who knew enough about LuPone to turn out to see her at the Orleans over this past weekend would be aware of it.

Except it wasn’t. About halfway into her Gypsy in My Soul show in Las Vegas, the two-time Tony winner was winding up to launch into the number she made a classic in her Tony-winning creation of Eva Peron in Evita, “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina.” The lights were down, her eyes were shut, her arms were out as she was working herself into the character, when, suddenly, she stopped her 10-piece orchestra.

“What were you doing?” LuPone asked some dumb schlub in the third or fourth row. “I promise not to be mad at you. Just tell me, what were you doing—videoing? Taking photos? Texting? I really want to know.”

It seems he was sending a text message. Ka-boom!

Well, sort of. Her reaction was far more measured than her freak-out in New York and, thus, probably a lot more effective. She even sweetly said to the man, “I’m not going to yell at you, I don’t think.” But she did give him an earful about how she’s on “a campaign” against this sort of behavior and said, “The thing is, the people who text, they don’t seem to understand that we can see you. If you really need to do that, why don’t you just leave?”

He did not do so. He kept his piehole shut and hoped the storm would pass. It did, but not before something else happened: Several people in the audience stood up and applauded.

I admit, I wasn’t one of them, but mostly because I was too busy recording the goings-on in my brain so I could report them as faithfully as possible later without the assistance of the electronic recording devices that A.) would have made LuPone completely lose it and B.) I realized then I had become entirely too reliant upon. Also, I was rejoicing that I had witnessed such a brilliant diva moment with my evening companion, who works as a backstage show manager, and with the Las Vegas Sun’s Joe Brown, who was also in my row.

But God, LuPone really nailed it and hit on something that so many performers in Las Vegas and elsewhere struggle with, a dramatic lowering of audience standards and etiquette.

Her complaint is something performers complain to me about in interviews constantly, the fact that people can’t seem to sit and enjoy a production without some form of multitasking. I suspect if I asked ministers and rabbis, they’d have similar complaints, although I don’t know who’s thinking about YouTube or Flickr in church, unless maybe Rev. Wright was in the house.

To be sure, this isn’t just a Vegas thing, but there are Vegas dimensions to it. For instance, former Mamma Mia! cast member Greg Kata, who also attended the LuPone performance on Sunday, suggested that Vegas ushers are a bit lax about cracking down. “Almost every night I was onstage, I saw someone filming and or taking pictures,” he said.

In addition, many performers have told me over the years that they see a higher number of people arriving late in Las Vegas and seeming disinterested as they wile away their 90 minutes from the best seats in the house. That may owe to the fact that the best seats are often comps for high rollers or others who don’t actually have a financial or emotional stake in the performance. In New York and elsewhere, the folks up front pay the most to be there.

And former Hairspray star Austin Miller, who played Link Larson when the show was at the Luxor, noted that audience members would sit and chit-chat or even yell out at the actors on the stage. He attributed it to the fact that so many Vegas-goers are amateur theater audience members from unsophisticated locales. “It’s as if they think they’re watching television,” Miller said. “They don’t realize that we can hear you.”

LuPone isn’t the first to address such a matter with her audience here. Comic Rita Rudner, who also attended the Orleans show on Sunday, said she once had to stop her performance to address a guy whose cell phone kept ringing.

“I asked him if he would please shut it off, and he said, ‘I would, but I don’t know how,’” Rudner said. “I made him pass it up to me, and I did it.”

Then again, Rudner also was at Speed the Plow in New York starring Madonna some years ago when audience members rushed the stage mid-show to ask for the Material Girl’s autograph. “So it’s a problem everywhere.”

Now, it is true that I tweeted—I’m @TheStripPodcast, FYI—a little bit during the bizarro Larry King-Shawn King appearance at Wynn Las Vegas on Friday night. But I only did so during the Q&A segment, and primarily because this—“Audience asks Larry who might replace him on CNN. He said he likes Ryan Seacrest. Audience laughs like mad. Larry: ‘Why’s that funny?’”—was too amusing to keep to myself for very long.

That’s also my job, and Norm Clarke of the Review-Journal had promised a torrent of tweets during the show, too, so there was a journalistic competitive thing going on. Plus, I found a way to hide my phone screen so no light emitted. (Norm said later he didn’t tweet during the Scarecrow and Mrs. King experience because his new phone was too bright, natch.)

But if it weren’t my business, I absolutely wouldn’t do it, and even though it is, I wouldn’t do it during a performance even if something incredibly newsworthy or outrageous took place. For instance, I did manage to restrain myself on Sunday night after LuPone’s outburst, although I admit I became unbelievably twitchy.

Let’s hope LuPone’s “campaign” succeeds, but I doubt it. One of my Twitter followers wrote back after I tweeted the incident from the valet stand at the Orleans that “audience members who pay good money should be able to do what they please. LuPone is unprofessional.”

That remark and others like it, of course, assume that the performers are the only ones who have roles to play in the theater.

The audience has a job, too. It happens to be the same as any human being’s job anywhere they go and whatever they’re doing: Be respectful and considerate. It shouldn’t take a Broadway diva interrupting her finest number to make the point. But sadly, it seems that’s the only thing that will do it, however temporarily.

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Steve Friess

Steve Friess is a freelance journalist based in Ann Arbor, Michigan. His work has appeared in the New York Times, ...

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