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Two Sicilian Sisters (and a guy named Tony)

Two Sicilian Sisters (and a guy named Tony)

George De Stefano (June 16, 2008)
Photo by Joan Marcus
Patti LuPone in "Gypsy"

The self-described "Sicilian diva" Patti LuPone won her second Tony as the ultimate stage mother, "Gypsy"'s Mama Rose


Did you hear it?


Did you catch what Patti Lu Pone said on stage at Radio City Music Hall when she claimed her Tony award for her volcanic performance in the much-acclaimed revival of “Gypsy?”


Broadway’s latest, and some say greatest Mama Rose, in the midst of thanking her spouse, son, myriad of agents, teachers, friends, producers, and stage hands, acknowledged Laura Benanti, who plays her daughter Gypsy Rose Lee. “My beautiful and sweet Sicilian sister,” LuPone said of Benanti, who earlier in the evening won the Tony for best featured actress in a musical.


The Tony telecasts are an annual obligation for a theater lover like me. And this year, there also was something to satisfy the rock ‘n roller and Latin music lover in me. The one-name singer-songwriter Stew, leading his “Passing Strange” ensemble, rocked the house with real rock ‘n roll, the antithesis of the bland ditties from the overrated, so-called rock musical “Spring Awakening.”  I also was knocked out by the vibrant Latino carnival of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “In the Heights,” which won for best new musical.


But hearing Patti Lu Pone give a shout-out to her “Sicilian sister” Benanti was an unexpected pleasure. I admit to feeling a surge of ethnic pride over two Sicilian American women taking the top prizes for their performances in a classic American musical. My mother, Angela Di Pietro De Stefano, is still kvelling, as we say in dialect.


Lu Pone, who has referred to herself as a “Sicilian diva,” comes from a distinguished lineage; one of her forbears was the 19th century opera singer Adelina Patti. In the 1970s she scored in dramatic roles in the productions of John Houseman’s Acting Company and in David Mamet plays before winning international renown, and her first Tony, as Eva Peron in the Andrew Lloyd Webber-Tim Rice musical “Evita.”  


Laura Benanti, who at 29 is thirty years younger than LuPone, has become a star of American musical theater in just a decade. Benanti made her Broadway debut in the 1998 revival of “The Sound of Music” and has gone on to appear, to much acclaim, in such shows as “Nine,” “Swing!,” and “Into the Woods.”  


This year’s Tony telecast got me thinking about my own Broadway history.


To put it plainly, my parents made me a theater queen long before I ever heard that term. It’s their fault for having all those original cast albums in the house. South Pacific. My Fair Lady. The King and I. Fiddler on the Roof. The Sound of Music. Gypsy. West Side Story. Oklahoma. Oliver. Camelot. I grew up with these and other cast recordings. My parents appreciated opera but weren’t devotees. That was more the favored music of their immigrant parents. They loved show tunes, and so did I.


My Broadway experience wasn’t limited to albums played on our living room hi-fi. My parents actually took me to see shows on the Great White Way. We always caught them later in their runs, after the original stars had left. (Not that I’m complaining. Being in a Broadway house was magical to me no matter who was treading the boards.) When we saw “My Fair Lady,” Julie Andrews and Rex Harrison had departed the production years before. My sole memory is of the “Ascot Gavotte” scene, with English high society types at the races, and whoever was playing Liza Doolittle shrieking at some unseen horse, “Move yer bloomin’ arse!”  Very daring, or so I thought.


My experience wasn’t all that unusual. In those days, the early 1960s, a ticket to a Broadway musical was an affordable treat for working class families like mine. No one then could have imagined that one day $100 tickets would become commonplace.


And back then, the work of Broadway stalwarts such as Rodgers and Hammerstein or Lerner and Lowe was American pop music. Not as much as it had been during previous decades. But as late as the mid-60s, when the Beatles, Dylan, and the Rolling Stones were defining the cutting edge of pop, Broadway musicals still provided Top 40 fodder. Barbra Streisand’s “People,” from “Funny Girl,” and Louis Armstrong’s Dixiefied “Hello Dolly” even knocked the English invaders off the top of the charts.    


As I moved into my teens, rock music, as well as soul, blues, and jazz, replaced musicals in my affections. “Broadway” came to represent all that was old, corny, and conservative. To my parents, the new, era-defining sounds I loved were horrible and un-musical. My father thought the Rolling Stones made awful noise and looked like “queers.” My mother couldn’t stand Dylan’s “nasal” singing.


Today, my parents, both in their early 80s, admit that much of the music from the 60s and 70s was pretty great. Whereas they once saw the Stones as depraved vandals, they now view them with amusement, and even some affection, as enduring show business legends. (My father also no longer uses terms like “queers,” having long since accepted the fact that he has a gay son.) And I, after decades of immersion in rock, free jazz, reggae, salsa, and more recently, contemporary Italian music, have re-discovered my inner Broadway queen.


Watching the Tonys, I really felt the return of the repressed, as I thrilled to Patti Lu Pone’s electrifying rendition of the ultimate stage mother manifesto, “Everything’s Coming up Roses.”  The Sicilian diva really tore it up, Mom, Dad, and I agreed. We also think it’s pretty great that she’s got a younger and gifted Sicilian “sister” to play with.  







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