There’s nothing nicer, Patti LuPone was saying with a long sardonic face to Meryl Streep, than to have a bunch of drunks singing Happy Birthday to you in a bar. Nevertheless, sing we did, led by LuPone herself on Streep’s 63rd birthday just past midnight, at the new nightclub called 54 Below.
As iconic moments go, having Patti LuPone singing to Meryl Streep at 54 Below on her birthday may not compare to Bianca Jagger riding on a white horse into Studio 54 on her birthday in 1977. But that was a different era (Bianca Jagger is four years older than Meryl Streep), Studio 54 (just upstairs) is now a legitimate theater that is part of the Roundabout Theater Company. The four owners of Below 54 — unconnected to the Roundabout but Broadway producers themselves (“The Producers,” “Hairspray”) — have a specific aim: They want 54 Below to be “Broadway’s nightclub.” If we were a bunch of drunks in a bar singing Happy Birthday, the owners hope that we were drunks from the musical theater community. 54 Below doesn’t look like an ordinary bar. It looks like a movie set of a bordello (“Pretty Baby” maybe?) or a speakeasy (The Sting?). It was in fact designed by John Lee Beatty, set designer of 101 shows on Broadway alone over the last four decades. Its lighting designer was Ken Billington (103 Broadway shows), the sound design is by Peter Hylenski (only 24 shows on Broadway, but he’s younger)
Patti LuPone’s act is conceived and directed by Scott Wittman, who also directed her solo show on Broadway in 1995, and is lyricist for “Hairspray” and “Catch Me If You Can” on Broadway and now for “Smash on NBC. Entitled “Far Away Places,” it officially opened on June 12 and it marked the official launch of 54 Below. (Jackie Hoffman, recently of The Adams Family, had the unofficial opening act a week earlier.) LuPone’s 75-minute set of some 16 songs, a little patter,, plus two encores, was one of the best shows of any kind I’ve seen this year; one critic has already suggested it could (should) get a regular Broadway run.
She began with “Gypsy In My Soul” by Clay A. Boland and Moe Jaffe but near the end responded to a request to sing “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” from Gypsy, one of her signature songs. One of her encores is sure to become one of her signature songs — “Invisible,” by David Yazbeck, from the under-appreciated “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.” The songs ranged from bluesy to comic, bawdy to defiant. She belted, burlesqued or sang in a quiet a cappella songs ranging from Sondheim to the Bee Gees, Willie Nelson to Cole Porter. She put over a hilarious spoof of Edith Piaf’s most famous song, Bill Burnett and Peggy Sarlin’s “I Regret Everything” —
I’ve lived my own life, win or lose, no one ever called the shots for me
I put myself into these shoes and no one ever tied the knots for me
Life’s a banquet, so I ate
Piled experience on my plate
Grabbed loves gleaming golden cup and drank it down
So proudly now I turn and face the crowd
And sing my feelings very loud
I Regret Everything!
Every moment of my life
Every step that I take is another big mistake
I Regret Everything!
There is nothing I’ve done right…
She rather brilliantly followed this up with an actual Edith Piaf song, a lovely, melancholy torch song co-written by Maugerite Monnot, Hymn to Love.
The songwriter she relied on the most, and that provided the most dramatic moments, was Kurt Weill, including a biting “Pirate Jenny” from Threepenny Opera and the pop standard “September Song,” originally from the Broadway musical, Knickerbocker Holiday.
“I debuted on Broadway in 1971, ” LuPone said near the beginning of her act, and she recalled the disco era just a few years before Studio 54’s heyday: “There were garbage strikes and subway strikes, filthy streets and junkies and prostitutes. Now you can eat off the streets around here — literally: They have tables on the streets. But I still love it.”