Playing for Patti: Music director Joseph Thalken on LuPone’s (and his) upcoming Auburn show and his work with Rebecca Luker

Joseph Thalken will be in Auburn Sept. 21 with Patti LuPone.

When Patti LuPone comes to sing next week at Auburn University’s Gogue Performing Arts Center, the three-time Tony Award winner won’t be going it alone.

Longtime music director Joseph Thalken will join her for the show, called “Don’t Monkey with Broadway.”

Thalken has worked with many of the biggest stars of Broadway, including LuPone, Julie Andrews, Liza Minnelli, Bernadette Peters and Kristin Chenoweth, and he collaborated often  with Rebecca Luker, the Helena native and three-time Tony Award nominee who died in 2020.

Here, Thalken graciously answers a few questions about performing with the Broadway legend LuPone, a show of his that may make its way to the Alabama Shakespeare Festival and his professional relationship with Luker.

Tell me about yourself. Where did you grow up and go to college?

I was born in Los Angeles and grew up in a suburb called Ontario, where they had a pretty good performing arts department in the junior high and high school (Chaffey High School), and I studied piano privately with a teacher from nearby Pomona College. For college, I went to Northwestern University, where I majored in piano.

When did you know music was going to be your career?

It never occurred to me not to pursue it in one way or another.

How is being someone’s music director different from your own performing or composing?

It’s a very collaborative process. A lot of the work involves trying to get inside their head and attempt to realize (and perhaps improve upon) what they want to do with any given song or evening.

Patti LuPone.

Tell me about Patti LuPone. How did you meet?

We first met in the 1990s at a Lincoln Center Theater gala where she and Audra McDonald were performing together, and they wanted two pianos for the evening. Patti’s pianist at the time was the wonderful Dick Gallagher, who was a pal of mine and a terrific musician, so we all had a lot of fun making music. Very sadly, we lost him in 2005. 

What’s the process for putting a show together with her?

Since I started working with her, all of her shows have been put together in collaboration with her,  Scott Wittman and Jeffrey Richman, who are brilliant. We’ll rehearse in a variety of locations, including our apartments or in a midtown studio, depending on schedules. 

What about the show itself? What can people expect? Is it scripted?

She’’ll be singing a lot of Broadway tunes, some associated with her career, some not, and a few songs not at all Broadway related. It’s partially scripted, but there’s always an improvisatory aspect to it as well, which makes it fun.

Do you hang out together off-stage?

Yes, we get along very well and often have meals together while traveling on the road. 

What is something that would surprise fans of LuPone?

She’s a great cook!

Joseph Thalken, right, with Howard McGillin and Rebecca Luker.

You are working on a musical aimed for the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, correct?

Yes, we’re hoping that “Fall of ’94” (a musical with a book by Ashley Robinson and lyrics by Ellen Fitzhugh) will be produced next year by the Alabama Shakespeare Festival. It’s a coming-of-age story based on Ashley’s childhood in a small town that intersected with a huge national event in 1994. I’m also working on another musical called “Inventions for Piano,” based on a true story about one of the biggest scandals in recorded music history.

What do you listen to when you’re not rehearsing, writing or performing?

A lot of classical and jazz and pop, when I have time to listen (which is not often enough these days, unfortunately). 

Finally, you had a long and fruitful professional relationship with Rebecca Luker. Can you address that and your work with her over the years?

Becca and I met working on the first production of the musical “Harmony” at the La Jolla Playhouse in the late 1990s (years later, the show is now heading to Broadway), and we instantly had a great rapport with each other. It also starred her husband, Danny Burstein, so we all became very close. She was a joy to work with, always full of great ideas, open to suggestions, a wickedly funny sense of humor and, of course, the voice of an angel. She was very supportive of new composers and sang a lot of my music. That was an honor, to say the least. I deeply miss her. 

            Patti LuPone and “Don’t Monkey with Broadway,” at the Gogue Performing Arts Center Thursday, Sept. 21, at 7 p.m.

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