Patti LuPone and Mandy Patinkin bring show to Kauffman Center

Patti LuPone thinks back to the early days of her friendship with Mandy Patinkin and describes it this way: “Mandy became my rock.”

It was the late 1970s, and they had been cast in “Evita,” a new musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice on the life of Eva Peron, the first lady of Argentina who became a sort of secular saint to her followers.

LuPone had the title role and Patinkin played Che, the show’s Greek chorus and narrator. And they were working with legendary director Hal Prince.

Both actors would win Tony Awards for their performances, but according to LuPone, getting there wasn’t easy.

“It was an incredibly difficult experience for me vocally on that show,” LuPone said. “I wasn’t prepared for a lot of the stuff that occurred on that show. I wasn’t trained for it. I wasn’t warned.

“And Mandy was my rock. Mandy saved me. He really did. I can’t say that strongly enough. He saved me emotionally, spiritually. Every time he was onstage I could relax. It was an incredibly difficult role and experience for me.”

LuPone said her vocal parts were pitched very high, which was a challenge. But there was also a media frenzy surrounding the show.

“We had never been in a play or a musical with that much hype,” she said with a laugh. “It was negotiating the waters of publicity and things that people said. It was hard. I don’t know what else to say. It was brutal.

“You know, there was a lot of controversy surrounding it. It was the Andrew Lloyd Webber publicity machine. It tends to be about not putting on a play but something else entirely. And it was scary stuff, especially since we were young and inexperienced.”

Patinkin said he talks about some of that in an “Evening With Patti LuPone and Mandy Patinkin,” which opens Tuesday at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. So he didn’t want to reveal too much.

But he did say that if he was in a position to help her, it was because he saw himself reflected in her struggle.

“I was her friend and I loved her and I saw that she was going through a lot and I wanted her to know I was there for her 100 percent and that we could get through this,” Patinkin said.

“And I think it meant everything to both of us to know that we were a team and that nothing would knock us down. We were just there for each other. We were frightened and we were young and there were a lot of demands on us, some reasonable and some unreasonable, that were going on. And so we needed each other.

“And I just let her know she had me, and that had to do with me understanding that she was scared. Because I get scared. And I think what connected us for me was seeing her fear, because it was like looking at myself.”

Patinkin and LuPone haven’t appeared together in another musical, although they have performed “An Evening With Patti LuPone and Mandy Patinkin” frequently, including a limited Broadway engagement that closed Friday.

“I like telling people we can’t extend on Broadway because we have to go to Kansas,” LuPone said.

In 2002, they performed a concert together for the grand opening of a performing arts center in the Dallas suburb of Richardson, Texas. The show has morphed and grown through the years, and they have performed it across North America, Australia and New Zealand.

“There was a gentleman from Richardson, Texas, who was opening a new theater complex, and he had called Patti’s bookers and said they had Mandy, and they had called my bookers and said they had Patti, could we each do 20 minutes and sing a song and say ‘Goodnight, Gracie,’ ” Patinkin recalled.

“They didn’t have either one of us; it was just a ploy. I hate those kinds of evenings and I was ready to blow it off, but before I blew it off I said to my piano player-slash-collaborator for 24 years, Paul Ford: ‘Do you think we could put together a show that told a story, that was not just a concert but really told a story and had a figurative journey using material both spoken and sung that we could hone and change over time?’ And he said yes.”

The resulting show includes large dollops of Stephen Sondheim, Rodgers and Hammerstein and, of course, Andrew Lloyd Webber. The program includes sets from “Evita,” “South Pacific” and “Carousel,” as well as “Company,” “Follies” and “Merrily We Roll Along.”

LuPone described the show’s arc this way: “Two people come together, lose each other, come back together again. It’s a love story. Surrounded by really, really great music.”

LuPone said she’s looking forward to the Kansas City engagement for one reason above all others: She gets to sing again in the Kauffman Center. She was one of the eclectic group who performed at the Muriel Kauffman Theatre’s grand opening, and the building, she said, has great acoustics. Apparently not all performing arts centers are created equal.

“More often not, they’re too big to have an intimate experience in a theater, and the sound is dreadful,” she said. “After people have spent billions of dollars creating these monsters, they don’t function well as theaters.

“And I remember saying that night that it’s a place that gives back. If you’re a performer onstage, you don’t have to reach for the audience, and you don’t have to reach for the sound. It just gives back.

“And that’s very important for the performers because they don’t have to work as hard — and by that I mean they don’t have to injure themselves vocally because the acoustics are so good. And that’s what I noticed, aside from it being absolutely beautiful. The acoustics were excellent.”