Pittsburgh CLO brings the stage and screen star to the Playhouse with ‘Being Alive Tour’
By SHARON EBERSON
Bet you didn’t know that Mandy Patinkin makes his living as a mailman.
He personally delivers notes by Sondheim, by Webber, by Queen, by Irving Berlin … Sometimes, he delivers them in Yiddish.
Patinkin has earned a Tony and an Emmy among numerous nominations, is beloved for screen roles including Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride, Avigdor in Yentl and Saul Bereson on Homeland, found Broadway stardom as the original Che in Evita and the title artist in Sunday in the Park With George, and as if that’s not enough, he’s viral sensation … as himself.
With all of that on his resume, if Mandy Pantinkin had to pick one place he’d most like to deliver his passion for performing, it is as a concert “mailman.”
He will be doing just that, delivering songs in that soaring tenor voice of his, with stories and asides to spare, at the Pittsburgh Playhouse on Thursday, May 4.
The Downtown venue is a stop on his tour, titled Being Alive, the same as a song from the late Stephen Sondheim’s Company.
“You know, he’s alive forever,” Patinkin was saying of Sondheim in a phone conversation last week. “For me, I’ve always said about all these great geniuses who’ve written all this stuff that, you know, I’m not the genius. I’m the mailman. And a number of these people, I was privileged to know – Stephen, especially. I feel that they wrote what they wished for themselves, and for the world around them, and the world at large. And in some cases, they realized those wishes, and in some cases they didn’t. But the blessing of their being is, that they left them for the rest of us, for eternity. And so Stephen will always be alive, he’ll always be with me. And that’s the magical part of it.”
Patinkin, 70, is a dream and a dilemma for an interviewer. He Mandy-fies every answer, often twisting and turning effusively toward a conclusion you hadn’t seen coming.
There was one, just one, one-word answer in our chat. Asked if he will include any songs in Yiddish (his album Mamaloshen was a top 10 World Music Album in 1998) he said, “Yes,” and left it at that.
He doesn’t like to reveal his set list in advance, because he and his accompanist and music director, Adam Ben-David, like to change things up.
The song list is designed to be agile, but always to spread joy after our COVID-forced time apart.
Patinkin’s previous concert tour in 2019 and the beginning of 2020 had emerged from working with Thomas Bartlett on his Diary recording. It came from when “we were all living in that moment that was a bit precarious and a bit dark, and I think it oxidized itself into my concert choices,” Patinkin says. “And then we all went to sleep for about three years with the pandemic, and it came time to go, ‘Hey, should we get back out there?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, let’s go.’ We all need to feel alive again.”
The keyword this time around, aside from the tour title, is “fun.”
“I said I wanted something happier and much more fun. I need to have more fun. I want the audience to have more fun,” Patinkin said.
That concept produced 14 hours worth of material that Patinkin said builds from one song and story to the next.
“Oh, my God, I’ve had the best time ever doing this,” he said of the tour, which included a previous stop at The Strand in Zelienople. “We’ve done about 18 or 19 of them so far, and I’ve got about 50 in the bank that we’re going to be doing. I can’t wait to get everywhere, and I want to go anywhere that people want to come to the theater and join us.”
‘WAVING MY JEWISH SOUL’
Wherever he goes, Patinkin celebrates his Jewish heritage, in song and in cultural references. He is aware that he will be in Pittsburgh as the trial begins for the murderer of 11 members of congregations in the Tree of Life synagogue in Squirrel Hill.
“I’m sorry that the world is so filled with hate and racism and tragedy and confusion and suffering,” Patinkin said. “I don’t think the world has ever been without that. It’s particularly acute in terms of my little life. We’re all here for a very short time. And so I proudly wave my Jewish soul to the world, and to celebrate it, and to celebrate others.”
He mentions narrating the podcast Exile, about Jewish lives in the shadow of fascism, and reading and loving a book about Albert Einstein – different ways he expresses Judaism, publicly and personally.
Patinkin also is a fierce advocate for refugees, working with the International Rescue Committee to bring attention to ongoing crises worldwide.
It was that work that initially brought him to social media. It was his son, Gideon Grody-Patinkin, who made Mandy and his wife, Obie Award-winning actress Kathryn Grody, stars on Twitter, Instagram and TikTok, leading to the upcoming Showtime series, Seasoned, based on, well, a fun couple talking to each other and their son.
It started with an argument on April 16, 2020, the 43rd anniversary of the Patinkins’ first date. “Which I consider the big deal one,” Patinkin said. “Without that one, there wouldn’t be the other one.”
FROM ONLINE TO SHOWTIME
Let’s let the Patinkin tell it, because, well, he’s not just a “mailman.” He’s a masterful teller of stories, including his own.
Patinkin noted that he and his wife, who rode out the pandemic at their upstate New York home, experienced togetherness that they had not known before. Usually, one or the other was working for periods that kept them apart.
Who knew that their togetherness could be so amusing to the rest of the world?
“This was something out of left field, even left of left field … I don’t know where it came from. Wait, I’ll tell you where it came from – from my son, Gideon Grody-Patinkin. Even before the pandemic, he’d always take out his cell phone or turn on the camera and say, ‘Family archives,’ and he’d ask a question. The pandemic comes, and he’s doing a tour himself somewhere on the West Coast, and then the world shuts down. He’s worried about his mom and dad, thinking we’re incapable of taking care of ourselves. We figured out, you know, how to wear masks and how to get food and toilet paper and other things. But he came home because he wanted to be with us and take care of us.”
Then came that “big deal” anniversary date, and an argument between Mandy and Kathryn.
“So he’s there and we’re walking on the road 10 feet apart, because he just arrived and we’re all doing COVID protocol,” Patinkin recalls. “And he pulls out the camera in front of the ficus trees and asks, ‘What’s going on? … And then we start talking about how the fight went, and he films it and he comes to us a little later and he goes, could I put this on your social media?”
The only social media the pair had going was to raise awareness and funds for the International Rescue Committee, which handled the technical end of the account. “Nothing goes up without my okaying it, but I didn’t know how to upload or download or load or upload,” Patinkin says, laughing. Gideon, however, knew how to make it work, “and overnight, it goes crazy,” chronicled in a New York Times article in 2021.
What their son found amusing about his parents was making millions of people laugh when laughter was sorely needed. Patinkin said with pride that Gideon “knows us like a book; he knows how to push our buttons,” giving him the credit for the unscripted videos that took the Internet by storm.
The big following also gave the Patinkins a platform for their passions, like getting out the vote.
“It just grew and never stopped,” Patinkin says, somewhat amazed. “[Gideon] realized how to capitalize on it and keep it going.”
Grody-Patinkin, with writer-director Ewen Wright, developed Gideon’s “amusing” parents as a series, and, “long story short, they sold the pilot to Showtime. We made the pilot and then Showtime picked it up and they’re in the middle of finishing writing it, and we start filming it in August.”
PATTI LuPONE and CELL PHONES, and FACES THAT DON’T MOVE
His more immediate destination is the PNC Theatre in Point Park University’s Pittsburgh Playhouse.
It’s a relatively intimate setting, with just a pianist onstage with him, for a performer who also has fronted the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra at Heinz Hall or played eight shows a week to a Broadway house.
Asked about his good friend and Evita co-star, Patti LuPone, who in recent years stopped shows to chastise rude audience members who are on their phones, and Patinkin is off and running.
He barely takes a breath as he heads down one road and then another … and …
At first, he laughs about how he handles phone interruptions.
‘I bring them up on stage. If they pull out a phone, I hold my microphone right next to their phone, I ask who they’re talking to, and I share it with the audience. I figured if you want to be on the phone, then let’s all be on the phone with you,” Patinkin said. “There have been times when I realize, ‘Oh my God, you mean you’re on the phone because someone’s giving birth, and you’re an obstetrician? Get outta here. Go help them!’ So sometimes it’s a lot of fun.
“There are people that fall asleep sometimes, like, right in the front row, and I get the audience real quiet and I whisper to them that this guy’s asleep. I don’t want to wake them. Everything in the world happens [in the theater]. That’s why I love it.”
That’s not to say he doesn’t, at times, agree with LuPone’s response to phones shining or belting out conversations from the audience during a performance.
“My dear friend Patti, I’ve been with her [laughs] when she gets a little testy and I find it, uh, endearing. I love her inability to censor herself – she is one of the most truthful human beings I’ve ever known. I would defend her till the end of time, and I love her, love what she feels and says. And, and I think she has a point. It’s rude when you’re on stage and looking in the darkness of an audience and somebody has that light on from their phone. It’s really disrespectful. You have to use energy to ignore it, you know, and that takes energy away from singing the song that you’re trying to deliver.”
He says this, and it sparks another thought, and we are down another path, weaving from his duty as a mailman and cell phone disruptions to something he finds disruptive onstage.
“The reason these songs live on, and you can do them over and over again, is they’re timeless. And so if you’re busy on your phone, taking focus away from the singers and their focus, which is to connect to the audience, and that individual on stage sees that you’re connecting to your f**king phone .. you can’t ignore it.
“No, you can’t ignore it,” he continued. “Just like actresses, and I won’t mention names, some who I love dearly, who go out and do plastic surgery all over their faces. Young people do it. And when you’re acting with somebody in my profession, you get your food from their face. [He laughs.] And when their face doesn’t move, it is very difficult. You have to deal with that as opposed to deal with the moment that was written or what you’re trying to play. You can’t ignore that. You’re talking to someone who’s has no expression.
‘I beg young women to please, please, please let the beauty of your life show. As people have said to me, ‘Why would I want to take this away? This is the map of my existence. These lines are the history of my life. You know, let it show for God’s sake. .. We’re only here for a little time. It’s a privilege to get old. If you’re lucky, you get old and you learn things and you say what you want, like Patti, or like what I’m telling you now.”
MAKING A CONNECTION THROUGH TIMELESS DELIVERY
How do you connect cell phones and plastic surgery? You Mandy-fy them.
He’s a man who likes making connections. You’d have to say that, along with “fun,” “connection” is the other key word in the concert Pittsburghers can experience on Thursday.
That, connecting with an audience, is why Patinkin is back on the road, visiting cities nationwide.
“When I did Sunday in the Park with George, James Lapine wrote words for my character, George Seurat, to say repeatedly through the play, ‘Connect, George. Connect.’ And if you said to me, what does life mean to you? It means that I try to connect. It’s the most important word in my lexicon. If I had a tombstone, I would want it to say, ‘He tried to connect,’ those four words. That’s the pleasure of existence for me. Whether it’s with my wife, my children, you as an audience, nature, my dog, refugees … That’s the joy of existing for me, is to communicate, reach out, share what I think is worth repeating with the hopes of it making me a better person.”
Many twists and turns later, Patinkin pulls the conversation around to where it began, delivering a summation of what he hopes to achieve in concert.
“By sharing what smarter people than me have written or have put together as music and lyrics, I again, say, I get to be the mailman. I do this stuff over and over again because they’re like, they’re like my Torah, they’re my prayers, they’re my teachers. Some of them teach me how to be silly and have a good time. Some teach me how to talk better to my wife and kids in the world. Some teach me how to be a better human being, and some of them teach me just how to be alive. And that’s why I keep revisiting it.”
And so the paths taken by Mandy Patinkin circle back to where we started, with Sondheim and the Being Alive Tour. While the title has synchronicity with the song, it also unlocks another key to a shared experience in a world that was devoid of in-person performances for an eternity.
“The pandemic was a time in all our lives that we’re all still digesting and recovering from,” said the Pittsburgh-bound performer. “And I really think the answer to it all is just be alive. Get up and live, live for every second you lost ,and live some more.’
Mandy Patinkin delivers Being Alive, a one-night-only concert at Point Park University’s Pittsburgh Playhouse, PNC Theatre, Downtown, at 8 p.m. Thursday, May 4, 2023. Remaining tickets start at $150; visit https://www.pittsburghclo.org/shows/many-patinkin-in-concert-being-alive
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