On Thursday night, May 16, at Musical Theatre Works, before a packed house, Mandy Patinkin said to me a famous expression, the first word of which has four letters and the second of which is "you." Two words that will never be confused with "Merry Christmas."
I guess I brought it on myself. I had mentioned The Knife, the musical in which Patinkin played a transsexual man in the first act, had his operation during intermission, and showed up in full drag in the second act. "When I saw you dressed like that," I said, "I had to sleep with a night-light on for the next six months." He responded with...well, I think I've made that clear.
No hard feelings! Actually, I came away from the evening thinking that Patinkin is quite a nice guy. For one thing, before the one-on-one talk we did, MTW artistic director Lonny Price gave Patinkin a check for appearing--but he immediately turned it over and signed it back to them. "Use the money to help people do musicals," he said matter-of-factly.
Once he and I were out there, we did get off to a good start. I said, "Tonight we're going to find out everything about Mandy Patinkin from A-to-Z. That means Archibald Craven in The Secret Garden, Buddy in Follies in Concert, Chicago Hope, Dress Casual, Evita, Falsettos, Grody (as in Kathryn, his wife), Houdini, Inigo Montoya, Juilliard, Kidults, Leave It to Beaver Is Dead, Mamaloshen, November 30 (his birthday), Oscar and Steve, Pax (the anti-gun violence organization, of which Patinkin is a big advocate), Quasimodo, Ragtime: The Movie, Sunday in the Park with George, Touched by an Angel (on which he's appeared), University of Kansas, Videojock, who teaches his son the Hebrew alphabet on Shalom Sesame, Wild Party, X-periment (okay, it's a stretch, and it would have been easier if the guy had ever made an X-rated movie) Yentl--and I couldn't find anything for Z." So I turned to him and asked, "Couldn't you have done Zorba somewhere along the line?" He told me that, indeed, he was offered it. I hope he does do it someday.
I asked, "How did you get to be you, Mr. Mandy?" and he recalled that he started singing not long after he was a toddler in that toddlin' town, Chicago, in its Jewish synagogues and community centers. He took his voice for granted, and didn't earmark himself for success because he was a rotten student. A learning disability was to blame, and many years would pass--not until he was reading to his young sons--that he realized that the only way he could assimilate information was to read aloud, even when he was alone. That helped him tremendously.
When he was a kid, Patinkin's mother urged him to join some drama groups, but that didn't cut much ice with him. It took a football player in high school to make the same suggestion before he'd try out for a play. For that matter, Patinkin admitted he went to the University of Kansas simply because a girl for whom he lusted was going there. Even that act of devotion didn't get her to date him. (I wonder if that led to his saying to her that famous expression, the first word of which has four letters and the second of which is "you.")
He told of being in a college production that went into a nationwide university competition that was judged by Gerald Freedman, whom we know as the director of The Gay Life, A Time for Singing, and The Robber Bridegroom. Freedman said that everyone in the cast was terrific with the exception of one guy who overacted and was way over-the-top. Patinkin said he felt bad for whomever that person might be, and was pretty amazed when it turned out to be he. Flash forward a few years, when Patinkin is at Juilliard--and who's the big gun there but Gerald Freedman? What impressed me, though, is that even though Patinkin wasn't crazy about the program and would ultimately leave after two and a half years without a degree, he stayed around until he could be taught by Freedman. He wanted to get this man's opinions and his expertise.
He said he does want to learn. And in fact, before our one-on-one started, when Patinkin was backstage with me and Price, he asked me if I'd treated him well as a reviewer. I told him in fact I had when he came to the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark. Price asked Patinkin with a little bit of surprise in his voice, "Do you read reviews?" (I've known Lonny for 22 years and I know that he does not.) Patinkin said yes, because he is interested in seeing what he can learn from them.
The more cynical of you out there are saying, "But if he reads his reviews, how can he still overact and be way over-the-top?" No discussion with Mandy Patinkin would be complete without a moderator asking that question, so I did. Happily, he did not then use that famous expression, the first word of which has four letters and the second of which is "you," but he said that he was bothered by those complaints for the longest time. In fact, he made two separate recordings of one of his albums and took them to esteemed musicologist and deejay Jonathan Schwartz. "Mandy," Schwartz told him of the more over-the-top renditions, "that's who you are." And that's why he sings that way, because it is indeed how he feels.
There were some other surprises. Patinkin said that, on his first trip to Broadway in 1967, the shows he saw were Mame and Walking Happy . He preferred Walking Happy and went around walking happy in his bedroom and pretending to be star Norman Wisdom. He later said that he wasn't asked to reprise his role in Ragtime: The Movie for Ragtime: The Musical and that, even if he had been asked, he wouldn't have been interested in doing it. Finally, he said that he wasn't enthusiastic about trying out for Evita until he learned that Patti LuPone was in it (he and she are now planning a concert-show for Broadway, by the way). He said he didn't think he'd get Che anyway, for "while Hal Prince's right-hand woman Joanna Merlin saw me act in The Shadow Box and thought I was good, Hal saw me in it and thought I was bad. And I have to admit, in those days, I was giving about five good performances a week and three bad ones." At which point I remarked, "I'm going to say that I saw one of the good ones because I don't want you to say that famous expression, the first word of which has four letters, and the second of which is 'you.'"
Am I making all of this sound worse than it was? Well, it was all in good fun. As we concluded, I pointed out that, since September 11, I've been to a ton of shows where people sang "God Bless America" at the end, and that I had to give him credit for doing that before it became the trendy. God bless you, Mandy Patinkin. (Incidentally, I'll be doing another of these sit-downs with some of the people originally involved with Rent tonight, May 20, at 6:30pm at Musical Theatre Works, located at 440 Lafayette Street in NYC. Admission is $25.)
[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org]