Between gigs in movies (The Princess Bride, The Doctor), hit TV shows (Chicago Hope, Criminal Minds), and the stage (The Secret Garden, last year's The Tempest), Patinkin has managed to find time to perform acclaimed solo shows. Now he is thrilled to share the stage with his longtime friend LuPone. Asked how the two have changed in 30 years, he responds, "The pleasure for me is, when I look in her face, I'm 30 years younger. I'm in a time tunnel when I'm working with her. I look in her eyes and I'm a kid again, and time stands still. Yet I'm a kid with all the wisdom I've acquired over 30 years, which is the perfect place to be. It's not often you get to be 18 while you have the knowledge of a 56-year-old."
Back Stage: How did this current show come about?
Mandy Patinkin: About five or six years ago they were opening a new theater complex in Richardson, Texas. They called her people and said they had me, and they called my people and said they had her. And they didn't have either one of us. They wanted us to do one of those things where you each sing 20 minutes of your own stuff and then sing "Getting to Know You" and goodbye. I hate those kind of evenings, so I was ready to blow it off. But before I did, I said to Paul Ford, my piano player and collaborator of 20 years, "Do you think we could create an evening that had a story line and an arc that we'd enjoy for the two of us?" He said yeah, so I asked Patti if she was interested, and she said sure. We made the first version of it down there, but we've changed it a lot as we've done it here and there. We started hitting the road in January doing, as I call it, "The Patti and Mandy Show."
Back Stage: How do you describe the show?
Patinkin: I have a tag line I've coined from talking to the press to explain the show, and I think it's a very accurate description. I say, "It's a figurative journey between two souls, using familiar and unfamiliar material, both spoken and sung."
Back Stage: So it's not just a concert; you have an actual story line? Do you play characters or yourselves?
Patinkin: At times we're ourselves; at times we're the characters from South Pacific or Merrily We Roll Along or we're Billy Bigelow and Julie from Carousel. You can hear it any way you want. You can listen to it just as Patti and Mandy, or you can go from piece to piece. But the sense, the form, the lyric, follows a journey, and what leads from one to the other actually moves this relationship along the road.
Back Stage: So this is scripted. But usually in your solo shows, you seem to be improvising conversation a lot. Are you making it up as you go along, or are you just that good an actor?
Patinkin: I never plan anything I say; nothing I say in my solo concerts is scripted. The songs are chosen, but if I say anything in between the songs, it's whatever comes to mind. Sometimes I'll tell a story and enjoy it, so I'll tell it the next night and it gets longer. By the third night, it's insufferable. It was my son, actually, who said, "You know, Dad, you don't have to feel obligated to tell that story every night; you can just go out there and not say anything." I let a few nights go by where I stopped telling stories and other things would come to mind and I'd want to sing a different song instead. That's how it's always been.
Back Stage: After working together so long, Paul obviously knows how to keep up with you. Do you try to work off a set song list from night to night?
Patinkin: On the solo concerts, we make a list because we have 10 hours of material and we try to keep rotating it all the time. We'll make a general sketch, but oftentimes in the show, I'll change my mind. So he has four or five very thick books leaning up against the piano, so if I turn left or right, he goes scrambling. Paul and I really love winging it; it's a lot of fun and we know each other so well. We tried something recently in Chicago for a benefit for the Goodman Theatre. It was in a ballroom, and I hate playing ballrooms; they're the worst. And people aren't there to see you; they've got their food and drinks. And I loathe it. That's why we make them pay through the nose, you know. We decided to open with a very high-energy piece, one I usually do later in the program if I do it at all. So we started it, and it worked really well, and a week later we were in Tanglewood, and I thought I would start like that again. I went out there with this massive high-energy number, and you could just feel the audience was like, "Check, please." They suddenly looked terrified and like they were a thousand years old. If I had designed to make a number fail, I couldn't have done better. It was horrible. So in the middle of the next number, I just stopped and said, "Hey, folks, let me explain what just happened. We tried this in Chicago and it worked, so we tried it here and clearly it was horrible. So you just witnessed something that no one will ever see again." And I pulled out another song that was very quiet, and within seconds, you could just feel the audience relax and go, "Oh, thank God." We spent the whole evening putting new stuff together, and it was one of our favorite nights. We went out there meaning well, and we had a massive train wreck, but we got things back on track and kept it moving.
Back Stage: Many artists don't read an audience as well as you do.
Patinkin: If you don't, you're such an egomaniac that you think you're so gifted and brilliant no matter what, and you're not paying attention. I'm not interested in those people. You can always feel a performer who's just only listening to themselves. The thing I've always loved about this genre of music is it's so lyric-driven. Certainly, every lyric is on a musical note, and I love music. But in my mind, I'm just saying these words and by coincidence they're on musical notes. It's the words that interest me. I've always felt that I'm just the mailman. I'm not the genius; I'm delivering. Oftentimes, these people struggled a great deal with their personal lives, some to profound degrees. And they wrote down, I felt, what they wished for themselves and for the world. And the pleasure that I've had for these 20 years of doing this music is when I realize I'm with the audience, listening to these words with them. That we listen together, that I'm not alone. And it's a great comfort to me knowing that I'm not the only one affected by what these people wrote, that other people like hearing it too.
Back Stage: Sort of a broad question, but what do you think it is about Sondheim that makes him so special?
Patinkin: I think it's his uncanny intuition toward the human condition. Hey, that actually rhymed! [Laughs.] It's stunning; it's equal to Shakespeare. It's a sixth sense about humanity that is beyond comprehension. That, coupled with hard work and the craft of putting a song together. Because you can be the hardest worker in the world and not have the gift. I feel his raison d'être is his untiring journey to turn the darkness into light. That is exactly what I strive to do every second of my life, and nobody writes it better than he does.
Back Stage: Did you happen to see the recent Broadway revival of Sunday in the Park With George?
Patinkin: Yes, I did. As you can imagine, I've never seen Sunday in the Park With George because I was only in it. And when you're in it, you don't see it; your job is pretty different. So it was a fascinating experience for me. I deeply love the piece and loved many of the things they did with it, and by the time it was over, I was a complete basket case. I went backstage to see the actors, and I couldn't even speak. I lost my breath and had to recover. I just gave up and hugged them.
Back Stage: You studied at Juilliard. Do you mind if I ask what your experience was like there?
Patinkin: Oh my Lord. Well, it was very complicated. The great part was. I was in the same class as William Hurt, and he taught me a tremendous amount, as did many other students, like John de Lancie and Jack Fletcher. They gave me great gifts by just giving me themselves. And part of me wanted to develop aspects of my character that they had, just as a human being. Jack had a sense of himself and a right to say and feel and do what he wanted, which I didn't know a 20-year-old person could do. Bill had a tireless demand to dig deeper, that he insisted on me doing. Then I met Gerald Freedman, who became my mentor and my teacher, and Gerry taught me the core element of my craft, which was to understand what an action was, how to define it, how to simplify it, how to make it connect to my soul, my experience, and be able to repeat it when I needed to. Then there was Marian Seldes, who infused me with the reminder of why I came here in the first place, which was, no matter how difficult it gets, to remember that I love this. And her overwhelming affection and love for her students was just mind-boggling. And when the shit hit the fan, as it always would and did, she was there to hold you and help you remind yourself that you came here because you love this.
Back Stage: That was the good part?
Patinkin: That was the beautiful part. The difficult part was seeing some of these teachers who were less gifted than others, and sometimes they would take advantage of the students. This was a time before it became literally illegal to harass women in classrooms, where a young girl would feel that unless she did a sexual favor for a certain teacher, she wouldn't get a part in the play he was going to direct. Some of these teachers were profoundly inappropriate, even choosing to do plays where the girls would have their clothes off so they could just look at them. And young actors will do anything. There was some sexual abuse that went on there, particularly with the young women. Then there was some mental abuse that also went on, on some of these teachers' part. I remember two of the most gifted people in our class were asked to leave; for a variety of reasons, the school felt they weren't worth keeping. I remember John de Lancie stood up and he said, "We, as a class, want you to know that by asking these two particular people to leave, you have cut out the heart of our class." And it was the truth. And I left school a few months after that. Because the heart wasn't beating.
Back Stage: You do some teaching yourself. Aside from not sexually harassing the students, what do you think makes a good teacher?
Patinkin: Your ability to listen to their heart, to their need, to their temperature, and to respond as a cheerleader and encourage their willingness to share themselves while they're executing their craft. A lot of people can learn to do the craft. But the real thing that always stops me in my tracks and wakes me up out of my day and makes me leave the planet that I'm on and go into their world is when somebody allows me into their genuine soul. I'm not moved or interested in incredible technical facility without a personal connection. That's my personal taste. Tons of people get tons of work and never go near a personal connection. That doesn't appeal to me. When people couple their craft with the willingness to connect, I'm deeply moved and envious, and I watch it to try and understand how to do it myself.
Back Stage: What do you personally like about teaching?
Patinkin: When I walk into these classes and these students get up there that no one's ever heard of and they might be gifted or smooth or they might be clumsy and gawky and they put their soul on the line and they connect, and they take me away. I can hardly hold it together. They are my greatest teachers. They give me the courage to try and do it myself. They give me the reminder that Marian Seldes gave me, which is why we came here in the first place: We came here because of the deep conscious and unconscious desire to share something in our souls about the human condition that we want to try and get across before we check out. Which is what an artist like Stephen Sondheim does, even when he doesn't want to. And I think, for me, that's the goal: to be able to somehow synthesize whatever I've picked up in life that's worth sharing and through my craft find a way to, unobtrusively, deliver the mail.
"An Evening With Patti LuPone and Mandy Patinkin" runs June 23–29 at the Ahmanson Theatre in L.A. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit www.centertheatregroup.org.