“I feel most people in the arts, have … in some cases, a higher sensitivity to the human condition.” He wasn’t talking about himself when he said it, but after spending a mere 30 minutes talking to Mandy Patinkin, I knew it applied to him just the same.
Patinkin is known for his sensitivity, but usually colored in an un-endearing light—often labeled “too much.” The New York Times declared, “Less Mandy is best Mandy.” But if you speak to the man, you realize it’s exactly his “too much”-ness that makes him an artist worth knowing.
Still, such criticism is something Patinkin grapples with, what he calls “a lifelong quest [to] try and keep the reigns in on Mandy, so Mandy doesn’t get in the way of the audience’s experience.” In his upcoming concerts May 20 (in Tarrytown), May 22 (at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center) and May 23 (at Jazz at Lincoln Center), Patinkin aims to have “as little Mandy as possible.”
How? By listening. “Saul [his character on HBO’s Homeland] listens better than Mandy,” says Patinkin. “Saul is much quieter than Mandy and because I live with Saul so much of the time, at least half the year, Mandy has learned at the moment to be a little more like Saul.”
Now, Patinkin listens so much he doesn’t set a program for his concerts ahead of time, but works with his accompanist off the cuff. “I change my mind always at the last minute and sometimes during the concert,” he says. “I just feel it out.” But it’s all about an equilibrium, hitting the sweet spot.
“My favorite word was a word James Lapine used repeatedly in Sunday in the Park with George,” says the man who originated the title role, “which was the word ‘connect.’ All I want to do is connect.” It’s a word that defines him—and his concerts.
To reach his audience, Patinkin must relate to the song. “I need to have a connection to what I’m saying in my own life, in my imagination, in the real world, something that makes it vital to me,” he says.
Patinkin wants to connect to the work he does, to the characters he plays, to the words he sings. While he adores the music, lyrics drive him.
So it’s no surprise that Patinkin admires musical wordsmith—and other half of the Sunday in the Park writing team—Stephen Sondheim. “He is the Shakespeare of our time for me,” says Patinkin. “If I could write, I would write what he writes.”
“When you sing these songs, they become Torah,” he says. “They become my broccoli that my system needs to survive.”
It’s this profound expressiveness, the one that gets him into trouble with the critics, that connects Patinkin to Sondheim. “I think what a lot of [Sondheim’s] journey is about is turning darkness into light … and any dark aspects of my life, I long to turn them into light,” he says. “I work very hard at being a hopeful, optimistic individual in this world, and I love material that feeds that journey, and much of what Sondheim is about is being alive, like that song.”
In fact, Patinkin has felt most alive when singing Sondheim with two performers in particular: Patti LuPone and Bernadette Peters. “I’m trying to choose from what’s making my face just light up and grin,” he says after being asked for his favorite memories of working with the legendary performers. “They make me feel young. They make me feel alive. They were both equally the most gifted human beings I’ve ever known. The kindest human beings I’d ever known and the most generous human beings I’ve ever worked with. They did it all for me. … To get to be there on the stage at any time in your life with them is simply as good as it gets. … It’s better than the best sex you’ve ever had, and for those readers who have forgotten what sex is: a great dark chocolate or good wine. Everyone will know what I’m talking about.”
Patinkin began performing solo concerts back in 1989, after encouragement from Public Theater founder Joseph Papp. His first album, Mandy Patinkin, “came about working on the music in between some films or some plays because I didn’t want to wait around for what I wanted to do next.
“I always worked three or four hours a day learning songs and arranging them, and then it slowly took over a lot of my life [and] became my greatest love,” he smiles.
A father figure to Patinkin (who signed the ketubah, or Jewish marriage license, at Patinkin’s wedding), Papp encouraged Patinkin to take his singing outside his studio. On his Monday nights off from playing Leontes in the Public’s Winter’s Tale, Patinkin started doing concerts.
Papp knew it was the beginning of Patinkin’s dichotomous career. “Later on, [Joe] said to me, ‘You will always need to do both of these things.’” The stories through music and acting keep Patinkin in balance.
Since then, Patinkin has kept a steady concert lineup—though slightly less regular in recent years due to filming Homeland. Now he’s “getting my feet back in the water,” he says. “I’ve been going to the song gym every day.”
To Patinkin, it’s worth the workout. “I love sitting with the audience,” he says. Patinkin revels in creating with them. “Even though [the words] are coming out of my mouth, we’re all listening to the words together.”
Patinkin seems enamored with the newness of moments. He has a love of possibilities, particularly in theatre today. “I saw Hamilton when it was at the Public, and I just wept profusely in my seat because this is a form I love deeply, and to watch it be reinvented in such a genius, gifted way and executed by such a brilliant company of human beings, I was overwhelmed with not just appreciation for the piece of work itself, but for the possibility,” he says. “It’s about what’s not been known, all the unknown.”
“If I have a tombstone when it’s all over, it will say, ‘He tried to connect.’” Well, if that’s his goal, this Mandy in concert may be “just right.”
Ruthie Fierberg is the Features Editor at Playbill.com. She has also written for Backstage, Parents and American Baby, including dozens of interviews with celeb moms and dads for parents.com. See more at ruthiefierberg.com and follow her on Twitter at @RuthiesATrain.