There's a folder on my computer called "Patti LuPone Videos," but it's not a place where I organize my collection. It's a folder I created for documents pertaining to a show I was planning (in 2009) in which I was going to screen videos of Patti LuPone and talk about them, breaking down for the audience exactly why I loved them so much.
My logic at the time was that I was giving this away for free to anyone who came to my apartment, so I might as well make some money off it. I needed a new couch. Now, four years later, I've concluded a year-long run in my solo play, Patti Issues, which I am performing around the world while two-time Tony nominee Robin De Jesus replaces me (as me!) in the New York production. (And I got the couch!)
Originally, I didn't envision writing and performing a show so much as curating and hosting an evening. I began making notes, filling up the folder with lists of my favorite Patti videos, the videos I think best represent my experience of a life spent in adulation of La LuPone. I whittled the list down to a manageable length (the original list had 47 videos!) and devised a running order that served as a chronology of how these videos impacted my life.
For as long as I can remember, I've loved Patti LuPone and for as long as I can remember, I've wanted to be a writer. Loving Patti was easier. I began directing plays in high school, and soon I had a confidence as a director that made writing seem daunting by comparison. I always envisioned writing these epic vehicles for myself as director. It's insane to me that, with Patti Issues, I wound up writing a vehicle for myself as a performer. I used to quote Mary in Merrily We Roll Along, saying, "I only perform at dinner."
When I had the idea for the LuPone video evening, I e-mailed Patti to get permission to use some footage she had given me. Early in my directing career, assisting Lonny Price on Sweeney Todd with the New York Philharmonic, I realized a lifelong dream in becoming friends with Patti. Later I realized a lifelong nightmare when Patti threatened to sue me, at least implicitly, by having her lawyer demand I close my production of Leslie Kritzer is Patti LuPone at Les Mouches, a project to which she had originally given her blessing. This time around, I wanted explicit permission to use her proprietary material.
I explained my concept of this deconstruction show to Patti, "like Seth Rudetsky, but all bravas, no headaches!" Patti asked to see a draft. I was planning to have a set list and just wing the rest, but her request was reasonable and it certainly wouldn't hurt me to have a rough draft as a blueprint, so I sat down to fill in some connective tissue between videos, like concert patter.
In the past when I had tried to write my epics (Milking Harvey, Pretty Boy, The Wizard of Ahhs!) laziness and insecurity would overtake me and sabotage me every time I sat down at the computer. Writing about Patti LuPone, my happy place, was different. Also, I had recently begun blogging for a friend's website, and the first-person narrative, personal essay format felt comfortable and natural. As I attempted to offer some context for these Patti LuPone videos, what was coming out of me was less about Patti and more about me. I hoped that this personalization would make "my Patti show" (as I was calling it at that point) more compelling, but I began to realize that even if the show I was writing turned out to be a total disaster, it would be worth it for the creative experience I was having. A week into the process, I had over 15,000 words — the equivalent of ten blog posts! I was finally a writer!
I knew my show needed a final moment to close the arc of my journey with Patti LuPone. After everything I'd gone through worshipping Patti from afar, then getting close to her, then getting that phone call from her lawyer, and then subsequently producing her album, "Patti LuPone at Les Mouches" (restored from archival tapes of her legendary 1980 performances), one moment kept coming to my mind. In 2008, after not seeing my father for ten years, and basically being estranged from him for 20 years, I happened to run into him, by sheer coincidence, sitting directly behind me at Gypsy on Broadway starring Patti LuPone. In retrospect, the way I felt interacting with my father that night, knowing that I was going backstage to see Patti after the show, seemed like the resolution to what I felt I was exploring in my writing about Patti. I just had to figure out how make sense of it. I had an hour of material about Patti LuPone and a moment with my father.
For three years I worked intermittently on (what I was then calling) Patti Lu-Fucking-Pone, through various readings and presentations. In 2012, I was finally on track to see the project through to fruition. I ultimately decided not to use any videos in my show. What I wrote was so personal that the videos seemed like a distraction. Long after the theatre (the intimate cabaret room at the Duplex) was booked and the press release went out, mere days before Patti issues opened, I realized that in my excitement about being a writer, I had overlooked the fact that I was supposed to be a performer too. All though rehearsals, I read my script to my brilliant director, Aaron Mark, as a writer sharing my material. I suddenly had a rude awakening to the reality of the situation I had concocted for myself. Immediately, I felt tremendous sympathy for actors. I couldn't stop my hands from shaking through the entire first month of performances. Of course, it didn't help that Patti LuPone was in the audience for the second show!
My performance anxiety climaxed at the fifth show, when Alan Cumming was in the audience. From the stage of the Duplex, the lights make it hard to see anyone in the house, except a little bit when the front door opens, and about twenty minutes into the fifth performance of Patti Issues, the door opened and I recognized Alan Cumming's haircut walking out of my show. I was devastated. Then I noticed two extremely attractive Broadway dancers in the front row — obvious Patti fans — who were lapping up my every word, terrifically appreciative audience members. I thought to myself, "Girl. You did not write this show for Alan Cumming." Furthermore, I realized it was the first performance where no one I mention in the story was in the house. Besides Patti LuPone, my parents had seen the show, my sister, Lonny Price. I looked at those two gorgeous guys in the front row and I told them my story. And my hands stopped shaking. I was finally a performer! (It turned out Alan Cumming stayed in his seat the whole time — that had been a waiter with the same haircut opening the door. Alan loved my show and wound up becoming a good friend, even doing a FunnyOrDie video with me to promote the show.)
Now with Robin De Jesus is Ben Rimalower in Patti Issues, I'm back to just being the writer. Thinking back on this whole experience. I want to share the Patti LuPone videos that were my original inspiration.
1. "Broadway Baby"
My first draft begins with middle school, my "discovery" of Patti LuPone on "Life Goes," singing "Broadway Baby." I was obsessed with how pretty she sounds, how much head voice she mixes into the beginning of this performance, which then builds to such an explosive finish, as well as her hilarious attempt at composure exiting that disaster of a stage.
Flash back to my first awareness of Patti in the EVITA commercial, when I was four.
That commercial is everything. Okay... First, there's a chorus screaming the name of the show, "Evita, Evita, Evita!" This show is important. This woman is important; it's young Patti, beautiful, blonde, bejeweled, beseeching Argentina not to cry for her. Why would a country cry for her? And what's with the army guy biting the cap off his beer? I smell danger...
Then, you get brassy, brunette belting Patti dancing and dressing like Debbie Allen in West Side Story, telling Buenos Aires to stand back with a vibrato that leaves them no choice. She is threatening, warning us we oughta know what we're gonna get in her. She says it's just a little touch, just a little touch, but I can tell she means a lot.
Back to blonde Patti, only now she's singing "just a little touch" too. Blonde Patti singing Brunette's Patti's song is like the end of the Thriller video when nice Michael Jackson's eyes glow red. Nice Patti's a zombie too! It's scary. And it's exciting! She smiles and the way her eyes light up, you know whatever shit goes down, it's gonna be a good time.
3. "A New Argentina"
I was lucky enough to have an uncle who knew everything about theatre (with a best friend who knew everything about Patti LuPone). In the days before Youtube, they hooked me up with all the essentials, starting with Patti's incendiary performance in "A New Argentina" at the 1980 Tonys. Uncle Mitchell and Kenn made sure I didn't miss Patti's double-take as Eva betrays her true intentions, "We'll — YOU'LL be handed power on a plate…" And they told me that the high note Patti belted in full chest voice ("…is one OF you") is a G, the same note as in "If I Loved You" in Carousel. All I knew was Patti didn't pause for breath. Neither did I.
4. "Being Alive"
If one musical theatre event could be called the nexus of my entire adolescence, it is without a doubt the PBS broadcast of "Sondheim: A Celebration At Carnegie Hall." I was already a huge fan of Into the Woods, Sunday in the Park with George, Company and Merrily We Roll Along, but this concert introduced me to the vast array of Sondheim's other shows (and other songs!). What made it so thrilling, besides Paul Gemignani conducting a huge orchestra at Carnegie Hall, was an absolutely world-class roster of stars including Liza Minnelli, Madeline Kahn, Bernadette Peters, Betty Buckley, Glenn Close, Dorothy Loudon and, stopping the show cold with the definitive version of "Being Alive," my girl, Patti LuPone.
My entire existence as a "LuPonista"— and really my entire existence — can be divided into two periods, Before and After "Meadowlark." I first heard "Meadowlark" in 1993 at Patti LuPone's landmark live concerts at the Westwood Playhouse in Los Angeles (recorded and released as "Patti LuPone Live!"). I usually have to hear a song a few times to really get it. Not "Meadowlark."
6. "As If We Never Said Goodbye"
I lost a lot of sleep over Patti's whole Sunset Boulevard fiasco, following with baited breath each development from her participation in the 1992 workshop at Andrew Lloyd Webber's Sydmonton estate, through all the rumors swirling around her run in the 1993 London premiere to her contract being broken so that Glenn Close could star in the 1994 Broadway production. To this day, I have the New York Times clipping announcing Glenn Close for Broadway (and adding that Patti was being considered for the workshop of Passion), which my grandmother sent to me with the note, "Sorry to be the bearer of bad news. Maybe she'll do the Sondheim?"
7. "Rainbow High"
In college I found the Internet and connected with people all over the world who shared my passions. More importantly, I connected with people all over the world who shared their videos! That was how I discovered this gem from "The Merv Griffin Show" in 1980, Patti singing Evita''s "Rainbow High" at her most fabulously ferocious.
8. "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered"
When I was a freshman at UC Berkeley, my parents didn't want me to fly to New York for the weekend to see Patti LuPone in Pal Joey at City Center Encores! Maybe they wouldn't have thought it was so irresponsible if they'd known I would reunite in the lobby with our old family friend Lonny Price, who directed Pal Joey, and that a few years later I'd be his assistant director. I'll never forget being part of the standing ovation Patti received for her first entrance on a New York stage post-Sunset Boulevard. As a single body, the audience, we expressed our love for her and she gave love right back. I feel that love every time I hear her sing "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered."
9. "A Wonderful Guy"
If my heart went out to Patti as the victim of scandal, her resilience and strength were always an empowering inspiration to me. In one draft of my show, I was going to play this video of Patti as "Libby Thatcher" on "Life Goes On," a unique take on "I'm In Love With A Wonderful Guy." My plan was to show video footage on mute and then provide the vocals myself, for the song and for the angry monologue!
10. "A Boy Like That"
The most exciting night of my life was Nov. 19, 1999, Patti's solo debut at Carnegie Hall, to benefit the Gay Men's Health Crisis. I will never forget my goose bumps on top of goose bumps as Patti premiered her Coulda Woulda Shoulda set, including "Don't Rain On My Parade" and "My Way" and "When The Sun Comes Out." Perhaps most exciting of all was her performance of both parts (!) in "A Boy Like That."
11. "The Worst Pies in London"
At every performance of Patti Issues, the audience has gone nuts for my recounting of my experience getting to know Patti when I was assistant director of the New York Philharmonic's 2000 production of Sweeney Todd. I spend so much time talking about how thrilling I found Patti behind the scenes as herself, I don't get the chance to talk about how thrilling she was as Mrs. Lovett.
12. "Don't Cry For Me, Argentina"
I've seen Patti sing "Don't Cry For Me, Argentina" a million times and she always seems to find resonance in it. In Patti Issues, I call Patti's video of her performance at Les Mouches, "the Holy Grail of Patti LuPone videos," and indeed, the first time I watched it, I was I immediately transported back to that time "when Patti was the toast of the town, starring in Evita on Broadway and selling out week after week in this smash hit cabaret act!" Now, after everything that happened to me, "Don't Cry For Me, Argentina" has resonance for me too.
(Ben Rimalower is the author and original star star of the critically acclaimed Patti Issues. Read Playbill.com's coverage of the solo show here. Visit him at benrimalower.com and follow @benrimalower on Twitter.)