Q&A: Mandy Patinkin

 

Multiaward-winning actor and singer Mandy Patinkin starred in the February 2010 world-premiere production of Compulsion by Rinne Groff, at the Yale Repertory Theatre in New Haven. 

How did you get involved with Compulsion?

I got a call from Oskar Eustis; he said he had something he wanted to send me. I think it was in September, 2009. He sent it to me, I read it the next day and I said, "Please don't do this without me." It hit a nerve; I thought it was an extraordinary piece of writing. It's been a long time since I've seen a play to my taste of this nature. I wanted very much to be a part of it, and hoped I could work it out-there were many hurdles to jump, because I had scheduling problems with my concert business. We had to find ways around all of that, and we did, thanks to the graciousness of Yale Rep and their willingness to be flexible in schedule adjustment.

Were you especially familiar with the story of Meyer Levin prior to this?

Not at all. I was in an American Zionist Association group on the south side of Chicago, a Jewish youth group. And I was in a chapter that, I'm pretty sure, was named for Meyer Levin. But I had no idea who he was: I was told it was named after this writer, and never asked! It was only in the midst of getting involved in this piece that it came to my mind one day; I actually called my cousin Allen to confirm the name of the chapter. That's just an amazing coincidence from my youth.

You're playing the character of Sid Silver, who's supposedly based on Levin.

I think that was the name of the reporter in Levin's book Compulsion, about Leopold and Loeb. But the character is him, and it isn't him-it's him and it's everyone. It's a larger, greater photograph of human nature. I would say Meyer Levin was the catalyst for Sid Silver's journey, because the play goes on past Meyer Levin's life. It's not a biographical piece, by any means. There are certain triggers that are based in fact, but then it moves into something far more wide-reaching than just a documentary.

What spoke to you personally about the play? What about it makes it universal?

I don't want to say too much. I want people to come and not have a preconception of either Meyer Levin's history or what I might have said in some article they may read. I don't want to encumber the experience with anything. I want it to be pretty clean, and I want people at the end of the day to tell me what they think.

You're my first interview-I did a tiny thing with The New York Times-I'm really not quite sure how to handle this interview process, just because I really don't want to talk about the play. So I don't know what to do or what to say. So ask away and I'll give you whatever I can think of, but I'm not quite sure how to handle this.

I understand. I just wanted to give people a sense of who Meyer Levin was and what his struggle was all about; some background.

What do you know about him?

I guess my understanding is the same as what you initially talked about: that he was the author of Compulsion, about Leopold and Loeb. My understanding was that this piece takes off from his discovery of the diary of Anne Frank . . .

Right. It has nothing to do with his play Compulsion, other than what you choose to make of the word. But it's certainly triggered by this real-life relationship between Levin and Otto Frank concerning his daughter's diary, which has been documented.

. . . My understanding is also that Levin wanted to produce a play centered on the diary, and that he ended up running into a wall with both Otto Frank and Doubleday, the publisher that had the rights to the diary. And ultimately he did create his own play, that to this day is rarely seen. But what we know of Anne Frank is not the vision he wanted presented to the world. He felt that the diary as published represented a watered-down version of Anne's discussion of her faith.

There's nothing that you're saying that isn't correct. I think he felt that some of what Anne intended had been compromised-he felt protective of those intentions and what they represented on a much larger scale.

Do you relate to that concern that he had?

I'm not going to comment on Mandy's feelings about the Frank/Levin saga. I don't want to say anything about my personal feelings-they will be in my work on the stage. And I'm still in the process of discovering this play, so what I say today might be very different from what I discover in the rehearsal process. I don't want to misrepresent myself or the larger effort. In a strange way, I feel as protective of this process and whatever it is this play is trying to convey as Levin felt of what he believed were the pure intentions of Anne's words. We have a kinship in terms of that journey. I don't know how to sell it to tell people to please come. The facts you have are right, but . . . I'm not saying that's not what the play is about; I'm not saying none of those things is in the play. But that's not what the play means to me. That's not how it speaks to me.

You know, my wife would always say to me, "It's not the inn at the end of the road; it's the road." I sort of feel like anything that you or anyone else mentions that has a factual anchor or validity in terms of part of this process-they're all various inns one may pass, but the real ride is the road, not any of the inns. They're literally just scenery.

Well, what should we say?

I love this piece, and I'm working very hard to try to do justice to it. It's extremely personal on levels that I couldn't even imagine could be written about. It really is unknown territory for me-God knows I've been working on it and studying it. I made some comments to the Times when it was announced, and I vaguely remember what I said, and I regretted my comments. I just want to shut up and do the work. But I'm in a tricky position because they want me to talk to people so they can have an article. And I don't want to make up bullshit, or say stuff that might feel inappropriate to me.

This is your first time working with Yale Rep, but haven't you worked with Oscar Eustis before?

I'm looking forward to that, God knows. It's my first time being directed by Oscar, too, although he was kind enough to let me have a space at the Public Theater to do some concerts to benefit the theater about a year ago. We had met a couple of years ago, and I had said to him how much I desired to work at the Public with him, if anything appropriate came along. So now my wish has come true.

Is this your first time in New Haven theater?

I've worked in New Haven before. When I was a young actor, I appeared in Michael Cristofer's The Shadow Box at Long Wharf, directed by Gordon Davidson, which we later went and did in New York.

You mentioned your concert tour, which you're doing with Patti Lupone.

I created a show for Patti and myself-in that world, you book nine months to a year ahead. So I had these bookings, and I don't like to cancel; indeed, some of them I couldn't cancel. And I was very concerned that all of this couldn't be coordinated with the play. Yale found a way to work around the schedule and add other performances and change days off, and I found ways to make things work-so I'll be doing some performances at Yale, leaving the theater and going to the airport and jumping on a private jet to fly somewhere to do a concert with Patti, then getting on a plane to fly right back to New Haven to do two shows the next day. That'll happen a couple of times; we were able to get it all in.

Is that crazy-making?

I'll let you know Jan. 28. It's what it had to be, so I'll make it work, because I wanted to do this play that much. At the end of the day, if I had had to cancel those concerts, I would have. But the good news is we were able to work it all out, and I'll just take good care of myself and make sure I can do it. I'll just prepare hot and heavy for the play so that I feel on top of it.

Can you tell me anything about the show with Patti?

The shows with Patti are a figurative journey of two souls using familiar and unfamiliar material both spoken and sung. It's a very entertaining concert evening that has a bit of a journey. She's an old, dear friend-we worked in Evita many years ago; that's how we solidified our friendship.

We do a large selection of songs from Carousel and South Pacific, Merrily We Roll Along. I've been doing these songs in concert for 20 years now. They're real classics, and I always define a classic as an idea you want to revisit over and over again, whether it's by Sondheim or people like Yip Harburg, Irving Berlin or Randy Newman. There's such simplicity to them and to their reflections on human nature. That's also what I feel this play has-an incredible simplicity about it in terms of how it mirrors human nature.

You've been performing for how long?

I started performing in high school on the south side of Chicago, at the Young Men's Jewish Council Youth Center, at about the age of 14 or 15, which would be around 1967 or 1968. I fell in love with that way of being able to express myself, and I've stayed there ever since.

What keeps you going?

I don't know the answer to that. It's what I do. It's how I communicate and best express myself. I don't feel as alive all the other hours of the day. It gives me comfort; a life I can rehearse, practice and have freedom within. You don't get to rehearse real life.

Is there a special way you keep your voice in shape? Are there exercises you have to do?

I work out every day at the gym. When I'm concertizing, I vocalize a lot-it's a little trickier when I'm doing a play, because to learn the words I have to go over them thousands of times out loud; that's how I learn. So with this play, I'm trying to get that part of the process under my belt early, so I'm not so vocally taxed when I have to sing. This play will be an interesting experience, because I'll be on stage all the time, almost never not speaking; then I'll jump on airplanes and run and do concerts where I'm doing the same thing. For actors, if your voice gets tired, it usually makes your performance sound more interesting. That's not the case when you're singing.

I see your name linked quite a bit to various charitable initiatives. Are there particular ones you're especially involved with right now?

I do work hard for a lot of them. I'm on the board of directors for the New York Organ Donor network, to try to get people to become organ donors, because so many lives can be saved which each life that passes. It's a wonderful program, and I hope one day organ donation is just automatic unless you want to opt out, rather than having to opt in.

I work for prostate cancer awareness, for people to tell the men in their lives to have a physical exam and get a PSA test. If you have a family member who's suffered from prostate cancer, you should get it from 40 years on; if not, from 50. The earlier the better. And men should go on a heart smart diet whenever possible and exercise; it's good for us all. I do whatever I can for cancer research in general. I have dear friends in the field who are scientists and doctors, and they've often called on me to support them.

I'm also very involved with an organization that's called the Arava Institute of Environmental Studies, arava.org. They work with graduate students who are Israeli, Palestinian, Palestinian-Israeli Egyptian and Jordanian, Muslim, Christian and Jew, Americans as well. They take graduate students in all areas of life, but the key focus is on the environment and what can be done to improve it. The longer range goal is that many of these families are not interested in having their children be together. The real nerve of the goal is that down the road when there are troubles, these young people will have forged relationships with each other and will be in their communities, hopefully as leaders, and rather than finding ways to harm each other, they will find ways to clean up the land, air and water together. As one of the students so brilliantly said: "Air and water have no border crossing."

And I assume your own health is good these days?

It is, knock on wood. I'm a prostate cancer survivor and I'm also an organ recipient. A 13-year-0ld little boy and a 14-year-old little girl donated their eyes to me after they passed away. I had an eye problem and now I don't. So I'm very blessed.

The other thing I wanted to mention was that I watched The Princess Bride again last night. Do you still do your signature line at concerts?

Often, but not always. I was thrilled to be a part of that movie, but I'm every bit as thrilled to be a part of Compulsion. This isn't just another play. I don't do very many plays; I haven't done them for years. I've been trying to get back in the game-I did The Tempest last year for The Classic Stage Co. in New York City. I just did some readings of Much Ado About Nothing there, too. A few years earlier I had done Enemy of the People at Williamstown with my teacher and mentor Gerald Freedman, dean of the North Carolina School of the Arts. Slowly I am trying to come back and rebirth myself in the theater, and this play was a song I wanted to sing. In the Hebrew, there's an expression that you don't want to "Kannah hora" it-say anything to jinx it. It's a beautiful piece that I'm extremely privileged to be a part of.

What other plans do you have for this year?

I'm supposed to go to London in May with Hal Prince, who has a new musical called Paradise Found, which is going to premiere at the Menier Chocolate Factory in London, the same theater that recently revived Sunday in the Park with George and brought the current production of A Little Night Music to Broadway. They've had great success with a very small venue that seems to cater to musical classics or, as in this case, something new.

Q&A: Mandy Patinkin

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