Jewish Journal


January 31, 2008

Sondheim and Yiddish songs are ‘like prayer’ for Patinkin


Mandy Patinkin performs "Finishing the Hat" in Sunday in the Park with George
"I have acquired a taste for Patinkin verging on addiction," Clive Barnes wrote in the New York Post in 2001.

Maybe you know him as Inigo Montoya, the Spanish fencer in "The Princess Bride," who shouts, "My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die!"

Or perhaps you were introduced to him in "Yentl," as the serious yeshiva boy whose confused feelings for Babs' cross-dressing Torah student entwined him in romance.

Or maybe you simply know him as Mandy Patinkin, master showman.

The actor/singer/entertainer will perform for one night only on Feb. 2 at the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood in a career retrospective showcasing his original interpretations of Broadway songs with longtime collaborator pianist Paul Ford.

In his eclectic career of nearly three decades, Patinkin, 55, has moved comfortably from musical theater to television and film work, as well as solo performances showcasing his versatile singing voice. But the theme that unifies most of his work is his near-religious devotion to the stage.

"It's what I love to do more than anything in the world," Patinkin said. "It's like food for me -- to perform these songs at a time when the world is so stressed -- physically, economically and environmentally bleeding."

If that sounds bleak, he offers "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" lyrics as a kind of meditation: "When all the world is a hopeless jumble, and the raindrops tumble all around, Heaven opens a magic lane..."

Patinkin describes himself as a "mailman," transmitting the messages of songwriters like Stephen Sondheim and Irving Berlin, but says he avoids encumbering the material with his own feelings.

Listening to Patinkin wax poetic, it seems implausible that he could keep a cool distance from any performance.

"I am someone who feels a lot," he said by telephone from his home in New York. "I can't choke off who I am."

His intensity may stem from growing up a Conservative Jew on the South Side of Chicago, where he first experienced the power of music when performing in the synagogue choir.

Raised in a traditional family, Patinkin attended Hebrew school, performed cantorial solos during High Holy Days and studied drama at the local JCC, where he discovered his calling.

"If you love someone, tell them," Patinkin remembers his drama teacher saying about the musical "Carousel."

"If that's what this genre of material is about, I like it. And I want to visit it more often," Patinkin remembers thinking. This message sent him straight to Julliard to study acting.

One of his first and arguably best-known roles was as a yeshiva student opposite Streisand in the movie, "Yentl." Other actors might have feared being typecast by a Jewish-themed film with predominantly Jewish characters, but not Patinkin.

"All my roles are Jewish," he said. "Whether I'm Inigo Montoya or a Spanish cabdriver or Georges Seurat -- there's a Jewish core to all of them, because it's me, and I can't avoid who I am."

Indeed, many of Patinkin's career decisions have been motivated by emotion.

He caused a stir last summer when he asked to be released from his role on the CBS television show "Criminal Minds," reportedly over creative differences. Although Patinkin wouldn't say, rumors have circulated that he disapproved of the show's treatment of violence. Another time, he left the series "Chicago Hope" because it kept him away from his family.

Is he afraid his choices might hamper his success?

"No. I believe attending to my family has only helped me professionally, never hurt me," Patinkin said. "You prioritize by listening to your heart."

His heart has found its voice in modern show tunes. Sondheim is "the William Shakespeare of our time," he said. Show tunes are songs that "hit a nerve which humanity wants to revisit constantly." Musical scores have "a heartbeat."

For him, music is like prayer.

"Lyric is what always drives me, and the words and what the stories are, but great music is extremely spiritual," he says, delivering his words with the emphasis of a Shakespearean soliloquy. "Great music without any lyrics at all is some people's complete connection to spirituality and religion. Great religions almost all have music in them. When you combine the two, it allows you to feel the thought."

If he is effusive about the stage, he is absolutely unconstrained with his feelings about Judaism. But during one performance, his Jewish exuberance translated into a political statement, and it was not well received.

On Sept. 10, 2001 Patinkin sang a Hebrew prayer during a performance in New York and then placed an Israeli flag and a Palestinian flag together on top of a stool. The sound of an explosion blared. He then sang the Sondheim lyric from "Into the Woods": "Careful the things you do, children will listen."

The next day, after the World Trade Center attacks, an Israeli performer angrily pointed out riotous celebration in Gaza, and said they were waving the same flag to celebrate the destruction of Sept. 11 that Patinkin had used the night before during a prayer for peace.

Patinkin hasn't performed "Children Will Listen" the same way since.

"I'm not interested in making people upset or angry," he said, defending his act. "If I don't have your attention and your calm, than you won't hear the positive thoughts these people wrote, the wishes for humanity, for people to be together and not hate each other. I can sacrifice certain things to gain greater attention to the cause."

These days, instead of making political statements, he is pursuing peaceful Jewish causes such as the Arava Institute, an environmental studies center in Israel, and touring his formidable Yiddish repertoire.

"It's a gift to have a heritage, a culture that you come from -- it's your gift! It's your map of the world you came from. You can't avoid it, and to deny it is stupid, it's really stupid," he declared.

For Patinkin, ignoring one's heritage is ignoble and has consequences: "You're depriving yourself of one of the greatest conscious and unconscious food sources that your history has to offer you."

And then, without any drama at all, he said: "Being Jewish has been one of the great gifts of my life."

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