The human hurricane known as Mandy Patinkin sets down this weekend for three concerts with the Cincinnati Pops, his first appearance with the Pops since 1991. The protean star of stage (Evita, Sunday in the Park with George), screen (The Princess Bride, Run Ronnie, Run) and television (Homeland, Criminal Minds) says that these performances mark his “re-emergence with the orchestral world.”
Patinkin’s exuberance and relish in performing were delightfully audible in a recent phone interview.
“It’s been a lot of years since I did a concert with a full orchestra,” he said during a conversation that included background on his multifaceted career, disciplined preparation and, eventually, Inigo Montoya himself. “But I had so many requests that we looked at some of our old charts and decided to see what would happen.”
What exactly will take place during the Pops performance was still undecided when we spoke, but he said the program will include “a lot of stuff from my early albums, along with newer stuff with just a piano.” And, of course, Sondheim.
Patinkin’s first appearances were minor roles in film and TV, but he jumped to the major leagues of theater as Che Guevara in Evita, winning a Tony Award in 1980. Four years later, he was cast as Georges Seurat in Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George, earning another Tony nomination. It was the beginning of a long association with the iconic composer and lyricist who Patinkin calls “the Shakespeare of our time.”
Patinkin has an intensely personal connection with Sondheim that goes beyond his portrayal of Seurat or Buddy in the 1985 concert version of Follies. He cites his one-man show, Celebrating Sondheim, when asked about a favorite Sondheim role.
“The reason he speaks to me is that he writes about light over darkness,” Patinkin says. “Any darkness that I’ve had in the past, today, tomorrow or the future, I long not to waste a second of my life.
I want to make that dark turn into light. I’m well aware that we don’t see the light without darkness, but it’s nicer to be in the sun.”
He continues: “I always wondered what it was like, being one of Shakespeare’s actors. Well, I figured it out: It’s like working with Sondheim. He’s a friend and a collaborator, and I get to be the mailman for this genius’s letters.”
Whirlwind that he is, Patinkin has no fear of taking on some of Sondheim’s ensemble numbers as a solo, such as “The Ballad of Booth” from Assassins. “I sing everybody’s part because it’s a constant stream of thought. It only matters if you’re locked into the original source.”
There might be a selection or two from Patinkin’s 1998 release, Mamaloshen, a compilation of Yiddish songs that was one of his most successful recordings, even though he grew up in a non-Yiddish speaking home. “I learned Yiddish from three Holocaust survivors. Yiddish is not a dead language; it’s struggling. Mamaloshen was one of the most fulfilling things I’ve ever done,” he says.
Patinkin gleefully compares his concert programming to a diet: “You need some protein, you need some roughage, some anti-oxidants. I’m spoiled by this diet. I get to taste a little something of everything I love in life.”
Speaking of diets, Patinkin is no longer a vegan (“I’m on the I-was-on-vacation diet,”) but he eschews sugar, alcohol and carbs. And he’s a strict disciplinarian when it comes to summoning the energy for two hours onstage.
“Pacing yourself is the most important thing for a performer,” he says. “It requires everything I’ve got. That’s the way it was when I was 25, and now that I’m 60 it’s no different. It’s an athletic event, and when you add singing it’s even more physical. So when I get to town, I rest all day. No talking and no lunch with anyone.”
Patinkin shows no signs of slowing down. In addition to concert dates, he begins shooting season three of Homeland next month and stars in the screen adaptation of Philip Roth’s American Pastoral. In August, he will travel to Australia with baritone Nathan Gunn for more concerts, and he’ll be in a new work by Taylor Mack, directed by Susan Stroman, titled The Last Two People on Earth.
“It’s pretty unique,” he says. “It’s an apocalyptic vaudeville.”
Last month, Patinkin introduced his latest project, called Intercultural Journeys (“and I hope they come up with a new title”), which he says features a Palestinian Christian violinist, an Israeli cellist, a Venezuelan/Syrian/Druze drummer, a Methodist pianist from Atlanta and an American Jew from Chicago (himself).
“My answer to the Middle East conflict is to make music together, figuratively and physically,” Patinkin says. “The message is, now you figure out what you can do together.”
And, finally, the conversation turns to the famous Inigo Montoya, the character Patinkin played in the 1987 romantic comedy, The Princess Bride. Although that performance is a far cry from the talents Cincinnati audiences will see this weekend, Patinkin still thinks fondly of the role and its place in his career.
“I could not believe I was given the privilege to play it,” he says. “The fact that it’s caught on the way it has, that I got to be that guy, with that group of actors, written so brilliantly by Bill Goldman and directed by Rob Reiner, I have to pinch myself every time someone comes up to me. I can’t believe they’re talking to me about it.”
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