Mahaiwe Gala: Mandy Patinkin: Singer-actor connects the dots

Saturday October 13, 2012

GREAT BARRINGTON -- Some enjoy the view of the Manhattan skyline or the more distant Jersey shore as they amble along the Hudson River Walk. Others apply earphones to savor music as well.

But Mandy Patinkin does them one better: He sings. Softly, of course, much as opera singers might "mark" their lines in rehearsal to save the full voice, but even more muted.

Patinkin's peripatetic private outdoor performance is part of his vocal regimen.

"I live in Manhattan and do this every day I can whenever I'm home. It's a meditation walk, and I practice my music. I've got about 12 hours of song that I keep in my mind," the singer and actor explained, briefly interrupting his intriguing practice session one afternoon last week to chat on his cell phone.

"I don't read music, never have," he confided. "But I have a pretty good ear. I can hear a song a couple of times, then work with my piano player, Paul Ford, with words and music, and together, they get into my brain. It's a little like (learning and memorizing) Shakespeare."

Patinkin and Ford, his music director, will be joined by Patinkin's very good friend, Patti LuPone, in a benefit performance Sunday evening at 7, on the stage of the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center. The concert offically honors founding board member John Hoyt Stookey, and serves to inaugurate the John Hoyt Stookey Fund for Programmatic Excellence, supporting
the Mahaiwe's year-round

Patinkin is familiar to many for his work on stage and large and small screens; a Tony recipient both for his portrayal of Che Guevara in Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Evita" with LuPone in his 1980 Broadway debut, and four years later for his George Seurat in Stephen Sondheim's "Sunday in the Park with George."

His current assignment as Saul Berenson, the beleaguered, yet persistent, CIA Middle East division chief emeritus in the Emmy-winning Showtime series "Homeland," brings him into more than two million homes each Sunday evening.

But his performances as a singer are equally celebrated both on stage and on several recordings of music by various American composers, and for his most personal project, the memorable "Mamaloshen," a collection of traditional, classic and contemporary songs sung entirely in Yiddish.

Patinkin's vocal instrument is a curious amalgam of strongly supported middle range and a top that can soar easily to the stratosphere. He reaches back to his sophomore year in high school to ascribe his initial vocal technique:

"I went to a mostly African-American school and was in an incredible chorus," he said. "Lena McLin was the choral teacher, and she asked me to sing something." Young Mandy obliged "in my quiet little voice," he noted

"Afterward, she started coming over to me, and I thought, ‘Oh, I'm gonna get yelled at.' But she said, ‘Child, anybody tells you, you shouldn't sing in that voice, you tell them to come and talk to Lena.'

"I never forgot that. It taught me to sing in any range I choose, technically not feeling self-conscious with it. I have this ability to do this high sound and so my sophomore choral teacher was my teacher."

Patinkin, now 59, said he gathered another lesson when he was in his 30s. "I was doing a concert, and all of a sudden, 45 minutes into the concert, my neck started getting tight. I said to myself, ‘This is what happens when you get older.' "

Several people, his wife and Ford among them, advised him to consult Joan Lader, the renowned New York-based voice instructor who, over nearly 30 years, has developed a reputation both for correcting injured voices and training well-known Broadway, opera, pop and rock singers.

"So I went to her," recalled Patinkin, "and she told me to stand up straight. I started to sing, and she stopped me. Basically, she took me back to ground zero, and she said ‘Do this: up, up, up, up, up.' " Patinkin said he had a couple of lessons from her and never again had a problem.

"I do her exercises religiously before and after every concert. A lot of it has to do with posture. It's all about muscles and exercise."

It's all a matter of conditioning, Patinkin says.

"My voice gets lower when I'm acting," he said, requiring him once more to do the exercises. He said prep work on the walk and in the studio with Ford are good, but, like the swimmer in the Olympics, the actual Olympic event is the crucial part of the exercise:

"The audience changes the feeling," he explained, "so we invite people over to my studio. It kicks it up a notch. It helps it (the voice) to perform."

Patinkin often has been praised for his communicative gifts, whether in song or dramatic role. "In ‘Sunday in the Park with George,' James Lapine wrote a line repeatedly as advice to Seurat: ‘Connect, George, connect' and if there is one word I want on my tombstone, it's ‘connect.'

"My job is to connect the ideas, whether I'm talking to Claire Danes (in "Homeland") or singing to an audience; to try to be a good mail man for those gorgeous writers my job is to deliver their mail."

"An Evening with Patti LuPone and Mandy Patinkin" is the official name of Sunday's show, but the principals affectionately call it "the Patti and Mandy show," the first reunion of the two stars since "Evita." According to Patinkin, it all came about 10 years ago through a bit of attempted show-biz razzmatazz.

"They were opening a new theater in Richardson, Texas, and a fib was told to us," Patinkin said. "They called my people and said they had Patti, and then they told her people that they had Mandy. The idea was that each of us would sing for 20 minutes, then do ‘Getting to Know You.'

"I don't like that. I was ready to blow it off, but I spoke to Paul (Ford), and he said we can put together an evening using familiar and unfamiliar material, sung and spoken

"Paul is like the Library of Congress when it comes to material . When you work with Paul there is no shortage of ideas. And Ann Reinking designed some (choreography) that we can do.

"We've done it all over the world, and are now working on a new piece," declared Patinkin as he signed off to resume his ambient personal concert.


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