Q&A: Mandy Patinkin
Mandy Patinkin, the actor, has been celebrated for decades for roles ranging from the revenge-seeking swashbuckler Inigo Montoya in the iconic film “The Princess Bride,” to his Emmy-winning portrayal of CIA veteran Saul Berenson in television’s “Homeland.”
But, did you know he could sing?
Patinkin, who will be performing show tunes and pop classics with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, Saturday, April 5, is no stranger to song. He won a Tony for his Broadway role as Che in “Evita,” and another nomination for playing artist Georges Seurat in “Sunday in the Park with Georges.”
He has been singing since his childhood days in the choir at his South Side Chicago Conservative synagogue, and has been heavily influenced by traditional Yiddish melodies. In fact, his solo show, “Mamaloshen,” honoring the Yiddish heritage of American composers, has been performed on and off-Broadway, and his album of the same name won the Deutschen Schallplattenpreis (Germany’s equivalent of the Grammy Award).
Patinkin made some time to speak to the Chronicle in advance of his visit to Pittsburgh, to talk about his upcoming PSO show, Saul, “Bohemian Rhapsody,” and the role Yiddish music plays in his life.
Jewish Chronicle: Will this be your first visit to Pittsburgh?
Mandy Patinkin: No, I was there before doing concerts, and I also shot a little bit of a film there that we haven’t finished yet called “American Pastoral” (based on the book by Philip Roth). We filmed a little of it, and they had some issues they had to resolve, which I think they’ve resolved and I think at some point they’re going to reschedule and we’re going to get back there and finish it up.
JC: What part do you play in that?
MP: I play Nathan Zuckerman, the Philip Roth character.
JC: You seem to get cast in a lot of Jewish roles.
MP: I know. It must be my brown eyes. Don’t let anyone know, but even Inigo Montoya was Jewish. So was Georges Seurat. So was Che Guevara. That’s my best-kept secret.
JC: That was their back-story, huh?
MP: [Laughs.] That was their back-story. Their mothers were Jewish.
JC: What about Saul Berenson from “Homeland”? He’s obviously Jewish. Do you use some of your own experiences to bring his character to life?
MP: Absolutely. For instance, the Kaddish, the mourner’s Kaddish that was used in the first season, I improvised that when the man killed himself, and the man was lying on the floor. The camera was still rolling, and I looked at him, and all of a sudden the mourner’s Kaddish started coming out of my mouth, and the director just let it roll. They didn’t even know what it was, and then, before you knew it, it ended the whole second season with that whole prayer, where they use the whole thing.
So, there are aspects that Saul Berenson is Jewish. He has a similar moral and ethical code that I do on occasion. At least so far he does. You know, I never know quite where the whole story is going to go cause the writers create it as we go along. But he is a father figure to Carrie Mathison; I have two sons. He’s a husband; I have a wife. And we both look similar.
JC: Yeah, I guess that would be right.
Tell me a little about this show that you’re going to be doing with the PSO. It’s show tunes and popular songs?
MP: Yes, we do it with the orchestra, and the orchestra concerts are wonderful fun. We do some of our old stuff with the orchestra that we’ve done years ago. We’ve made some orchestrations for some new things I’ve been working on, like for instance Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.” There are orchestrations that we do of things from “Music Man,” “Carousel,” Stephen Sondheim stuff, and then I occasionally do some things with Paul Ford on piano just to mix it up. Songs that hit a place in my heart that I enjoy performing over the years, and that lend themselves nicely to an orchestra.
JC: Is “Bohemian Rhapsody” really hard to sing?
MP: I love it. It’s a very meaningful piece to me. Obviously they did it differently when Queen did it; I just do it with one voice. But I find it a powerful song to engage with. Particularly, when I sing it these days I think of Philip Seymour Hoffman, who I knew. I think partly it’s a bit of a prayer and a memorial to him. I thought he was one of the great actors of our time — of any time. I had no idea about this problem and I was very, very upset about his pain and of his method of dealing with his pain.
JC: Tell me a little bit about “Mamaloshen.” Are you still performing that show?
MP: I do it every now and then. And I do pieces of it, meaning I do a Yiddish song here and there in other concerts that I do. It’s a piece I love and I rehearse it all the time, so I never lose it ’cause it’s deeply meaningful to me.
And so it was a project Joe Papp had initiated by asking me to learn a Yiddish song for the YIVO [Institute for Jewish Research] benefit. I did, and then it just grew and grew, and we made that record, and I made a stage version of it and I’ve been doing it in one form or another ever since.
JC: I read that you actually translated a lot of American composers’ music into Yiddish yourself. Is that right?
MP: Yes. What really made the project come to life for me is we knew there were Eastern European Yiddish melodies; we knew there were Tin Pan Alley, Second Avenue, Yiddish theater, New York Yiddish melodies; there were Holocaust melodies, Yiddish songs from the Holocaust. But it was when I realized that people like Irving Berlin, whose first language was Yiddish, had never written a single Yiddish song that I decided to translate “White Christmas” and “God Bless America” into Yiddish. And I translated “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” into Yiddish, and I translated “Maria” by Stephen Sondheim and Leonard Bernstein into Yiddish.
Once I closed that circle of the immigrants’ descendants to this country who continued to write — Yip Harburg’s “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” I translated into Yiddish — that made the whole journey complete to me, because a lot of those guys had ancestors who not only spoke Yiddish, but some were cantors. And they came to this country and they wrote with the same idea that the Yiddish songs were born with, meaning that they chronicled the peoples’ lives, births, deaths, celebrations, weddings. They were a people on the move, on the run, Gypsy folk, and it chronicled their lives. And so I felt the one thing missing was that Irving Berlin and Yip Harburg and Steve Sondheim and Leonard Bernstein and Paul Simon — I translated one of his songs — these guys forgot to write it in Yiddish. That’s all they forgot.
JC: How did you learn Yiddish? Did you grow up with it?
MP: No. My father sang one little Yiddish song, which I put on the album in his memory, but I worked with three young gentlemen, all of who are children of Holocaust survivors, who are devoted to the Yiddish language. They helped me translate the ones that I translated and they helped me choose the repertoire of those songs that already existed. And I’m forever indebted to them. And they are the standard-bearers and flag-waivers and mainstays of re-birthing what almost was a lost language.
JC: When you perform with this show do you find that your audience is mostly older people, or is it appealing to younger people as well?
MP: It’s appealing to everyone. As a matter of fact, many people who aren’t Jewish — priests and nuns and all kinds of people — come up to me. And even when we recorded it, it was the Asian and African-American musicians who worked on all my other CDs who came up and said, “We worked on all your other recordings, and this was the most powerful. And we didn’t understand a word of it, but we felt it.” And I think at the end of the day it was a message.
(Patinkin then describes the concept for the CD cover: an American flag with a black and white photo of Patinkin dressed as an immigrant superimposed over it.)
I wanted it to be the story of an immigrant, and in this particular case, it happened to be a Jewish immigrant telling the story. But the real point was it could have been anybody. You know, Russian, German, Italian, Irish, Asian, Haitian, African. And the lesson I think I learned, and that I think other people were touched by, was whether you know the language or not, take a walk in the words and the music of your ancestors’ culture. Let it wash over you. It may have effects on you that you’re not even aware of.
JC: It sounds like it’s a really powerful show.
MP: Well, it’s my favorite piece I do. And I do it often for benefits, for people in homes, sometimes for people in synagogues. And I warm up with it for every concert. Even the Pittsburgh symphony concert, I’ll be in my dressing room before I walk onstage and I’ll run through the entire Yiddish concert very quietly to just bring my voice up to speed and my brain up to speed. That’s how I warm up. That’s also how I prepare sometimes before I film a scene for “Homeland” or for a movie, or for whatever I’m doing, or before I walk on stage at a play. It quiets me, it centers me, it connects me to my ancestry and I feel with company. I don’t feel alone. It quiets me like a prayer.
JC: How did you start singing?
MP: I sang in the synagogue. All of music to me was something that I first heard in the synagogue, and that’s how I know music.
JC: Where were you raised?
MP: I was raised on the South Side of Chicago at a Conservative Jewish synagogue. And I always make a joke, if you’re from a Conservative synagogue in Chicago, that makes you a Reform Jew in New York and an Orthodox Jew in California.
JC: So, now you’re in New York, so you’re a Reform Jew?
MP: I’m a Reform Jew in New York. I’m not comfortable when I go to synagogue and I hear anything but a choir. If I hear someone playing a guitar or an organ on Shabbos, I got a problem.
JC:Do you have any plans for Purim? Any costumes in the works?
MP: I’m going to go as Saul Berenson.
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at email@example.com.)
Want to go?
What: Mandy Patinkin
When: Saturday, April 5,
Where: Heinz Hall, 600 Penn Ave.