December 7, 2019

Activism, Light Shine Through in Mandy Patinkin ‘DIARIES’ Concert

Photo courtesy of Mandy Patinkin

If you ask singer, actor and performer Mandy Patinkin what life is all about, he’ll say two things: children and art.

“What are we getting up and risking our existence for? The children,” Patinkin, 66, told the Journal. “How are they doing? Some are well but many are not. How do we help to improve that? Maybe we need to ask the poets and the writers because they seem to have a way of communicating that others don’t.”  

After 17 years, the multi-award-winning performer, who originated roles on Broadway (“Sunday in the Park With George,” “Evita”), television (“Homeland”) and film (“The Princess Bride”), returned to the recording studio with music producing legend Thomas Bartlett to create his recent album “Children and Art.” 

His new album is part of his latest 30-city concert tour “Mandy Patinkin in Concert: DIARIES” which kicked off Oct. 30. He visits Orange County on Nov. 24 at the Musco Center at Chapman University.  

The album title not only is a reference to Patinkin’s meaning of life, but a nod to musical theater lyricist and composer Stephen Sondheim, who wrote a song of that title for “Sunday in the Park With George.”  

In the album series, Patinkin sings a wide variety of songs written by American greats —Paul Simon, Randy Newman, to name a few — but Sondheim continues to hold a special place in his heart.

He refers to himself as a musical “mailman,” one who delivers moving, emotional and vulnerable words to audiences around the world on a variety of platforms using magnificent text as a guide. Noting that the stage is his favorite medium, he said he will gladly sing the words of Sondheim for as long as he can. 

“I get to be a mailman for [Sondheim], that’s all I am,” Patinkin said. “I’m looking for stories that hit me right in the kishkees, and stories I get to share and, my God, he never misses.” 

Patinkin’s love for music developed at the age of 7, in part because he hated going to school. Every day at 3 p.m., he left school on the south side of Chicago and headed to Hebrew school at his local congregation, where he joined the boys choir and family choir as a soprano.  

“Mrs. Goldberg, the wife of Cantor Maurice Goldberg, said come and be in the children’s choir,” Patinkin said. “So I started that and suddenly I liked being in the place. It wasn’t being in a classroom, it wasn’t learning Hebrew, it was singing that changed my life, in a nutshell. It was something I could do and the grown-ups were encouraging me to do and it made me happy.”  

Patinkin sang in the choir on Shabbat mornings and during the High Holy Days until he was 14, along with a friend who later became a doctor. Patinkin joked that his friend “became a gynecologist and I became a singiologist.”  

Later in life, his love for Jewish music grew and became “dearest friends in the world” with late-Jewish music singer Debbie Friedman, who Patinkin holds in the highest regard. Her music and spirit left such an impact on his life he said he hopes to devote an entire project to singing her music.  

“It wasn’t being in a classroom, it wasn’t learning Hebrew, it was singing that changed my life, in a nutshell. It was something I could do and the grown-ups were encouraging me to do and it made me happy.”

His passion for Jewish music and storytelling also led him to create an entire album in Yiddish, titled “Mamaloshen.”

One of the songs featured on “Children” is Yiddish song “Refugees/The Song of the Titanic,” which has been modified since he originally recorded it on “Mamaloshen” in 1998. 

Patinkin wanted to revamp the song after being exposed to a refugee story line on the set of “Homeland.” 

“We were in Berlin in 2015, shooting the fourth or fifth season, and the first episode of that season takes place in a refugee camp. … At that exact same time, 125,000 refugees were trying to have a new beginning and get to Germany for rescue and a new life, and when I looked at those photographs every moment, I saw my family. I saw my ancestors. … I thought ‘They’re me. They’re my family. I need to be with them.’ ” 

After the six-month shoot ended, Patinkin jumped on the first plane home and called his friend Ruth Messinger, CEO and president of the American Jewish World Service (AJWS). She helped him form a relationship with the International Rescue Committee, with which he has joined on missions and actively advocated for refugee rights ever since.

“It is a grave concern of our time,” Patinkin said. “I was putting the concert together with my music and a lot of it is new mixed with the old stuff. I wanted to say something about the refugees.”

Patinkin explained that the original Yiddish version of “Song of the Titanic” included sounds and imagery of the sea and a mix of voices and effects that make it sound like there are thousands of people together. 

“There is something about the music and the sounds of the recording that absolutely mirrored the refugees trying to survive the sea and many of them losing their lives trying to find salvation. That’s how I went, ‘OK, I’m going to use this song a little differently in this concert and change the name to “Refugees/Song of the Titanic,” ’ which is frighteningly understandable,” Patinkin said. “I wish it wasn’t.”   

The musician and activist told the Journal he felt very fortunate to produce this album and was excited that the experience was vastly different from all the others.

Patinkin said Bartlett had little to no knowledge of the musical theater world but dived in and brought 300 songs to Patinkin, who listened to all of them in one sitting. 

After selecting a few more than 20 songs, and recording every session they worked on together, Patinkin released three personal, musical online “Diary” collections. 

“Children and Art” became the finished official album of those diaries and Patinkin created his concert tour around the collective project.

“Mandy Patinkin in Concert: DIARIES” features Patinkin accompanied by pianist Adam Ben-David, whom Patinkin said is “an extremely gifted human being,” and a grand piano every night. 

“I feel blessed on so many levels with my wife and two glorious children,” Patinkin said. “Now I have two musicians [Bartlett and Ben-David] I get to make music with. I’ve had an embarrassment of riches and I’m extremely grateful. I don’t understand it but I guess the answer is ‘shut up and keep swimming.’ ” 

When it comes to performing each night, he looks forward to performing every song. He hopes he can provide hope to listeners during the 30-city tour. 

“My goal is to find the light and to turn any story that I may be singing into a hopeful, optimistic life-filled possibility,” Patinkin said. “There were times where certain pieces I chose to do in the concert version, I wondered if it is too painful or too dark, so I said to myself, ‘I have to make it light’ and it was the easiest light switch.”

For ticket information on “Mandy Patinkin in Concert: DIARIES,“ visit his website.