Judy, Barbra, Liza. Bernadette, Julie, Patti…
The names of legendary divas roll off the tongue like a litany of saints and martyrs. But, ultimately, we all choose just one to whom we build our shrine.
Even as a child, accomplished writer and director Ben Rimalower prayed at the altar of belter-extraordinaire and dramatic dynamo Patti LuPone. Now, he’s woven together stories of coming of age as a LuPone lover (from being a fan to working with her as a colleague) in an acclaimed one-man show, Patti Issues. The play, though, is much more than just inside Broadway gossip. Emotionally cathartic as well as raucously funny, Patti Issues focuses on Rimalower’s relationship with his father — who “came out of the closet and embarked on a drug-fueled tear that left his family in tatters” — and how having a guardian diva can help all of us find our way home.
As he prepared for a new round of performances (beginning tonight at the Duplex), born-storyteller Rimalower took time out to chat with me about the moment he fell, his first time performing and what Patti said when she came to see the show…
Why Patti? What was the moment for you?
That’s basically what my show is about. The moments were in several degrees. I had a very intense experience of the Evita commercial when I was very little and we lived in New York.
And that really stayed with me. Even when we moved to California when I was five in 1981. Whenever the Evita tour would come through, which seemed to be a lot in the 80’s, they always used that same commercial. So I felt like Patti was haunting me. I talk about in the show how I was a little kid in New York and I saw some Broadway shows and I wanted to see Evita but I was told it was “too grown up” for me.
What did they take you to instead?
Annie, The Wiz and Peter Pan. West Side Story, which was a failed experiment because I had a crying fit during Debbie Allen’s rape scene.
…In adolescence I became obsessed with musicals. Phantom was huge at that time. “The Andrew Lloyd Weber Premiere Collection” CD had “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” sung by Julie Covington, which I got obsessed with. I went to go buy the Evita album to get it. Because I had a gift certificate to Music Plus where they only had the Broadway version, I ended up with Patti LuPone. And just fell into a free fall of obsession which has never really ended.
So it’s all Music Plus’s fault?
Yeah. That’s right.
I’ve had people ask me the same question…why Barbra? Why Judy? Why Patti? What is it about gay men and…
I think it’s a broader question about gay men. But I think for Patti it’s very specific for me. I talk about in the show how John Houseman said that “she has the smell of the gallows.” Patti herself I think doesn’t understand that and thinks he meant “gallows humor.” But he didn’t say “gallows humor,” he said “the smell of the gallows,” the smell of death and punishment.
And I think that’s really accurate for Patti. The stakes are so high. Adam Feldman in, I don’t think it was a review – I think it was Time Out’s top 25 Broadway Divas says that Patti’s “all guts, all glory.” And I think that’s really true. Talk about ballsy divas! Balls to the wall! It’s why one of the critics said that she was “Reno Sweeney Todd” in Anything Goes…
I think for some people there was a missing lightheartedness to how she sings because she’s so full throttle. But I love that. I had a difficult childhood and you could make a case that I needed that to captivate my attention and take me away from what was tormenting me in my actual life. But I just found that all other performers seemed weak when held up to Patti.
What was the genesis of the piece? How did you start?
I’d been a director for years and always wanted to write but hadn’t known how to start… Actually what happened was I lived in the railroad apartment in Williamsburg that’s rent stabilized for thirteen years. I had a day job for the first time in several years and I had regular income and I was tired of having a roommate and I thought, “I could afford this place by myself; I should just get rid of my roommate.” I wanted some influx of cash to buy a big screen TV and a new couch once I got rid of my roommate…
…so I thought, “Everyone comes over to my apartment to watch my Patti LuPone videos as I just talk about them. Why don’t I charge for that?”
I asked Patti for her permission to do that, to use the videos that she herself had given me. I had met Patti’s years ago when I was an assistant director and worked on some shows with her and developed a relationship with her and she’d given me all her videos. I’d also directed Leslie Kritzer is Patti LuPone at Les Mouches which was my conception, initially with Patti’s blessing, and then Patti pulled the plug on it. So I didn’t want to piss Patti off. She asked to see a draft [of this piece], which I thought was a good thing to get me to write… When I started writing it, the anecdotes I was writing to contextualize the videos were actually much more about me and my life than they were about Patti…
What was Patti’s reaction when she saw that draft? I’m sure the shift toward your life taking precedence probably helped?
She actually never saw the draft. When I realized it was going to be this show so personal about me, I felt that it theatrically needed a finale or an end point or button or something. I had this crazy experience where I had run in to my biological father — after not having seen him or spoken to him for ten years – at Gypsy [starring Patti].
Oh my god.
He literally sat directly behind me. It was such a crazy experience and transformative for me. This full circle healing experience that I had had, almost like a growing up moment when I saw him there, felt connected to everything I’d gone through with Patti. Where she’d gone from being my fairy godmother/fantasy diva far away, to this person in my life I was working with and then had drama when she didn’t want us to do the Leslie Kritzer show anymore. And here I was on good terms with her again; I produced her album of Les Mouches. So it all felt like it empowered me to deal with my father that night at the Saint James. I felt strongly in my gut that this was the final scene in my show… Finally in this last year when I was working on the show more seriously and really threading in all this stuff about my father and seeing how these two stories worked together, I said to Patti, “Look, as it turns out I’m not doing anything multi-media in the show. I’m certainly not showing any of your videos. So…” Without saying it in so many words, I said basically, “I don’t need your blessing anymore.”
And then, “I really hope you’ll come see it. It will mean the world to me.” And she got it right away. She was extremely supportive and came to the second performance and took pictures and said lovely things and gave me a quote and all that.
Had you acted before?
So what was it like the first time?
Oh, it was fu**ing freaky. I just wanted to relax. I was doing yoga in the dressing room. “How can I calm down!?” And at a certain point in the show I just had to come to Jesus with myself. “This is your truth. Your hands are shaking. That’s where you’re coming from. You can’t fight that.”
Have you caught the bug now? Do you want to perform more?
Definitely. I came into this experience wanting to write and it was a wonderful experience for me as a writer. From the beginning of the project I knew I would have to perform it myself and I’ve really enjoyed doing that. I think my next project will be another solo performance piece that I perform. After that, I’d like to write things for other performers, multi-actor pieces. I don’t expect that I’ll go in [Wicked] as a replacement for Madame Morrible.
Say that this only gets better and grows and you become the person that some kid out there looks up to, what would advice would you give to them?
It’s so hard. You know what I wish someone would have said to me back, I don’t know, when I was twenty-one: was not to try to be what the world wants to see me as but to just focus on being the most fully realized version of who I want to be. I know that sounds so cliché…
Who knew we were going to go very Oprah here?
I just sat around for so many years drinking and so bitter that I wasn’t hailed as the future of Broadway directing. Every revival that they’d hire someone else to direct, I said, “That should have been me. That should have been me.” I don’t think I would have been happy if I’d worked on those shows… I think what I was wanting to do as director on those shows was tell my own story. I was going to foist it onto poor Godspell.
Good for Godspell that they got off without me.
But I don’t know how I could have been made to see that….I don’t know what to say. Just, “Stay in the game.”
And finally, would you ever want to share a stage with Patti?
I’d be afraid actually.
I mean, I’ve always wanted to direct Patti which I would still want to do. But sharing a stage with her would be terrifying. I am pleased with what a good performer I’ve turned out to be but I don’t think I’m remotely – to me Patti is an animal of the stage. And I don’t think that’s what I am. I don’t think the audience could buy me as a human being in the same world where Patti exists.