Broadway song man — and television actor (“Chicago Hope” and “Homeland”) and movie star (“Princess Bride” and “Yentl”) — Mandy Patinkin has a lot to say about what makes a great song. “It’s the story, what the words have to say. What the wishes are in the song, what the reminders are in song, what the possibilities are in the song. A song is thoughts,” he said, “just simply thoughts.”
Patinkin will return to Washington on Nov. 29 for one evening only at the National Theatre with his latest examination of the song in a concert titled “Diaries,” his most personal and least Broadway-centered concert yet.
The show-biz showstopper will be joined on stage by pianist Adam Ben-David, a Juilliard School of Music graduate who has been accompanying Patinkin since 2016. But don’t expect another evening of showtunes from Hammerstein to Sondheim. While he might sing one or two Broadway classics, the bulk of the evening will be drawn from a series of recordings on Nonesuch Records featuring a wide range of songwriters ranging from Harry Chapin to Rufus Wainwright, Randy Newman to Laurie Anderson to Lyle Lovett.
The evening, titled “Diaries,” evolved when the singer began working with a new musical irector, Thomas Bartlett, who has an encyclopedic knowledge of every type of song but Broadway showtunes. Patinkin culled through 300 suggestions from Bartlett and the two began experimenting in the studio.
“We just start working on all this stuff,” Patinkin said. “I decided to create a [musical] diary … we just hit the record button on whatever we’re doing. And whatever’s happening that day, that moment, became part of it.” Three digital-only albums of this project have been released on the Nonesuch label since 2018.
“If I could write, I would write,” Patinkin admitted recently, speaking from his home in upstate New York one rainy afternoon. “But these people really write. I’ve written a few songs … one of my songs from 40 years ago is on the Children and Art CD, and another song that I wrote, right when I met my wife, is on one of the ‘Diaries’ recordings.”He continued, “What I really am is a mailman. I’m the middle man: I’m a mailman for Shakespeare, for Sondheim, for Rufus Wainwright, for Lyle Lovett, for Oscar Hammerstein.” His goal: to deliver great songs that make you think, or laugh or cry. What makes a song great? For Patinkin, “A great song is sometimes gratefully timeless and sometimes frighteningly timeless.”
One of those timeless songs is Rufus Wainwright’s 2007 “Going to a Town.” “I heard the song and I loved it,” Patinkin said. But he ended up altering a few of the key lyrics, he explained. “The proper lyric Rufus wrote is: ‘I’m so tired of you America’ and the other line is, ‘I am Jesus Christ in blood.’”
Patinkin, with Wainwright’s permission, changed America to Jerusalem and “Jesus Christ in Blood” to “bodies in blood.” He said, “When I was learning it and got to the words, ‘I’m so tired of you’ and the next word was the name of our country, I couldn’t say it. I wasn’t quite sure why, but … I was thinking of a different word.”
He continued, “To me the song isn’t about America, it’s about Jerusalem — the history of Jerusalem from the beginning. That’s how it became this prayer for a place to be alive and hopeful. I didn’t want the lyric to say it’s already been burnt down. I want to build it up for everyone, all of humanity.
“Part of the prayer of that song to me is what’s unspoken,” Patinkin said, adding that he is very spiritual, often making up his own prayers, which he says every day. One of his daily prayers, which he relates to “Going to a Town,” is: “Stop the killing, the hatred and the
violence. Start the loving, compassion, forgiveness and understanding within ourselves, to ourselves and to each other.”
A child of Chicago’s South Side, young Mandy began singing in Congregation Rodfei Zedek’s choir. “Rodfei Zedek in Hyde Park was right down the street from the Museum of Science and Industry. I was 7 years old and Mrs. Goldberg, who was Cantor Maurice Goldberg’s wife, ran the boys’ choir on Shabbes morning and the family choir on Friday nights. I was in both.”
“I was the boy soprano and my friend Paul Blumenthal was the alto,” he said. “Paul became a gynecologist and I became a ‘singer-ologist.’” As a teen, Patinkin attended Michigan’s Camp Surah, where he played Tevye in the Hebrew production of “Fiddler on the Roof.”
His Jewish upbringing has stuck with him. “I lived in that synagogue. I was in Hebrew school every day at three o’clock after regular public school and all my friends were there. I liked to mess around and get in trouble and spent most of my life in Dr. Spellman’s office, the principal.” His memories of that time remain vivid. “That was my life and I was around all those older guys who were singing and praying and shuckling in the synagogue. I heard the cry in their voices and the cry in the cantor’s voice.”
More than two decades ago, Patinkin explored his immigrant roots with the Yiddish recording “Mamaloshen,” where you could hear that cry in his voice.
It’s always the song’s meaning, its story, that takes precedence for Patinkin. “My feeling, whether I’m singing in Yiddish or English or any other language, is if I need to explain then I have failed,” he said. “I want what I sing to have multilayers and multi-meanings. I want it to mean what it means to you, not what it means to me. That’s why a good song never gets tired of being sung: because it was sung that day about everything that happened with your life, my life, the life of the world at large.”
Mandy Patinkin in “Diaries,” Nov. 29 at 8 p.m.; National Theatre, 1321 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, Washington; $65-$125; for tickets, call 800-514-3849 or visit thenationaldc.com.