Saturday, March 16, 2013

2013 Interview with Ben Rimalower

Actor/director Ben Rimalower brings his critically acclaimed show Patti Issues (about his infatuation with Patti LuPone) to Casita del Campo for two performances only Friday March 29 and Saturday March 30. Gravelly, yet sexy-voiced Rimalower, reminding me somewhat of a young Harvey Fierstein, is outspoken, frank and funny about his association with LuPone which began long before this show was ever written.

I adore Patti LuPone. I truly believe that she's one of the best
performers on Broadway.

That's good. You can replace me when I'm done with the show. (we laugh)

She's always lovely to her fans at the stage door.

She knows which side her bread is buttered on.

How did Patti Issues get started?

I've been obsessed with Patti LuPone basically all my life in a very major way, that's been very central to how I live my life. My friends make fun of me. It's almost a religion. I've followed her like people follow the North Star. One of my first jobs out of college was assisting director Lonny Price on Sweeney Todd starring Patti LuPone with the New York Philharmonic. There was a PBS broadcast, a recording and all that. Then I got to work on several shows with Patti and Lonny and actually became good friends with Patti. Someone that's obsessed with Patti is her kind of guy. (laughs) Even though she's been somewhat in my life close by throughout the rest of the development of my career, I remained obsessed with her to the point where up until this project the greatest success I had had in my career as a director was a show I conceived Leslie Kritzer is Patti LuPone at Les Mouches ...where we recreated Patti's famed cabaret act, which had been done originally at the club Les Mouches during the run of Evita.

I know you're responsible for the album recorded at Les Mouches from those days in the late 70s.

There was no album at that time; (it came later). That (whole issue) wound up being a drama between me and Patti because she was very supportive of what I was doing with Leslie initially, and then she changed her mind. Our show was very successful, and she threatened to sue me if we didn't stop it.  Ultimately, all was hunky dory between us. I edited her demo reel that goes out to Hollywood casting directors for film and television work, and she also hired me to do her personal video archive... of all her stuff. That's how I was first exposed to her original archival tapes of Les Mouches, and I ended up producing that album. But, it was a very transformative experience for me, because it made me realize that I was really limited in my career as a director, where I was at the mercy of the material I could get my hands on. And Les Mouches had been this anomaly in my career because without actually writing any words I was the author of that show. It was based on live recordings Patti had made. There was no writer in the room except me to put it together. It was something I was able to initiate myself and not be dependent upon other people to bring me material. I started to think, "What else can I write?" I had been blogging and something I felt passionate about to actually put a whole piece down would be to talk about my experience with Patti, that felt so central to my life. I hoped other people would relate to it because of their own obsessions with the stars that they loved, and I thought the story would be interesting and unique because of the actual specific relationship I had with Patti. And...we had had our own conflict, so there's theatre.

So all of the conflict is within the play?

Yes. But the problem I found as I started to write the show was that it was more about me than about Patti. And there was this experience I had had with my father who I don't have a relationship with. It's OK. But ironically after we hadn't seen each other in about 10 years - he was sitting directly behind me at Gypsy starring Patti LuPone on Broadway.

That's unbelievable!

That felt like such a coup de theatre that happened to me in real life. It felt like a very empowered moment in my life because after all these years of not seeing my father, and having these nightmares, fantasies and dreams, imagining what it would be like to see him, there he was. It felt very good. Everything that I had gone through with Patti LuPone, to come out on the other side of it and now be producing her album, it felt like a very adult full-circle moment for me. That had a lot to do with how I was able to face my father that night. Writing the show, I saw those 2 threads in my life as really intertwining. And that's how I wound up with this piece.

When did you open it in New York?

It opened at the Duplex in August.

And it's been extended constantly from what I've been reading, right?

It's the new Cats  ...  Pats. (I laugh)

Do you sing Patti's songs in the show?

Very little. There are incidental moments where I punctuate things with a line or two, but I really don't sing in it.

So you and Patti are good friends!

We've spent a lot of time together over the years. She's come to support my work, and I've certainly seen her in everything she's ever done. I've always gone back stage or gone out to dinner with her. It's funny that I've gotten to know her so well personally, and not lost any of the obsession that I've had.

Do you remember the first time you heard Patti sing when you were a kid?

Totally. I talk about it in the show. In New York, when I was little...we didn't move to LA until I was 5 years old, I used to go with my grandparents to see Broadway shows. I saw Annie, The Wiz, Peter Pan, West Side Story, but I was haunted by those Evita commercials...those incredible commercials with Patti LuPone and Mandy Patinkin. I was obsessed with them, and I really wanted to see Evita, but everyone felt that it was too grown up, not appropriate for a 4 year-old. In LA, whenever Evita was on national tour and it would come to the Schubert or the Pantages or whatever, they would still play the Broadway commercial with Patti LuPone. That commercial was a fixture throughout my childhood, and of course as an adolescent, I got the album and proceeded to become a full-time stalker.

Switching gears a bit, how did you get the nickname the Midas of Cabaret?

I moved to New York in 1999 and was Lonny Price's assistant in 2000-2002, then I started directing on my own in 2003. I directed a couple of off-Broadway shows: Joy, The Joy of Gay Sex when it played  in San Francisco, and The Fabulous Life of a Size Zero and a bunch of off-off-Broadway shows. The bulk of the work I've been able to get has been cabaret. That's actually fine with me. I think that cabaret... in this day and age of movies and television and the internet and all that, theatre has to find a new way to be relevant. Theatre that is effective and successful nowadays is theatre that offers the audience something they cannot get in TV and film or on the internet. And that's a live experience, engaging the audience directly, breaking the fourth wall. With cabaret or solo shows, with one performer onstage, the fourth wall is broken, and the audience automatically has to be cast as the second character. That's always been exciting to me because I can sit in a room and have someone tell me a story or sing me a song, and I feel immediately engaged. I do not feel immediately engaged by a lot of theatre that I see. I love cabaret and am happy to be associated with it.

To get Ben Rimalower's CA schedule which includes San Diego, San Francisco and Berkeley, as well as LA for two nites March 29 and 30 at Casita del Campo in Silverlake, visit this website:

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