Mandy Patinkin Tells His Story in Song

From Sondheim musicals to dramatic TV roles, the versatile singer-actor keeps adding to his long list of credits

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

THE title of Mandy Patinkin's new album on Elektra/Nonesuch is ``Experiment,'' but the original title was actually ``Shhhh.'' The actor-singer, who is not known for understatement, says that he was trying to make a quiet album. ``Basically, I was listening to my critics,'' he says, smiling, during a recent interview in his spacious Upper West Side Manhattan apartment.

``Experiment'' is Mr. Patinkin's third album, the other two being his eponymous debut and the second, ``Dress Casual.''

His latest is a song cycle containing 18 songs detailing the story of a relationship. Although he stresses that it is not meant to be literal, when asked to explain the meanings of the song selections he enthusiastically launches into a song-by-song explication, quoting lyrics, even singing snatches of the songs - all of this two feet away from me. Even for an audience of one, this passionate performer goes all out. Deeply personal choices

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The songs range from standards like ``As Time Goes By,'' ``Where or When,'' and ``Always,'' to show tunes like ``Something's Coming'' and ``I Dreamed a Dream,'' to more eccentric choices like ``How Are Things in Glocca Morra?'' The constant, Patinkin stresses, is that they're all deeply personal: ``Of all the work I've done - plays, films, whatever - if I died today, I would want my kids and my wife to just listen to this. This is the most personal way that I can express my heart. Even though none of the words are written by me.'' Other albums

Patinkin's first album was also an eclectic collection. About that release, he says, ``I just set about looking for songs that I liked that spoke to me. If somebody asked me what the unifying theme was, my answer was, `They all mean something to me. They're lessons to me.'

`` `Dress Casual' is more vaudevillian, it's more entertainment. I like the pieces on it, but as a total work it is nowhere near to my satisfaction as the first or third.''

To showcase the new album, he recently performed it, from start to finish, in a series of special shows at the Off Broadway New York Shakespeare Festival Public Theatre.

Sitting in a chair, often with his eyes closed, the singer, sans amplification and accompanied only by his frequent collaborator Paul Ford on piano, gave an utterly absorbing performance.

Today, several days after the last show, Patinkin is still uneasy about how it went. ``I can't take the pressure,'' he says. ``I'm never as good when I know that people who are writing about it are out there.''

``Experiment'' is a kind of combination inspired by two of Patinkin's favorite albums, Harry Nilsson's story album, ``The Point,'' and ``A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night,'' a collection of standards.

In his own work, Patinkin says, ``I'm not interested in the music, only the words. I like to tell a story.''

He is particularly fond of standards: ``The reasons these songs live on, and the reason they're attractive to me, is that there's a hopefulness, an idealism, that is very positive in their lyrical quality - as opposed to the fury and hysteria in much of the lyrics today.''

A surprising choice on the album is Harry Chapin's ``Taxi,'' which he sings without any major changes from the original recording.

``We worked for three-and-a-half years on that song,'' he says, ``and I can't even tell you what we did. 'Cause when we play it, we do nothing. That song is similar to the `Soliloquy' from `Carousel.' It's a complete play, so you don't need to do anything.''

And, as might be expected, there's a generous selection of Stephen Sondheim songs on the album, six to be precise. Patinkin is no stranger to the composer, having scored one of his greatest successes in ``Sunday in the Park With George,'' which he recently performed in a 10th-anniversary benefit concert.

When asked about the generous proportion of Sondheim, Patinkin replies, ``There's no mystery about that, I will always work on Steve's stuff. Paul [Ford] is an absolute connoisseur; he knows everything. Plus, we can call Steve, tell him we need a song about a reporter or something, and he'll go into his closet.''

Although he has performed numerous times with symphony orchestras, Patinkin prefers singing with Mr. Ford on the piano.

``The beauty of just two people,'' he explains, ``is it's easier to listen to each other. It just focuses all the attention on the words. And that's our goal.''

His next project involves Yiddish songs, and he will introduce it on stage. He is reluctant to talk about it, because ``it's a cool idea, and I don't want it out there.'' But he will say, ``You won't have to be Jewish, or speak Yiddish, to understand what it will be, if I'm successful.''

This fall, Patinkin will star in a new television series, ``Chicago Hope,'' a medical drama created by David Kelley (``L.A. Law,'' ``Picket Fences'').

The cast is first-rate, also including Adam Arkin, Hector Elizondo, and E.G. Marshall. But the TV programmers have placed the show opposite the only other medical drama scheduled for next season, ``E.R.'' Patinkin is at a loss to explain it: ``The only comparison I have is that on the South Side of Chicago there are four gas stations on one corner.'' Appearances on Letterman

Probably the most important question posed to Patinkin concerns his mysterious appearances on David Letterman's ``Late Show.''

He will suddenly dash onstage at the Ed Sullivan theater (where Letterman's show is taped), accompanied by actor Tony Randall, deliver a bravura performance of something like ``Mammy,'' and just as quickly bolt offstage. When asked about it, Patinkin tries to be serious.

``Tony Randall and I just travel around the city, and we have a horrible car,'' he says. ``And the problem is, we can't get it to work.'' Now he starts to smile. ``It constantly breaks down, but the unusual thing about it is that it always seems to break down at 53rd and Broadway. And usually around 5:30 or 6. We're on our way to the big show.'' He is now cackling hysterically, and then turns serious again.

``So we end up going in there, and Dave has been very kind to give us this space to rehearse.''

It is another bravura Patinkin performance.

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