There may be nothing new about hearing of a gay man’s obsession with film, theater, opera or musical diva. But what may be new is how such an obsession helped a young boy cope with a traumatic experience in his household while growing up, and as an adult, continued to be that which he could turn to in order to get through other ordeals in his life. Writer, producer, and director Ben Rimalower’s critically acclaimed Patti Issues takes an audience through his 20 plus years of idolization with two-time Tony Award winner Patti LuPone (Evita, and revival Gypsy: A Musical Fable), and how the Broadway diva’s voice brought comfort to Rimalower beginning at 8 when his father came out as a gay man and entered into a life filled with drugs tearing his family apart. And as we do with many things that we find help us get through the tough times, Ben continued to turn to LuPone for solace when challenging periods in his life arose. Patti Issues performed in monologue format by Rimalower has become a New York Times Critic’s Pick with David Rooney saying, “the show pairs a well-toned script with an engaging spontaneous delivery and a nose for sharp, observational comedy.” The The Advocate has placed the show on its Top 10 Theater List calling the theater piece “smart, poignant, and dishy as hell.” In its fifth extension, Ben has been performing Patti Issues to sold-out houses at New York City’s Duplex Theater.
The success of Patti Issues should be of no surprise to anyone since Ben Rimalower has directed and written many acclaimed shows ( Joy, Fabulous Life of a Size Zero, Justin Sayre is Alive and Well, Leslie Kritzer is Patti LuPone at Les Mouches), and been dubbed the Midas of Cabaret for being at the helm of solo shows for the like of Alec Mapa, Scott Nevins, Lance Horne and other cabaret notables. In fact, Patti LuPone herself has given her stamp of approval by saying, “I was moved……He’s a very talented man, and I’m so proud of him.”
In addition to keeping Patti Issues on the stages of New York for as long as possible, Rimalower has begun to take the show on the road, as they say, starting with a short 4-city tour in California (Berkeley, San Francisco, San Diego, Los Angeles) concluding March 30th. While on his brief deviation from New York city performances, I caught up with Ben on the West Coast to discuss how his LuPone obsession came to be, why his idolization of a Broadway diva has lasted over 20 years, and his hopes to share this coming of age story beyond the walls of New York theaters.
BeBe: I think most people are well aware of the gay men and their obsessions with their divas, but your obsession with renown 2-time Tony Award winner Patti LuPone may be a little extreme. Your one-man show Patti Issues tells us how the idolization you have for LuPone helped you in some way to deal with some family issues growing up. Is that correct?
Ben Rimalower: That’s right. I had a really traumatic childhood. My parents got divorced when I was 8 when my father came out of the closet. That was very stressful in and of itself being that it was the mid-80s and a very challenging thing to deal with as a little kid. My father had a serious drug problem, and was full of rage and shame. His parents had been very negative toward him about his sexuality, and he was very unhappy with himself. He put me and my sister through a lot. I think my obsession with Patti LuPone was in a way connected to that because if I were to watch a very mellow performer or a performer with less edge and bite, you know for example Bernadette Peters (we both follow with laughter)! It wasn’t distracting enough for me. I needed someone in a way that was singing louder than the screaming going on in the other room. And also, I think feeling scared and powerless against the drama that was going on in my house, I vicariously became empowered by Patti’s strong figure.
BeBe: What is interesting, however, is that I can understand the obsession with Patti, as you say, being a great distraction from pleasantries going on at home at that time, but now we are more than 20 years later……
Ben Rimalower: (interjecting) More than 20 years, honey!
Ben Rimalower: I don’t know if that’s true though. You know we learn things in our early childhood that become the fabric of who we are. And I feel that so much of how I learned to exist in the world and make sense of my surroundings, my relationships, my self-esteem, my ego, my insecurities and the day I would face each day was sewn up in that. Things also become a habit. I think that I have held on to this connection with Patti the way people do with religion or their political beliefs. It’s just a part of how I think of myself in the world. Over the years it’s (become) exponential because it out started maybe for one reason and became the thing I turned to in all times. It’s not just that it helped me with my father’s coming out and all the drama around that, but with my own coming out or being lonely the first night alone in the dorms in college, breaking up with a boyfriend. So many times in my life Patti LuPone was what I went to. As a fan watching her career unfold, you know the way the talk about how gay guys are with their opera divas, I was angry with Andrew Lloyd Webber for firing Patti from Sunset Boulevard. And I was so thrilled when she got to do gypsy on Broadway and won her second Tony Award. I take her triumphs as my triumphs. I have fights with people who don’t support Patti LuPone. While working as an Assistant Director on several shows early in my career, I got to work with Patti and became good friends with her. So, then she became this person in my life who on one hand I know her as a real person, but on the other hand, I am still absolutely obsessed with her.
BeBe: As you were working with her was she aware of your obsession?
Ben Rimalower: Yes, I say it in the show that Patti turns her attention towards me and suddenly sizes me up. What’s great and fun about Patti is I’m obsessed with Patti so I’m her kind of guy (laughs). That’s what she’s into. So, we got to be pretty close. Then I did a show that I conceived and directed called Leslie Kritzer Is Patti LuPone at Les Mouches where Kritzer recreates Patti’s act from the early 80s, and I did that with Patti’s support. And then, when it became very successful, Patti changed her mind. There then was conflict between me and Patti. However, after that I produced Patti’s album released from her original archival recordings of her performing at Les Mouches. So, Patti and I obviously made up.
Ben Rimalower: Yes, it’s an hour.
BeBe: As I think about seeing anything from start to finish in the theater, one hour doesn’t seem to be enough time, even for a one-man show.
Ben Rimalower: I talk really, really fast! (more laughter)
BeBe: As I have read, you do seem to intensely capture your audience where I guess people don’t really become aware of how little time has passed during the show.
Ben Rimalower: That’s what I want! I love to go to theater and forget about time. Most of the things I see, however, I’m looking at my watch. It’s like ‘the meter is running, honey’. I could be home doing 12 other things than here being bored, you know. So, I hope I make good use of the time people give me their attention for.
BeBe: You are primarily known as a playwright, producer, director and less as an actor/performer. Did you consider at any time writing this piece for someone else to play you in telling this story in some way?
Ben Rimalower: No, I guess I would have been open to that idea if someone would have suggested it, but as soon as I started writing it I thought it would be me performing it. In writing it, it seemed it needed to have that conviction of me doing it myself. And, at first I thought I’d be performing it for only a couple of weeks. It was just a writing exercise.
BeBe: Let’s talk about that because you are now in your fifth extension (until April 24) at the Duplex Theater in New York City which has to be a wonderful feeling. You are doing a small West Coast tour in San Francisco, San Diego and Los Angeles through the end of March. Will this become a national touring show?
Ben Rimalower: Touring is a fancy word. I wish I could say I was touring. I’m of course trying to get as many bookings as I can. I’ve got a lot of places that I’m working on with a booking agency. But, I want to keep running in New York as long as I can. I’m not anywhere near threw doing this. I’m still excited to do the show every week.
Ben Rimalower in his one-man show Patti Issues completes a short West Coast tour March 30th with the following shows”
March 27 San Francisco The Marsh Mainstage
March 28 San Diego Martinis Above Fourth
March 29/30 Los Angeles Cavern Club Celebrity Theater
For more information on the California venues and tickets www.PattiIssues.com
Patti Issues continues in New York City at the Duplex Theater through April 24th.
For more about Ben Rimalower projects go to www.Benrimalower.com