Ben Rimalower's Patti Issues
Broadway diva Patti LuPone is a guiding light for the director turned writer and performer.
"I was not looking to be a performer at all," Ben Rimalower says. "Even when I was 14 I wanted to be a director, and that's what I've pursued all my career."
Rimalower, 37, has made a career of directing in New York's downtown theater and cabaret scene, helming plays Off Broadway and sheperding solo performers at venues like Joe's Pub. But it's his own turn onstage, recounting parallel stories of family trauma and his lifelong obsession with Broadway diva Patti LuPone, that's been packing in audiences at the West Village's Duplex cabaret venue for months. Rimalower brings the show, Patti Issues, to Chicago this week for two performances at Mary's Attic.
"I've always had fantasies about writing, but my eyes were bigger than my, um…I don't know, fingers," Rimalower says with a laugh. "I don't know what the rest of that analogy would be. In my younger days, when I would try to write I would always be wanting to write a vehicle for myself as a director; I was only interested in these sort of epic Broadway extravaganzas."
Rimalower eventually dipped his toe into writing as a blogger, penning a column called "The New Old Gay" for the gay-centric site akawilliam.com and writing some pieces at the Huffington Post. Inspired by some of the solo performers he was working with as a director, "I started to think that maybe I would try to write something more first-person, narrative kind of thing," he says. "The thing that was most natural for me to write about was Patti LuPone, because I have been obsessed with her, I mean literally all my life."
The writer discovered his love for LuPone as a child in California, via the TV commercials that would play every time Evita came through on tour. It was around the same time that his own father came out of the closet, leaving his family and embarking on a self-destructive tear that poisoned their relationship.
After "stage-dooring" LuPone for years, Rimalower eventually got to work with her, as an assistant to director Lonny Price on a 2000 concert staging of Sweeney Todd at the New York Philharmonic in which LuPone played Mrs. Lovett. (Much of the cast, including LuPone, George Hearn and Neil Patrick Harris, reprised their performances at Ravinia the following year.) The two became close friends.
"Because my experiences of Patti LuPone and with Patti LuPone have been so important and so defining in my life, when I actually started writing about Patti LuPone, what was coming out was a lot more about me," Rimalower says. He settled on the idea of ending Patti Issues on an unlikely encounter with his father, "who I hadn't spoken to in ten years and hadn't really had a relationship with in 20 years," at a 2008 performance of the Broadway revival of Gypsy, for which LuPone won a Tony Award as Mama Rose.
"It sounds so made up in my show, but he was sitting directly behind me," Rimalower recalls. "I was in F108, he was in G108." All of his fantasies of confronting his father with rage or tears fell away, he says.
"I actually felt very contained and self-possessed and like an autonomous adult in that moment of seeing my father at Gypsy, and I had a pleasant exchange with him," he says. "It was a very empowering experience for me, and I really felt like that was because I was going back to Patti's dressing room after the show. So I felt very strongly that the end of the theatrical story of me and Patti LuPone was this moment with my father. But then I had an hour of material about Patti LuPone, and this strange moment with my father that seemed so untethered." As the piece went through rewrites, Patti Issues became equally about Patti and daddy.
And just what is it about Patti LuPone that so captivated him as a kid? "I think there's something very full-throttle, go-for-the-jugular—Patti's out for blood when she's onstage. She brings that into comedy, into warmth, into whatever, but there's a darkness in her," Rimalower muses. "She has this really volatile quality. And right from my early childhood, being obsessed with her in the Evita commercial, I was drawn to that. I think I needed something as volatile as Patti to be a distraction from the volatility in my own childhood.
"I'm a huge Judy Garland fan," Rimalower adds. "But when I watched The Wizard of Oz as a kid I was drawn to the Wicked Witch, not to Dorothy."