patinkin looking pensive
Mandy Patinkin says his song selection for “Diaries” reflects how he feels personally and politically.

Mandy Patinkin in concert: a call to repair the world

Mandy Patinkin, who will be performing in concert at the Palo Alto Oshman Family JCC on Nov. 1, said his show “Diaries 2018” is in honor of Anne Frank, whose diaries he cherishes.

“I love her, I breathe her,” said the New York-based actor and singer, who arrives in the Bay Area following sold-out performances in New York.

Small wonder that Anne Frank is one of Patinkin’s muses. In a world that can often seem dark and inhospitable, Patinkin suggested, an artist seeks sustenance from ideas that shed light on humanity’s most pressing concerns and inspire action to counter despair.

That’s what he is striving to do in “Diaries.” Patinkin will be accompanied on piano by Adam Ben-David, who is relatively new to Patinkin’s musical team after the recent retirement of longtime collaborator Paul Ford. Of this new partnership, Patinkin said, “He’s a musician’s musician — truly extraordinary.”

The roster of songs Patinkin has selected for the show includes material from recent recordings, as well as from a repertoire he has developed over a 40-year career in theater, film, television and discography.

The common denominator to all of the selections, said Patinkin, 65, is that “it is a reflection of everything that I am experiencing right now, politically and personally.”

So what’s foremost on the mind of the award-winning actor?

The political polarization of our country; the lack of a safety net for the most vulnerable; and the Rohingya genocide in Myanmar are a few of the subjects he freely discusses.

The songs in “Diaries” — by Randy Newman, Stephen Sondheim, Laurie Anderson, Paul Simon, Tom Waits and Patinkin himself, among others — are reminders of the Arthur Miller line from “Death of a Salesman,” he said: “Attention must be paid.”

Patinkin has been paying attention for quite some time. A huge “aha” moment came to him during a production of “Carousel” at a Jewish youth center near his family’s home on Chicago’s South Side. The director queried his young actors on the meaning of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical. After eliciting a number of responses, Patinkin recounted, the director added his own two cents. “ ‘I think it’s about this,’” he recalled the director saying: “ ‘If you love someone, tell them.’ ”

“I remember thinking at the time that if this is what theater is about, I’m sticking with it,” Patinkin said.

Patinkin stuck with it first at the University of Kansas, and then at the Juilliard School in New York. In 1979, he co-starred with Patti LuPone in the Broadway musical “Evita,” offering a breakthrough performance that earned him both a Tony Award and international acclaim. It was, he acknowledged, the springboard for the host of professional opportunities that followed, including leading roles in the film “Yentl,” the Sondheim musical “Sunday in the Park with George,” TV’s “Chicago Hope” and the Showtime series “Homeland,” an award-winning hit entering its eighth season.

LuPone has been a lifelong friend, Patinkin said, and the two have performed together many times over the decades.

In 1980 he married another actress, Kathryn Grody, and they have remained a couple for 40 years. In opting to wed at the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary on New York’s Upper West Side, Patinkin was returning to his roots. He received his religious education and became a bar mitzvah at one of Chicago’s oldest Conservative synagogues, Congregation Rodfei Zedek, which has served the city’s Hyde Park neighborhood for nearly a century. His father was active in the shul’s men’s club; his mother, in the sisterhood. Patinkin paid homage to the world of his parents and grandparents in “Mamaloshen,” a concert and recording of Yiddish songs.

He and Grody also have instilled in their sons, Isaac, 36, a community organizer in Colorado, and Gideon, 32, a New York-based composer and performer, a depth of understanding of Jewish history and ritual.

“We love the traditions,” said Patinkin. Whenever possible, the four observe the High Holidays together, come together for Passover seders and, on occasion, Shabbat.

Patinkin also has a very identifiably Jewish persona on “Homeland,” playing the brooding, pensive Saul Berenson, a CIA operative and Mideast expert who serves as mentor to a bipolar operations officer portrayed by Claire Danes. The role, he said, has given him a platform to serve as a high-profile ambassador with the International Rescue Committee. On behalf of the IRC, he has traveled in recent years to Germany, Serbia, Greece and Uganda to call attention to the tens of millions of refugees worldwide who have been rendered stateless by war and violence in their homelands.

“It has been a great gift to be a voice for the IRC [and] for those who have no voice,” Patinkin said.

As for using his “Diaries” concert tour as a vehicle to express his thoughts and feelings about today’s problems, Patinkin is under no illusion that his voice alone is enough to repair a broken world. But perhaps it will deliver a message to others to join the effort.

“I’m the mailman,” he said, “not the genius.”

Mandy Patinkin in Concert: Diaries 2018. 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 1 at Oshman Family JCC, Palo Alto. $145 members, $150 general, $250 premium.

Robert Nagler Miller
Robert Nagler Miller

Robert Nagler Miller, a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Wesleyan University, received his master's degree from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. For more than 25 years, he worked as a writer and editor at a variety of nonprofits in the Los Angeles and Bay Areas. In 2016, he and his husband, Dr. Arnold Friedlander, relocated to Chicago. Robert loves schmoozing, noshing, kvetching, Scrabble, reading and NPR.