Ben Rimalower Works Out His ’Patti Issues’
Ben Rimalower, primarily known for his directing and producing credits-The Advocate once called him ’The Midas of Cabaret’-is now making waves as a writer and performer with "Patti Issues," his first one man play.
The show takes audiences on an often harrowing, often hilarious autobiographical journey from boyhood to adulthood, when Rimalower dealt with the difficult relationship with his out gay father by finding solace in the recordings and shows of Patti LuPone. Yes, he and LuPone eventually met and worked together, which is also recounted.
Rimalower produced and directed "Joy" at the Actors Playhouse and "The Fabulous Life of a Size Zero" at the Daryl Roth Theater. He also conceived and directed "Leslie Kritzer is Patti LuPone at Les Mouches," which eventually led to his restoring and co-producing the original recording from LuPone’s archival tapes.
As an assistant direct, he worked under Lonny Price on "A Class Act," "A Little Night Music" (with LuPone, George Hearn and Zoe Caldwell), and the Emmy-winning "Sweeney Todd." Rimalower has worked with dozens of artists as part of the up-and-coming downtown cabaret scene, including Alec Mapa, Cole Escola, Natalie Joy Johnson, Justin Sayre, Molly Pope, and many more.
EDGE caught up with Rimalower to discuss the new show and his career.
EDGE: The idea of flying solo on stage for 90 minutes would be daunting for most of us. What was the biggest challenge for you taking on this project?
Ben Rimalower: All my life I wanted to be a writer. I only started blogging in the last couple of years. There were stories I wanted to tell but I felt insecure and afraid. Friends would come to my apartment and we’d get drunk and I’d show my Patti videos. At first, I wanted to do a show at the Duplex where I showed the videos and talked about them, like what Seth Rudetsky does with songs. But the more I wrote, the more it turned into how Patti’s performances wended their way into my life. I wondered how audiences would respond, but I knew this is what I should be doing. It was only in the final stage that I said, "Holy shit! I have to learn all these lines and get in front of an audience!"
EDGE: Of writing, directing, and performing, does one take precedence over the others?
Ben Rimalower: Directing has always been first, but this experience has been transformative for me. I got sober fifteen months ago. Writing always seemed torture to me; I felt I needed to be in the room with actors. But directing is very daunting, I feel I need a year of therapy for every hour of rehearsal! At this stage of my life, I’m more introspective. I can see writing being my main thing.
Exposing his pain
EDGE: While there are certainly big comic moments in the show, you are not afraid to go to a darker, more dramatic side. I haven’t seen a lot of gay actors do that. Was it a risk for you to expose your pain while you were writing ’Patti Issues?’
Ben Rimalower: Yeah. The first draft was just the stories about Patti. I knew I needed something big to give it a final scene. I needed some sort of resolution to the drama with Patti, and that came with my on-again/off-again relationship with my father. On a wing and a prayer, I hoped I could take two different things and make one evening of it. It was scary, but they belong together.
EDGE: One of my favorite scenes was when you actually got to work with Patti for the first time. Did she ever indicate to you that you were a little nuts or do you think she enjoys the obsessive attention?
Ben Rimalower: I’ll tell you a story. I was an Assistant Director under Lonny Price for ’A Class Act’ at Manhattan Theatre Club. Backstage was so small that nobody was allowed to have backstage guests, you had to meet them in the lobby. But they made an exception when Patti decided to come see the show. After the show we waited ten, twenty, thirty minutes. No Patti. We wondered if she didn’t like it or didn’t come.
Meanwhile, I had been introduced to Mary Rodgers and was talking with her. It turned out that Patti had gone around to the 56th Street entrance and got in a scuffle with security. So they escorted her back around. As she was coming in, she went right by me without pausing and without making eye contact. I went up to her and started apologizing and told her I’d tried to find her. She immediately said, ’No you didn’t. You were talking to Mary Rodgers.’ Patti can take whatever I can throw at her. I can love her all the way!
Doubts and fears?
EDGE: One of my unexpected takeaways from the show was the incredible risk-taking it took for you to get to New York and find your way. You give truth to the whole starving actor myth. Did you ever have doubt or fear? Did you ever have a day job?
Ben Rimalower: Oh yeah. You know, I was recently reading Broadway World and I checked the listing about the show and someone had left a comment saying something like, ’Is he still around? You’d think he’d have given up by now.’ At first I didn’t need a day job because I was getting assistant director work and until recently always had a roommate in my railroad apartment in Williamsburg, even though it isn’t really conducive to it.
When I finally got my first New York credit as a producer and director with Joy, as soon as the contract was signed, I quit my job waiting tables, which I had started when I decided to go out on my own because I didn’t want to assistant direct anymore. Well, Joy flopped. I was turning thirty, I was directing a lot of cabaret, and I took a job in financial services. Then I met Leslie Kritzer and put that show together. When it opened, I called in sick and never went back. Now I have a job at Simon & Schuster producing audio books.
I’ve been doing this because I’ve loved it since I was four years old. Recently, I had a rehearsal at night after a long day at work and I came home exhausted. But I’m so lucky to be working on a project that I love and believe in, and proud of the work I’m doing. I have worked on so many projects where you can’t see the forest for the trees and you wonder why you are in the business.
EDGE: Why do you think gay men latch onto female divas in the first place?
Ben Rimalower: We’re very tuned in to women in general and often relate better to women than to men. Women are usually more comfortable showing vulnerability, but then there’s something very powerful in seeing her rising like a phoenix out of that. I love an opening number that starts small and then goes to insane proportions-vulnerability to strength is a visceral journey. It overwhelms your senses. I feel like I’m someone in ancient Greece with the gods. There is a hierarchy, of course, and Patti is at the top.
A dead art form
EDGE: Journalist James Gavin told me after the Oak Room closed that he was still very excited about the future of cabaret because of the crop of talent coming up in the East Village-Justin Sayre, Natalie Joy Johnson, Cole Escola, Justin Vivian Bond. You’re a part of that circle. Does it feel as if you are part of a movement?
Ben Rimalower: I hope that’s true. I want that to be the case and there are moments when we’re still struggling to create that. When I direct a cabaret show, the first thing I tell the artist is that cabaret is a dead art form. You have to reinvent the wheel. Justin Vivian Bond is an established and legitimate theater artist, but also cool and cutting edge. And yet, Sarah Jessica Parker was at V’s show. It makes me feel that maybe it’s happening. The Great American Songbook has to breathe and extend, but a lot of the new music doesn’t give me the arc I want. [Laughs] I’m a low-class, cheesy, belting whore. I want to be excited about the future of cabaret, but there are great challenges.
EDGE: Gay women have had some mainstream success in the business but gay men are still a bit of a niche market. Do you think that will change?
Ben Rimalower: Absolutely. I grew up in Los Angeles with liberal parents. I was not sheltered. And yet I remember Liberace and Rock Hudson being outed when I was in the third grade. Year by year, things have changed dramatically. Neil Patrick Harris was a huge deal. I worked with him on ’Sweeney Todd’ and I knew he was gay, but I’m glad he came out when he had a television show. The place he occupies in Hollywood is a very important place. As soon as someone comes out, we take it for granted. But shame on John Travolta! How many masseurs have to come forward? And Kevin Spacey. I saw him shopping with someone in Soho younger than I was, and it wasn’t his nephew. These people enjoy the fruits of gay life. They should come out! It isn’t happening fast enough, but it doesn’t happen on a schedule.
EDGE: Are you at a point where you have some security about having a place at the table as a working artist in NYC? What kind of success do you envision for yourself?
Ben Rimalower: I’ve never had security about my work and I’ve learned not to look for that. I thought Joy was it, even when it flopped. I had good reviews for my direction and I had an Off-Broadway credit. I thought it would lead to a career. It did not, and I spent years being angry and bitter about it. Being a writer, I don’t need a place at the table; I can set my own place at the table. I hope people will respond and buy tickets and I hope ’Patti Issues ’ will keep running until I figure out the next piece to write.
Ben Rimalower’s Patti Issues has been extended. Next show is Thursday, September 27, with various more dates through November 1st. Check www.theduplex.com for schedule.
Watch this preview of Ben Rimalower’s "Patti Issues":