Ben Rimalower: Patti Issues
By Jerry Portwood
Photo of Ben Rimalower by Christian Coulson | Photo with Patti LuPone by Jenny Anderson
When he was just a kid, Ben Rimalower became obsessed with Patti LuPone's recording of Evita. It was a pivotal moment for him that helped him cope with his crazy homelife that included a gay dad who ditched his family and moved to San Francisco to find himself. Years later, Rimalower actually met the object of his obsession, befriending LuPone over the course of working with her. After battling alcoholism and his own insecurties, he wrote Patti Issues, a one-man show that explores how diva worship transformed his childhood and continues to hold a powerful grip over him.
He's been performing Patti Issues in New York City's West Village, as well as across the country (for complete details, visit the website). And the best part: Patti LuPone actually came to see it—and loved it. "She cackles like the Wicked Witch of the West, that fabulous laugh that fills the room, especially a tiny little room like the Duplex," Rimalower says. But that doesn't mean he'll ever be over his Patti Issues. We caught up with the writer and actor to discover how he made his way to the stage.
Out: From watching the show, I know that you've directed and been involved in various theatrical productions, but what prompted you to take to the stage yourself after years of being in the background?
I didn't feel like I was in the background. I had no interest in being an actor since I was really young kid. I started directing in high school and that was what was always the most appealing to me. I had always had fantasies about being a writer, but it didn't feel natural to me. I'm an extroverted person, and it was hard to have that discipline, especially when I was younger and was struggling with things, especially substance abuse, so writing felt very outside my sort of energy level. I just wasn't able to see anything through; I had these these epic ideas for these major projects that were going to be vehicles for me to be a director.
I remember I was in a playwriting class in college where the assignment was to write a 10-minute play about yourself and a celebrity trapped in an elevator and I was like, "This is bullshit, I'm never going to win a fucking Tony for this." And I dropped out of class. Now it feels full circle now and I've written that show with Patti Issues.
There's another show down the block, Buyer & Cellar, that also deals with the stories of a major diva, Barbra Streisand, who is important to many gay men. Although it's obviously fictionalized, it still deals with that aura of celebrity and how a person can shape someone. Although they're very different, what do you think of the fact that there are two shows running concurrently dealing with these ladies?
I love that show. To me, that's the central theme of existence, so for me, I'm like, "Really? there are only two shows playing out there like this? There should be 10!" I loved that show and related to it so much. And actually Jon Tolins, who wrote it, and Michael Urie came to see Patti Issues and, as anyone would, they saw the similarities. Perhaps it's because I live in that world of that diva obsession that much, but I don't even see the shows as similar. It's like saying, two shows in English are similar.
Funny. Well, in some ways that's why watching and listening to you discuss why Patti LuPone's music was so important to you as a child and adolescent was profound for me—because it has never touched me personally in the same way. And although I love theater, I've never obsessed over a female theater performer in the same way, so it was instructional as well. I saw the fun clip you posted on Funny or Die that stated that it's about the love you needed as a kid from your parents being transferred to a diva. Do you actually think that's what it is?
Yeah, I think that's part of it and could be true of anyone, whether it's a baseball player, a president, or an astronaut. But I think specifically for me it was Patti because my childhood, although there was some love that I needed that I didn't get, there was a lot of drama. It was like a soap opera. I was obsessed with Joan Collins as a kid. Even when I was really little, I loved the Wizard of Oz, and of course I love Judy Garland, but when I watched the movie, it was the Wicked Witch that I was into. And you know, Patti's a wicked witch, you know, in a wonderful way, but she is. She would have been a great Elphaba in Wicked if the timing had been right.
So, I think with the drama that was going on at home, I couldn't be distracted by My Little Pony. It wasn't going to be more interesting to me than my father slitting his wrists. I needed something that was on that level of heightened drama. I think identifying with these wicked witch characters it brought them down to a lovable size to me so, if I was scared of the Wicked Witch in my house—which was my father—then I could feel I was connecting in a loving way in my projection to Joan Collins or Patti LuPone. That made them feel not as scary. And it was empowering. I'll never forget the Dynasty episode when her character, Alexis Carrington, not only took over her husband's company, Denver-Carrington, but she also bought his mansion in foreclosure and Blake comes home and she's popping champagne at the landing at the top of the stairs. And that was this triumphant moment for her. And that's like "Don't Cry For Me Argentina" for me.
There are a slew of memoirs from the perspective of children of gay parents that have come out recently, and you being the gay son of a gay dad, some people would see that as an ideal thing, but in your show you show, we see it was obviously also very difficult and painful for you and not essentially easier or better. Was there a moment you rejected the idea, and you didn't want to be gay because you didn't want to be like your father?
Yes, absolutely. I don't want to say having a gay parent isn't ideal. I think having a gay parent is like having a straight parent—there are still good and bad parents. And I had a really shitty one. And I hope to be a really wonderful gay parent.
So it hasn't soured you from wanting to be a parent?
No not at all. I want to be a parent so badly. I know a lot of gay parents who are wonderful. You know, my father is a crazy person. And unfortunately for him, being gay was a very difficult struggle for him and that impacted my life in a lot of horrible ways. And some of those ways impacted me because of my sexuality. It was also a weird time because of the time, you know? It's hard for people to remember, but in the early '80s it was not like it is now. I understand it was post-Stonewall, but for a kid growing up in the suburbs, there wasn't a connection to that.
As I say in the show, when I found out, I said, "My father's a gay fag?" I didn't know what to say; I didn't know that was a real thing. I thought that was a name people called each other, but I didn't know it actually connected to a kind of person.
I knew I was different from other boy—I thought I was a sissy—but I didn't think that had anything to do with the type of marriage I would have or who I would have sex with. Around that time was when AIDS was starting. That was when the inquiry into Liberace and Rock Hudson was happening. And then, very quickly, that was in the news. I mention in the show the joke: "What do you call Rock Hudson on skateboard? Roll-AIDS." It was just beginning. I just hated my father so much, and I didn't want to be like him. My grandparents would ask, "Are you going to be a doctor like your daddy?" And I'd say, "No!"
So I certainly didn't want to be gay. But it was hard to deny as I got more information, that I related to my father's friends, and I played with Barbies, and didn't play sports with the boys, and I liked Dynasty. Then, when I hit puberty, it was really strong, Oh wow I'm sexually attracted to guys, what are you gonna do about it? By then, my father was out of the picture, so that was hard for me, because I saw him as this bad guy. But my mom has a brother who is gay who was out, and he was very involved in our lives at that point and he was a good role model. And my mom and stepdad are very liberal and have gay friends. I knew I didn't want to be gay for myself, but I knew that my family was going to be very accepting of it. So I was very lucky compared to a lot of other kids. Although I had to get over the pill—Oh my god, I'm gay like my dad—I had an environment of coming out that was conducive to it.
Well, I hope you don't mind if I stay with this heavy stuff, but I read a blog post you wrote when you were writing a column called "The New Old Gay," and it discussed your alcoholism and your decision to go into rehab. Now was that right before you decided to write Patti Issues? Was it connected?
Well in the middle, to be honest. I started writing that blog four years ago. At that time, it was only a few months into it that I thought I'm going to do this show about Patti LuPone. I had done a few readings and had about an hour of material about Patti LuPone and real quick moment at the end when I talked about seeing my father at Gypsy, which is still the final moment of the show. I knew, theatrically, that it was the end of my experience with Patti LuPone, but I didn't know how to make that make sense because it felt so disconnected.
But I was a raging alcoholic, and I didn't have the mental acuity, or energy, or time, or patience to do the work to figure that out and finish the piece. So after doing these readings I was sort of sitting on it.
For lots of reasons I decided to go to rehab and get sober. And my life got much different and better. And certainly my energy just changed; the way I wanted to spend my time—I took a lot of time to carefully put my life back together. I directed my first play after rehab about a year and a half ago, and I thought it would be amazing because everything's better sober! But it was horrible, and I was miserable. I hated it. I realized I was resentful of [the people involved] because what they were doing felt like what I wanted to be doing. And I felt resentful of giving them my time. You know, in rehab they make you do journals, and I kept writing that I wanted to be a writer, that it was the most important thing for me. So that's when I decided I wanted to start writing again.
I thought maybe this thing with Patti LuPone could be something, but I thought I'd done enough with Patti: I mean, how many projects do I need to do based on Patti LuPone? But when I opened the document on my computer of the material I had written two years before that, I was like, No, I'm still very much wanting to do this. Even if everyone else is like, "Shut up!" This is what I have to do.
It was an amazing experience. I've never felt this way: I just knew, even if it was a disaster and everyone said it sucked, it would have been worth it to me. I knew it was what I needed to do. And I knew to get to the next thing I wanted to do I had to do this. And that's a wonderful condition.
I wanted to say, that one of the most fulfilling portion of your one-man show is that, at one point I thought this is going to be about a young man's yearning fro Patti and using her as a metaphor in an abstract way, but when you actually do get to meet and interact and befriend her in some capacity, it changed everything. And I know she's come to see the show, so what was that like?
Oh yeah, she came to the second performance.
You've patched things up enough that she's cool with you doing a show about your experiences with her?
Oh sure, Patti is like, she's all Patti. I don't think she was ever mad at me. She was like, "Stop doing that show!" So we stopped. And then when I asked if she wanted to do this album, she said, "Yeah!" It's just in the moment. So we've been great for years.
I think she was probably a little bit nervous when I said I was doing this show and then to come see it. But Patti's best friends are Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman, and they are good friends of mine also. They came to the first performance, and I knew they would tell her if she shouldn't come. And I knew they would tell me if I didn't want her to come and see this. But they said, "No, no, no, she's gonna love it." And she did.
I was very nervous, but it was obvious right from the beginning because she has that great cackle. So that set the whole audience and me at ease because you heard her laughing right from the beginning. And it's clear that she buys into herself as this sort of over-the-top, larger-than-life diva. But not just any diva. She's this sort of Broadway dame. I think it is an endearing portrayal that I paint, and I think she really enjoyed that. So that was nice.
Of course, I get the moment of when she threatens to sue me. And you could almost cut the tension with a knife. Was she going to think I was painting her like a bitch. But the thing is, Patti's so confident. She's really kinda self-righteous and so she doesn't think she comes across as a bitch. So Patti's like, "Well I should sue them!" She laughed at that line too. She's just indomitable.
That's great. Well, you mentioned the ending and it is jarring; it is abrupt. And it leaves you wanting to know more. So is it the end? Or is it just that way for theatrical purposes?
Well, I'm not dead…[Laughs] I mean, it's the end of my relationship with my father. Although I don't know if this show has done much for chances of our reconciliation [Laughs]. But that's OK. I am working on another solo piece that is, in a way, an extension of this. It's not about my father or Patti LuPone but both of those things are such a big part of who I am so they'll both be in the next show also.
You just performed in P-town and you have some performances coming up in Fire Island and elsewhere. It looks like you're trying to do this on weekends and holidays and when you can get away from work. How is that working out?
I know, I don't have a lot of vacation time.
How are the audiences different and their reactions?
The gay beach towns are particularly a trip. And the audiences have been fabulous. In Chicago and LA and San Francisco, Berkeley, and San Diego. In a way they're all the same, but I find in a way the audiences are almost better out of town because, you know, in New York, they're like, "You know, I've hung out with Patti LuPone too. Shut the fuck up, Ben Rimalower." Nobody really wants to hear, everyone has their stories. In California and elsewhere they almost want to prove that they're in the know. So they are very forthcoming.
The gay beach towns are hard. I did three shows in Provincetown July 4th week. And I've done two shows in Fire Island already this summer and have more coming up. They're tricky because people are there to party. And I got those gigs because I love those places and I wanted to be paid to be there. And if I were there, I'd want to see something like this. I've had smaller houses there but they've been good. I'm on Commercial Street in P-Town asking these shirtless Adonises walking out of a tea dance to come see my show. Sometimes I can convince one to come, and then I'm like, "I hope he likes it." You know it's hard to sell my wares to those guys: I can't take my shirt off, I don't look like them, and I'm not a drag queen, so I kinda feel like the fat prostitute.
You know, it's called Patti Issues and Patti's on the poster, but there's a long stretch with me just talking about my parents getting divorced, my father coming out, my father trying to kill himself. And I know that's a tough sell for a gay beach town crowd. I'm not saying my next show is going to be silly and stupid, but I hope that maybe going forward I'll have material that's more versatile for that crowd. I know my next show isn't going to have a 20-minute monologue about my father coming out of the closet, I'll tell you that much.
Patti Issues is playing Thursdays at the Duplex in NYC through Aug. 15. Upcoming performances include Provincetown, Aug. 4 (a benefit performance for the Family Equality Council); Fire Island, Aug. 9; Eugene O'Neill Theater Center in Watertown, Conn., on Aug. 3; at The Flying Duck in Glasgow, Scotland, on Aug. 22; and at Club Café in Boston on September 6 and 7. For more information and tickets visit the website PattiIssues.com
Watch the Funny or Die video below: