Q&A Quickie: Showman Ben Rimalower, Patti LuPone's Biggest Fan
After many years of your obsessing over Patti LuPone, imagine that you've broken onto the New York theater scene and cultivated a working relationship with the Broadway diva. What else would you do but turn your dishy showbiz anecdotes into a one-man show and perform it at The Duplex, one of NYC's gayest venues? A prolific director once dubbed as "Midas of Cabaret" by The Advocate, Ben Rimalower's celebrated solo piece Patti Issues marks his debut as a playwright and performer. The out 36-year-old also explores his issues with his absent gay dad, but don't cry for him, dear readers — La LuPone herself caught a recent performance and said, "I was moved by Ben Rimalower's journey and honored at his humorous tribute to me. He's a very talented man and I'm so proud of him." Can a show queen dream any bigger than that?
Gay.net: Patti Issues is your first major stab at playwriting and performing. How do you think the experience will change you as a director?
Ben Rimalower: Well, it has certainly heightened my sympathy and respect for actors. Jesus Christ, it’s your ass out there onstage in real time. It’s scary! I think in the future when an actor says that something isn’t working, I’ll be more likely to take their word for it.
Powerhouse divas are a dime a dozen in the theater. Your working relationship aside, can you sum up what it is that makes Patti LuPone so damn special?
It’s that “smell of the gallows” that I talk about in my show. Patti has an intensity of commitment onstage that is dangerous and thrilling. It’s unparalleled. Liza can match it — or top it even, in terms of giving the audience a good time — but within a character, Patti will cut you. That’s drama.
Patti herself recently came to see the show. How did her presence affect you and the crowd?
It was only my second show and I was nervous anyway, so I think at a certain point, a cup can only hold a cup of water — you know? How much more anxious could I get? And it’s all so surreal, because I never thought any of this would happen. But then in some ways I’ve been waiting for this my whole life. I thought I’d be more nervous about Patti’s specific reactions to the piece, but [Broadway and Smash composers] Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman had come to the opening, and I knew they’d have warned her if they didn’t think she’d like it. More importantly, so much of what I’m trying to do is tell the truth, tell my truth — something inside of me understood that Patti would respect that and be proud of me. I knew in the silences that Patti, along with the audience, was with me — and of course I lived for her cackle. I’m sure all my gays did too!
Your show draws parallels between your relationship with Patti and your rocky relationship with your father, who came out as gay when you were eight years old. How has growing up with a gay dad informed your own identity as a gay man?
It was hard on me knowing my father was gay when I was young because it forced me to look at and wonder about myself before I was ready to, at least in the context of what was still a very homophobic world in the ’80s with precious little gay visibility. It’s one thing when you’re nine years old to play with Barbies, but it’s another thing to imagine your life married to a man. In some ways, having that information made me ahead of my time; in another ways, it made me such a relic to a bygone era. I feel like an old queen who lived through the dark ages, even though most people my age came out somewhat later in a somewhat more liberated environment.
Do you wish your father could come see Patti Issues as well?
Sure, part of me wants him to see it. And part of me is scared of how he would react. That’s my concern: That he would react, rather than processing what this means for me and responding in support of that. That’s the core of why our relationship has never gelled. It was always all about him and I needed it to be all about me. I doubt it would be any different today.
Photo: Christian Coulson