Mandy Patinkin still remembers the moment he fell in love with musical theater.
While rehearsing the musical “Carousel” in a Jewish youth center in Chicago, drama teacher Bob Condor gathered Patinkin and his fellow high school students in a semicircle.
“Bob said to us, ‘What’s this play about?’ ” Patinkin, 61, recalled. “Different people said, ‘It’s about a guy who makes a mistake.’ ‘It’s about a guy who goes to heaven.’ ‘It’s about a guy who gets a second chance. …’ ”
Condor agreed, then paused before sharing his own interpretation: “I think it’s about ‘If you love someone, tell them.’ ”
“At that moment, I thought to myself, ‘Huh. If that’s what this stuff called musical theater (is) about, I kind of like that,’ ” Patinkin said. “I’m going to hang out.”
Patinkin, who performs Friday at the Performing Arts Center in San Luis Obispo, has been hanging out ever since. He won a Tony Award for his 1980 Broadway debut in “Evita,” and earned another Tony nomination in 1984’s “Sunday in the Park with George.”
These days, the man hailed by The New Yorker as a “musical force of nature” is best known to audiences as Spanish swordsman Inigo Montoya in “The Princess Bride” and stoic CIA chief Saul Berenson on Showtime’s “Homeland.” A seasoned movie actor whose film credits include “Dick Tracy,” “Ragtime” and “Yentl,” he’s also an Emmy Award-winning TV veteran, starring in “Chicago Hope,” “Criminal Minds” and “Dead Like Me.”
“As I often say, I don’t think of myself as a singer,” said Patinkin, who, surprisingly, doesn’t read music. “I like to think of myself as an actor who tells stories … speaking words that are occasionally spoken on musical notes.”
Patinkin recently wrapped up an 18-performance run of “The Last Two People on Earth: An Apocalyptic Vaudeville,” the off-Broadway show he created with performance artist Taylor Mac. Now he’s returning to the touring circuit with his one-man show “Dress Casual,” accompanied by pianist Paul Ford.
“We have 13 hours of music we cull from for every concert,” he explained, tailoring the content depending on the audience. Friday’s concert, for instance, will likely include selections from an upcoming release on Nonesuch Records — his eighth solo album since 1989’s “Mandy Patinkin.”
Reached in New York City, where he lives with his wife of 33 years, Kathryn Grody, Patinkin shared some of the wisdom he’s gleaned over the years between bites of a lox-and-bagel sandwich. Here are a few highlights:
• Old men singing in the synagogue was my introduction to music. It was all about … the feeling and the cry in their voice.
• The word “connect” is the operative word in my life. I’m always trying to connect in one form or another. So my goal, whether I’m acting in front of a camera, whether I’m in a play, whether I’m singing a song, whether I’m talking to my wife, my children, friends, an audience, or you, is I’m trying to connect.
• For some reason, these songs … speak to me. They are sort of like my bible, written by geniuses like Yip Harburg and Irving Berlin and Stephen Sondheim and Oscar Hammerstein and Adam Geibel and Randy Newman and Paul Simon and Tom Waits. Many of these people had somewhat difficult, troubled lives. They attended to their difficulties, but they wrote down in words what they wished for themselves and what they wished for the world.
The greatest comfort for me is that … I’m not the genius here. I’m just the mailman. So I deliver their words, but the comfort comes in getting to listen to them with company.
• It’s meaningless without the audience and it’s meaningless without the nature of how that audience listens — which is never the same, from moment to moment, from night to night. The events of the world that day — a snowstorm, a rainstorm, a tsunami, a presidential election, a health care situation, a war … a prince being born — anything that goes on, that’s how we listen to those lyrics at that moment. And we listen to them together.
That’s why the live theater is my favorite thing. … I love making movies, I love making TV shows, but you’re not with the audience.
• Our job as actors and writers and filmmakers and concert makers … is to reflect what’s going on in the world, through our view. (To), just like Shakespeare said, “Hold (as ’twere) the mirror up to nature.” That’s our job. We’re not reality TV. ... We’re poetic TV. And we’re poetic concerts. And we’re poetic plays.
• When the nature of the situation is larger than what we know in life — like love, like confusion — when the feeling is something greater than (what) we understand, that is when music becomes our friend.
• The older I get, the more I understand how much I don’t understand. And how that’s OK, and how it’s OK to be frightened.
One of the biggest things I’ve learned in my later years is to stop trying to run away from things that frighten me. … Eventually I’ll get bored with the fear and press on. What I’ve learned is you can’t outrun anything. You can’t outrun those fears, so you might as well just sit in the room with them.
• I’ll never retire unless I’m forced to because my body can’t do anything. My vacation is working.
• Every time I go out I want to be clean. I want to be available. I want to give the audience the best I can. I want to be the best mailman I can be.
I want to be out of the way of what these people wrote, musically and lyrically. I want to deliver it as cleanly as I can so the audience can have the experience without too much Mandy.
It’s always the next performance I’m interested in. What’s done is done. I’m now interested in what’s coming.
IF YOU GO
8 p.m. Friday
Cohan Center, Cal Poly
$35.80 to $85
756-4849 or www.calpolyarts.org
Reach Sarah Linn at 781-7907. Stay updated by following @shelikestowatch on Twitter.