By Adam Brinklow
For much of his life, Brooklyn-based director and producer Ben Rimalower had two things on his mind: his confusing relationship with his estranged father, and his hero worship of Broadway star Patti LuPone. Last year he decided to simplify matters by turning those two things into one thing: Patti Issues, an autobiographical one-man show about how working with a diva (LuPone) can exorcise the demons of living with a diva (Dad).
Patti Issues turned into a surprise hit, acclaimed by critics (and LuPone herself) and turning a five-performance engagement into a yearlong one. Now Rimalower is taking it on tour; he’s got dates in Boston, Glasgow, and Berlin in coming months. So what’s it like when a workingman producer suddenly turns in a star-making performance of his own? We asked.
429Magazine: Well, you’re living the dream: Your one-man show has actually become a hit. Is it the fame and success you always dreamed of?
Ben Rimalower: Shows like this usually only run for a handful of performances in theaters, but I opened August 30 of last year and I’m closing in New York on August 15. The only reason we don’t do the couple of extra shows to make it the full one-year is because I’ll be doing the show in Europe those dates. So I’m thrilled by that degree of success; I’m not humble about it at all.
That said, I’ve still got a day job here at Simon & Schuster, and I’ve got to come in everyday and then a lot of the time go out and perform after work. Sometimes I get off work, fly down to catch the train, and don’t even have time to pee before I go on. I love that you’re calling this a tour because that means you’re buying in my PR bullshit, but the truth is it’s not a tour, it’s me going around the country and crashing [on]people’s couches between shows.
429Mag: But you do a ton of dates. How do you manage?
Rimalower: I’m very crafty about it. Here’s a secret: These Europe dates are a family vacation. There’s a Bah Mitzvah in Berlin, so since I’m going to be in Berlin and Glasgow anyway I found some venues there. I go home to LA every year for Passover and Thanksgiving, so while I’m there I’ll do shows. It’s worked out so far, but there are limits to how much I can do, and I’m certainly no one’s cash cow.
429Mag: You were a director and producer before Patti Issues but never a performer. What made you get onstage?
Rimalower: I always felt like I should be writing, I just didn’t know how. Then I started blogging about Patti, and using that first-person voice was the first time that being a writer ever worked for me. Somehow I ended up writing less about Patti and more about myself and my father, so as the show developed it became clear that it would be most effective for me to be the person to perform it. It wasn’t until very late into rehearsals that I even thought to get nervous. One day it just hit me, “It’s going to be my ass onstage.” My hands started to shake; that whole first month there was not one night my hands weren’t shaking.
429Mag: How’d you get past that?
Rimalower: The fifth night, Alan Cumming was in the audience. About five minutes in I saw the door open and spot the back of his head going out and I thought, “Oh my God, Alan Cumming just walked out of my show.” Then I reminded myself, I didn’t write this show for Alan Cumming, I wrote it for me, and it doesn’t matter if he doesn’t like it. That was a big moment for me.
Later it turned out that was really just a waiter with Alan’s same haircut who left. Alan actually stayed and liked the show, and we’re friends now.
429Mag: Does it feel odd having thousands of strangers know the intimate details of your life?
Rimalower: That’s never been weird for me. I’ve always been very open. When I was a kid my father sat me down and told me, “I’m gay but you can’t tell your mother,” and I’d have these conversations with relatives, “Your father is gay but don’t tell your grandmother,” and I always hated keeping those secrets, so my instinct is just to share everything all the time. Which has gotten me in trouble occasionally.
429Mag: Do you ever get recognized?
Rimalower: I went out to the club after my Fire Island show this weekend and I met a gorgeous guy in high tops, no shirt, and a glitter-covered jockstrap who told me how much he liked the show. I was like, “Well, nice to meet you.” That was a great moment for me.
429Mag: Do you worry about getting pigeonholed as the Patti Guy?
Rimalower: That’s always been my image with everyone I know, so if anything I feel like I’ve just gotten more popular. And bonding with people over Patti is always something I’ve done. I am excited to do more things with my career, but I would love it if people always remember this about me.
429Mag: We know you’re working on a new show. Give us a preview?
Rimalower: It’s about my getting clean in rehab. It’s a lot less show business oriented… although it does open with me singing Judy Garland, so characterize that however you want. And I’ve got lots of life stories, like how I didn’t pay rent for three years and then my landlord beat up my roommate, so when he took us to court we won. That’ll make it into a show someday.