by Brian Scott Lipton
Few people define the word multi-talented as well as Austin Pendleton. An acclaimed writer, director and, yes, singer, Pendleton – who turns 80 next March –continues to work practically non-stop. (In fact, we spoke while he was on a break from performing in Oliver at Boston’s New Repertory Theater). New Yorkers will have many chances to see him in action in 2020, starting when he and his friend Barbara Bleier return to NYC’s Pangea nightclub with a brand-new show, Bits and Pieces, on Tuesdays, January 7, 14 and 21. Theater Pizzazz recently spoke to Pendleton about his work in cabaret and theater.
HOW DID YOU BECOME A CABARET PERFORMER AT THIS STAGE IN YOUR LIFE?
AP: I’ve known Barbara since she was my acting student at HB Studio and she and her husband did a lot of cabaret when they lived in L.A. So when she came back to New York, she asked if I was interested in putting a cabaret act together, so we first did a show in her living room. Then, around 2016, we went looking for a professional space, and Pangea, which held the opening night parties for Classic Stage Company, where I act and direct, was just making their back room a cabaret space. She got us one show there, which got well reviewed, and since then, we’ve done three shows there a year, each for three or four performances. We got lucky getting in on the “ground floor,” since so many cabaret spaces have closed since then and Pangea is so busy I don’t know if they would even book us now!
WHAT CAN YOU TELL US ABOUT BITS AND PIECES?
AP: As you can tell from the title, it doesn’t have a theme, but it’s evolving. The songs, some you’ll know and some you won’t, are all about love — some angry, some tender, some comic. Unlike our past shows, our director Barbara Meier and our accompanist Paul Greenwood also sing this time. We’re more of a quartet than a duo.
HOW DO YOU ALL CHOOSE THE SONGS?
For the most part, no one is ever adamant about any one song; it’s more about throwing out ideas and everyone mostly has to agree. Personally, I think it’s not worth the energy battling over one song unless someone really hates it. Sometimes, after someone makes a suggestion, one person will say “you can’t be serious,” but we still let them try it – and after they try it, if we still hate it, then collectively, we really shoot it down.
YOU FIRST CAME TO FAME AS MOTEL IN THE ORIGINAL PRODUCTION OF FIDDLER ON THE ROOF? HOW DID THAT COME ABOUT?
AP: Before Fiddler, I did the Off-Broadway play Oh, Dad, Poor Dad…, which Jerry Robbins also directed, When I was doing Oh Dad, my agent suggested I take singing lessons so I could audition for musicals as well as plays, which I thought was a smart idea since I hadn’t done much singing before. Anyway, Jerry thought of me for Fiddler, and I auditioned about five times – for the role of Perchik – and he seemed pleased. Then on the sixth audition, he asked me to do Motel. I didn’t feel connected to Motel, so I didn’t think much about it. Then I ran into Jerry on the street a couple of weeks later and he told me he wanted me to play Motel and that he and the writers were reconceiving the part for me, which made me feel better. But I really didn’t have a big song for a long time; Bock and Harnick didn’t write “Miracle of Miracles” until near the end of tryouts. And, honestly, our out-of-town reviews were so bad, we actually thought we would close before we got to Broadway.
SPEAKING OF CLOSINGS, THE MUSICAL UP FROM PARADISE HAD A SURPRISINGLY SHORT RUN OFF-BROADWAY. WHAT HAPPENED?
AP: It was sad. It was this very ambitious musical version of an Arthur Miller play about the Bible that was at the Jewish Repertory Theatre in 1983. The cast also included Len Cariou, Alice Playten, Walter Bobbie and Lonny Price. The problem was that it featured the story about Cain and Abel, and our press preview happened on the same day there was this terrible bombing in Lebanon that killed all those U.S. marines. I think the press just wasn’t in the mood for that show on that day, and I figured we’d get bad reviews. So I left the opening party early and as I walked up Third Avenue from 14th Street to 76th Street, I bought another newspaper every 20 blocks — and the reviews got worse every time. We were a flop by the minute I got home.
YOU ARE RETURNING TO BROADWAY IN FEBRUARY IN TRACY LETTS’ THE MINUTES. ARE YOU EXCITED?
AP: Yes. I’ve done a lot of work with Steppenwolf (which is where the show originated) over the years. I love Tracy’s plays, I love our director Anna D. Shapiro, and we have an amazing cast. All I can say is I play Mr. Oldfield, who is a bit high-strung. But I really have no clear idea of who he is yet, because I think it cramps the rehearsal period if I’ve already made up my mind about the character.
YOU’VE BEEN AWAY FROM DIRECTING FOR A WHILE. DO YOU MISS IT?
AP: Yes. But the good news is I am going to direct Tennesee Williams’ The Red Devil Battery Sign Off-Broadway this summer. Most people don’t know it because it originally closed out of town in 1975. It was a big departure for him; it was very ambitious, it has like 20 characters, and it’s very politically edgy. Tennessee kept revising it until 1979, and we’re using the last script he approved, which I believe has never been done in New York. I’m very excited!