“You know how people stand around and sing show tunes at parties?” Mandy Patinkin asked recently. “I hate it. Can’t stand doing it.” He noted, unnecessarily, “You can see the irony” in that confession — coming from a performer whose fire-and-honey voice made him one of the biggest musical theater stars of his generation in shows like “Evita” and “Sunday in the Park with George.”
Mr. Patinkin, 65, has been most visible in recent years on Showtime’s “Homeland,” where since 2011 he has played the C.I.A. veteran Saul Berenson, the battle-scarred mentor to Claire Danes’s Carrie Mathison.
But with that hit series approaching its final season, events conspired to turn Mr. Patinkin’s focus back to music — though not the kind you’d necessarily expect. In April, he released “Diary: January 27, 2018,” his first new collection of songs in 16 years.
Recorded with the prolific 30-something musician/producer Thomas Bartlett (also known as Doveman), it features lean, intimate readings of material by singer-songwriters and alt-pop genre-benders, without a show tune in the batch.
“Diary: April/May 2018” followed last month, with one nod to Mr. Patinkin’s past — Stephen Sondheim’s “Children And Art,” from “Sunday in the Park” — along with songs by Randy Newman, Bob Dylan, Harry Nilsson, Keren Ann and the theater artist Taylor Mac, plus a pair of tunes Mr. Patinkin wrote himself more than 35 years ago.
The “Diary” series, an ongoing project, has now led Mr. Patinkin back to the stage: On Wednesday, he’ll kick off a concert tour with nine performances at the Connelly Theater in the East Village. Presented here by New York Theater Workshop, “Mandy Patinkin in Concert: Diaries 2018” will mix songs from the recent releases and traditional pop and musical-theater fare, with Adam Ben-David accompanying the star.
“It’ll just be a grand piano with Adam facing me, and an empty stage,” said Mr. Patinkin, sitting in the small rehearsal room in his apartment, beside a Yamaha upright left to him by a friend who died of AIDS in the 1980s. “I don’t play,” he pointed out; it’s there for his accompanists. “But I’ve learned every song for the past 30 years on this piano.”
Speaking in a voice that could easily reach the back of the house — and seemed to, when the subject elicited particular enthusiasm or outrage — Mr. Patinkin, who also works with refugees as an ambassador for the International Rescue Committee, discussed his recent choices in personal and political terms. Here are edited excerpts from that conversation.
What sparked the “Diary” series?
I’d been working with [the music director and accompanist] Paul Ford for 30 years, and when he retired a few years ago, I decided to take a break. I got tired of doing all the stuff I’d been doing, and I developed a sort of learner’s block, where I couldn’t learn new stuff. Then my good friend Bob Hurwitz at Nonesuch Records put me together with Thomas Bartlett, and we started working together. I told Thomas I didn’t want to work on anything that would remind me of other stuff I’d done, and he said, “Don’t worry, I’m from a whole different world.” So he sent me 350 songs, and I stayed home last Christmas Eve and Christmas Day and listened to all of them, and chose 28 that spoke to me at that moment. Since then we’ve picked some more. I’ve found a new life partner in music.
You’ve released the recordings without announcing them beforehand — that’s also a more contemporary approach.
Thomas said, “Let’s just put it out there.” And at first I thought, what do you mean? I’d never done that, without concerts ready. But the idea was to capture what we’d done in that moment. Thomas and I are taking snapshots of where our minds are and reflecting on the world we’re living in.
There’s certainly a bleakness to some of these songs.
There are personal connections to all these songs. “Dayton, Ohio — 1903” reminded me of my dad, for some reason. “My Mom” by Chocolate Genius just tore me apart; there are people in my life who are that mom. “Going to a Town” [a Rufus Wainwright song] was interesting, because when I got to the word “America,” I was thinking about Jerusalem, and the stagnant peace process. I wanted to sing to end the occupation, to have a two-state solution. I didn’t want to change Rufus’s words, but Thomas said, “Rufus is a friend, and he’ll be fine with it.” So we sent it to him, and he wrote the most beautiful note imaginable, blessing it.
There are a number of songs about women, and by them, on the second collection.
We’re using a video in this concert series for the first time, of “From the Air,” by Laurie Anderson. And I love Patty Griffin. Her “Making Pies,” that’s one I stole from the show with Taylor, “The Last Two People On Earth.” We’re going to do that show again some time.
How did you and Taylor Mac get together?
[The director] Rachel Chavkin was my Shakespeare coach when I did “The Tempest” at Classic Stage Company. We were working on my Prospero and she said, “I know this guy, and I think the two of you would make a really good combination.” So she was our yenta, our matchmaker. We did a benefit for her theater, the Team, and he came out on stage with all this gear on, in drag, and I’d never seen him like that. It was extraordinary, and we knew we had to do more.
You wrote “Buckingham” and “Raggedy Ann” on the latest album. Do you plan to continue writing?
I thought about writing years ago, but I only knew a few chords, and I’m not a patient man. But now with these machines called cellphones, I can sing anything that comes to mind, words and music, and Thomas can play it, a thousand times better. I know I’ve lived a life, and I have things to share about my life, then and now, and the world around me. So I’m curious to see if I do write over the next two or three years. But it’s not my No. 1 goal. I’m not the gifted genius who writes the songs. I’m the mailman, delivering the letters.
Has playing a C.I.A. agent on “Homeland” impacted your worldview?
Absolutely. Saul will never die for me, even if he dies on the show — and I don’t know if he will yet. Because he’s taught me how to listen. However you label me — and I’ve been labeled in many different ways — he is calm, and he’s given me this platform to be an information conduit for those who have no voice.
You almost came back to Broadway last year, in “Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812,” but had to pull out after controversy. That must have cut deeply.
That was a heartbreaking experience. I learned every word, and it just made me sad. But I will come back — that’s why I’m doing these concerts. I don’t need to be doing a Broadway show; I just need to be performing songs I believe in, for one person or a bunch of people. Because I have not found, to this date, a better way to pray.