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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, August 14, 2015 - Volume 43 Issue 33
John Rubinstein: A merry Pippin!
Arts & Entertainment
ALL STORIES
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John Rubinstein: A merry Pippin!

by Eric Andrews-Katz - SGN A&E Writer

PIPPIN, THE MUSICAL
PARAMOUNT THEATRE
August 16-23


As the lyrics say, 'Think about your life, Pippin,' a task that seems perfect for the actor John Rubinstein. Making his Broadway debut in the original cast of Pippin (in 1972), he has returned to the musical (in the first and only revival thus far) playing Charlemagne, the Great - Pippin's father. As the musical explodes on the Paramount Theatre's stage, the Seattle Gay News caught up with the eclectic actor of massive talent.

Andrews Eric -Katz: Who were your earliest influences in becoming a performer?

John Rubinstein: I lived in New York and I went to the theater and saw everything I could possibly see. It was affordable (then) so if I saw something I liked, I would go and see it again. Sometimes I would Second-Act it [going in for free at the Second Act] or standing room, whichever I could afford on a high school allowance. Like any other self-respecting child of the '50s and '60s, I watched television. My main enthusiasm was for the movies. The real influences were Fred Astaire and James Stewart. [Stewart's] acting style was not a necessary matinee idol leading man, but he could be a romantic interest. He was funny and goofy - which I do a lot of in my acting - but he could also be taken seriously when the role demanded it of him. He could switch from character to character while maintaining the character OF his characters. He changed through his work becoming theatrical and broad and truthful as he could possibly be. Later on, the influence was Gene Hackman. That's the kind of acting I still inspire to perform. Fred Astaire was also a fantastic musician, never mind his dancing. No one was able to do better than he. The way he was able to incorporate his singing into his dancing. Many of the big name writers said they'd write original songs for Fred, simply because he went to the core of what the song was about. Whether it was a love song or a story song, he acted it and sang the notes in proper rhythm.

Andrews-Katz: You made your Broadway debut originating the role of Pippin. What was it like to work with the great Bob Fosse?

Rubinstein: That's a question I could talk about for hours. Bob Fosse, I loved personally as a friend. We understood each other - although from different backgrounds. On some level we were completely compatible and looked at each other with [professional] love and respect, and that makes the experience fantastic. He had an amazing brilliance, charisma, and an understanding of the audience; knowing what the audience needs next to make them laugh or cry. He knew how to portray sexuality on stage without being disgusting, dirty or blatant. He was truthful. He always wanted to go to the truth of the matter. For me, he was a tremendous guide and inspiration.

Andrews-Katz: What is your favorite memory you have of the original Broadway run of Pippin?

Rubinstein: I was involved with it for two and a half years, and it was my Broadway debut, and we [my wife and I] were having two children - the beginning of our family - so there are hundreds of memories associated with it. The people and the experiences, and my life on the side of performing, that I don't know if I could pick a favorite moment. One of the greatest enduring moments was getting to sing, dance and play on stage with Ben Vereen. He was my brother and my partner and we were both young men of about the same age. We both were starring in a big hit on Broadway, and we had so much fun together. He is still somebody I adore.

Andrews-Katz: You won a 1980 Best Actor [Play] Tony Award for your performance in Children of a Lesser God. Did you have to learn sign language for the role? Do you still speak any?

Rubinstein: In that show I sign for two and a half hours. It is a major signing role. We [Phyllis Frelich playing Sarah Norman] signed equally but she signed only. I was simultaneously speaking and signing as my character. When I spoke to her I signed. My hands still hurt from it. I can't say I practice the language. I'm like a person spending time in France, and I learned to speak it well. I wasn't fluent, but I haven't spoken it since then. I have deaf friends, but I don't see them as often as I'd like. Then I was working on signing every day, but now I'm rusty.

Andrews-Katz: Appearing in the first (and only) revival of Pippin is full circle for you. How does it make you feel being part of the show again?

Rubinstein: It's wonderful. It's like going home again after being absent for 40 years. It's a fantastic wonderful thing.

Andrews-Katz: What differences do you recognize having created the role of Pippin, and now playing the role of his father, Charlemagne?

Rubinstein: There are tremendous differences. First there is a brand new ending. The show has been rewritten in parts. One of the great theater directors had the idea of changing the ending in a very substantial way (from the original in 1972). Stephen Schwartz [composer/lyricist of Pippin] saw it and loved it. The first time I saw it was at Seattle's 5th Avenue. My wife was playing Fastrada. I brought my kids there, and there was the new ending. I was appalled and surprised and couldn't believe they did that, but that's the way the ending was, is currently, and always will be from now on.

Andrews-Katz: Do you ever feel the ghost of Eric Berry (original Charlemagne) guiding your performance?

Rubinstein: I do very much so! I feel like I channel him every night. I think about him, but don't imitate his performance. The direction of this production is a different style than Fosse did. And the role of Charles (Charlemagne) is different in conception and approach. He's funnier, crazier, and even scarier. In the original production he was a more solid obstacle to Pippin's progress. He was father to him, but his mind was on other matters. He still is, but this new production has him more wacko and crazy. It's great fun to do.

Andrews-Katz: If you could play any role - regardless of all limitations - what would it be and why?

Rubinstein: That's a big question. The role I would really want to play, because it is one of my favorite two or three plays every written, and I'm still of an age where I could play it, is James Tyrone in Long Day's Journey Into Night by Eugene O'Neill. That is a play I read again and again. I see productions; I revisit the movie over and over. It's a magnificent masterpiece and I would love to play that part. I've done long sections with my son (Michael) and we have played a 45-minute scene together, but I would love to play the full role.

If there were no bars and limits though, I would want to play Mama Rose in Gypsy! Her music is irresistible. Every song she sings is a killer, whether it is a ballad or the big numbers, it's a great role of an ambitious talent. Love the life out of their child; it's a great role. I would love to play it!

John Rubinstein is the son of the great concert pianist Arthur Rubinstein. John made his debut in Pippin to great acclaim. In 1980, he won the Tony and Drama Desk Awards for his role in Mark Medoff's Children of a Lesser God. His film roles include The Boys from Brazil, Red Dragon and Another Stakeout among many others. He's won an Emmy award for his repeating role on televisions 'Family.' Returning to Pippin, John Rubinstein comes full circle.

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