Q&A: John Rubinstein

The actor, who returns to Pippin four decades after he originated the title role, on audiences and politics then and now, and his favorite composers.

published Friday, July 10, 2015

Photo: Terry Shapiro
John Rubinstein as Charlemagne and Sabrina Harper as Fastrada in the tour of Pippin

Dallas — Actor, composer and director John Rubenstein, in Dallas with the national touring production of Pippin, talked with TheaterJones via phone about his long association with the Roger O. Hirson/Stephen Schwartz musical, using the premise of a fantastical acting troupe, led by a Leading Player, to tell a fictional story of Charlemagne’s young son and his search for meaning in his life. Rubenstein created the title role of the show in its original Broadway production in 1972. Now, more than four decades later, he’s playing King Charles to an entirely new audience for this unique musical.


TheaterJones: Your amazing long and varied life in theater, film and TV has brought you to Dallas in the touring production of the Tony Award-winning 2013 revival of Pippin. Only now, you’re playing King Charles, the father of Pippin, the title role in which you made your Broadway debut. What have you learned about Schwartz’s musical and the story it tells?

John Rubinstein: What have I learned? I learn everything from everything. If you do a play every day for a long time, nothing is ever the same; I learn something every time I perform. Pippin has its own framework; it’s not s typical beginning-middle-end play. It could be viewed as a metaphor or as or actual representation of an individual’s story.


How has the audience changed?

When Pippin opened in the 1970s it was a very different time in our history and a different audience compared to the recent revival. Back then, the Vietnamese war was raging in this country. On the three networks every single night we saw our boys napalming entire villages. And we saw our boys being killed. The war was very present. Plus, there was the draft, and everybody had someone, a relative or friend or neighbor, that was killed or in a position to be killed in war. There was huge emotion attached to the concept of war, and there was a large majority of Americans against it. People asked, why are we killing innocent people in the rice paddies of Vietnam? There were those supporting the war, and getting rich off it, but they were regularly confronted by the reality of it.

There are still people who love to make war. But nowadays, you turn on your evening news, and you might hear about the economic disaster in Greece, but mostly you’ll hear celebrity news and Donald Trump saying something stupid again. What you don’t hear is anything about our men and women fighting wars in the Middle East. The soldiers are still there, and the famous military-industrial complex is still making buckets of money off these wars, but nobody is watching that closely. The Dick Cheneys of this world are dancing with glee as we kill more and more people on another continent.

We have no draft. The warmongers learned their lesson. With no draft, we still have soldiers, but we don’t put the war on TV.  That way, we can wage war for decades and it’s hardly noticed.

Today, when actors step out on the stage in Pippin and make fun of fighting and killing for kicks in songs like “War is a Science” and “Glory,” the audience thinks it’s funny. The circus people are doing real death-defying acts, and everybody applauds. [The Tony Award-winning revival of Pippin, directed by Diane Paulus, includes the addition of a troupe of circus acrobats, which is handled by Montreal’s Les 7 doigts de la main]. Everybody laughs and applauds now, but in 1972 these satiric songs were hair-raising.  Then the awareness of war was enormous and the audience response was visceral. Now war is kept at a distance, so the songs and dances register as entertainment more than political satire.

My last tour through Dallas was in 1968, when everybody was opposed to the war. LBJ was pushed into a corner, and decided not to run for the presidency. He cringed; he felt the pressure of people opposed to his policies. But Bush and and Cheney don’t cringe. They’ll laugh at your talk about the damages of war, and go play another round of golf.


You were raised in a musical and theatrical family, with deep roots in the European and American concert hall tradition. Your father was the distinguished concert pianist Arthur Rubinstein. What was your father’s expectation for his son, in terms of a musical career?

It was less a question of expectations, and more just hoping his kid would make good. I played the piano all my young life. Clearly, I had a musical bent. It was equally clear I would not be a concert pianist. I think my dad thought I could be a conductor, because I was enthralled with the orchestra. I went to rehearsals with my father when I was a kid, and sat next to an oboe or timpani. I would look at their score, whether it was Mozart or Rachmaninoff, and follow along. I got to know the conductors my father played with, including Bernstein and Solti.

When I came out to the [University of California], I knew all the Broadway show tunes. [Rubinstein studied theater and music at UCLA from 1964 to 1967.] I started learning musical scores, and began writing big orchestral pieces for the movies. John Williams almost alone brought movie scores to the attention of concert halls. His score for Jaws, Star Wars and other iconic music made the concert halls everywhere aware of scores for film.


Photo: Terry Shapiro
The tour of Pippin


What musicals and composers are you most excited about today?

I loved Robert Freedman’s A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, which won the Tony Award last year. It’s an old-fashioned pastiche of music. What I love about Broadway musicals is that they can do anything now.

The reigning king for me is still Stephen Sondheim. He brought the musical to a benchmark level from the ’60s forward. The guy can write music and lyrics right up there with Cole Porter and Frank Loesser.  Only a handful of composers do both words and music. Stephen Schwartz writes his own music and lyrics.  My hat’s off to him—he’s in the Pantheon.

One of my heroes of today is Adam Guettel, who wrote Floyd Collins, a musical about a man who got stuck in a cave, and he died. Despite the subject, it’s a funny, soaring, beautiful piece of writing. Guettel [grandson of Richard Rodgers and son of Mary Rodgers] also wrote The Light in the Piazza. He has a way with a harmony and melody; his work is daring, fearless and divinely inspired.

I think Jason Robert Brown’s Parade is a masterpiece. His Bridges of Madison County is a brilliant musical. The Last Five Years is a wonderful show for two characters about a relationship going wrong, in which the two characters are singing songs from different times in the relationship. He has a song about beginning to fall in love, and immediately she sings of the break up from the other side of the stage. They move together as the play progresses, so they are singing together when the relationship is at its zenith.  


You’ve worked in many venues over the years, from Broadway to smaller repertory companies.  Does the venue affect the performance?

The work, the commitment and the love are the same, whether on Broadway or elsewhere.

You make some small adjustments for the size of the hall. We just played Kansas City in an outside theater with 8,000 seats. The lights are on, but it’s daytime and people are walking around eating popcorn, and that’s a little strange. Thanks For Reading

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Q&A: John Rubinstein
The actor, who returns to Pippin four decades after he originated the title role, on audiences and politics then and now, and his favorite composers.
by Martha Heimberg

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