BWW Interviews: John Rubinstein of PIPPIN National Tour (and the Original Broadway Cast)
The circus is coming to the Durham Performing Arts Center from May 12th-17th in the form of the national touring production of the Tony Award-Winning revival of Pippin! In this national tour happens to be John Rubinstein, who originated the title role in the orginal Broadway production back in 1972. Now he plays Pippin's father Charlemagne, a role originated on Broadway by Eric Berry, and more recently in the 2013 Broadway revival Three-Time Tony Nominee by Terrence Mann.
John's previous credits also include Broadway productions of Children of a Lesser God (Tony, Drama Desk awards), Caine Mutiny, Ragtime, Hurlyburly, M. Butterfly, Fools, Love Letters, Pippin (2014). Off-B'way/regional: Counsellor-at-Law (Lortel Award), Wicked (L.A.). 30 films; two TV series: Family, Crazy Like a Fox, 300 episodes. Stage and TV director; film composer and conductor; college professor (USC); narrator of over 100 audiobooks.
JK: To start things off, how does it feel to be touring in a show that you've been associated with for over 40 years?
JR: Well I love the show, so there's a pleasure from it every night. I don't know how much of a pleasure is associated with the fact that I done it before or if it is simply that it is a wonderful show today. I remember when we created it and I remember all my friends that were in it with me. It means a great deal to me, it's almost like coming home.
JK: You made your Broadway debut as the title character in the original Bob Fosse production of Pippin, would you share with us your memories of how you got involved?
JR: I was living in Los Angeles; I had just gotten married; I had been working as an actor for the past seven years in theatres as well as touring the country to virtually every city in the United States for months. I had done a lot of television as well as a few movies, so I was beginning to feel very confident about being an actor and that this was gonna be the way I'd be able to support my family and make my life. I was also beginning to score movies. I had written the score for three feature films, which was my other profession. It wasn't really a sideline at all, that was how I was making my living. One of the movies I had made was a film I starred in opposite Don Johnson titled Zachariah which turned out to be a flop, but it wasn't even out yet. The company that produced it also produced the film adaptation of Cabaret. Those were the only two movies that company produced. My only previous Broadway audition was for Hal Prince to take over the role of The Emcee in the original production of Cabaret because Joel Grey was leaving after about 1-2 years of performances. So they were looking for the person to replace him, and a friend of mine from a booking group had gotten me an audition. I had flown to New York and I auditioned for it. I then received a letter from Hal Prince that said that he felt that I was the best person for the role, but I simply looked too young. I was 19 years old, and I looked way younger than that. I always felt that if I had put on the whole Emcee costume, than I could've masked how young I was, so I didn't get that part. But it always gave me that feeling that I had a shot. So when I heard that the company that gave me my starring role in Zachariah was doing Cabaret, I went to the head of that company and said 'I want to play the Joel Grey role in Cabaret in your movie', and he said to me 'we have Joel Grey', so that was the end of that discussion. So I then went out and made Zachariah, which was great fun, one of the most fun things I've ever done in my entire life. I think about months later when I was back in Los Angeles, I got a call from that same studio head, he said 'Hey John, can you do an English accent?' And I said 'You bet, I went to a British school, and I could make a Brit think I'm a Brit'. So the studio head said that they were doing this movie Cabaret and that Michael York was suppose to play the lead opposite Liza Minnelli, but he had scheduling conflicts with another movie he was making. So it looked like he might not have been able to do it, but I could. So the studio head arranged a meeting between me and Bob Fosse who was directing Cabaret. Fosse liked me a lot, he had me read for him, I did my British accent, so that was good. We went to the studio, and he had me screentest two scenes from Cabaret. I did it with his girlfriend at the time, and that went very well. I had big long hair, but I tied it up. I did that screentest with him and I thought he was going to cast me for the role of Brian Roberts. But then Michael York was able to fix his schedule, so he did the film. So about eight months later, I was in L.A.; My wife was eight months pregnant; I was doing my TV show; and the phone rings, and it's Bob Fosse. At that point, he was back from Germany filming Cabaret, he had finished the movie, and he asked 'Hey John, can you sing?' I said 'Well, I'm not a singer, I don't have the kind of voice anyone would ever want to hear, but I certainly can sing, I've done musicals, and I am a musician, I just don't have a singer's kind of voice.' He then said 'If I came over, could you sing for me?' And I said 'Sure'. So he came over to my house, and I played the piano and sang two songs for him by Laura Nyro, whom I still adore to this day. I knew a lot of her songs, I used to sing them just for my own pleasure, so I sang them for Bob. He thought it was pretty good, and he brought the script for Pippin; We sat down on my couch and we read the whole play. He read all the parts and I read for Pippin. My wife made him dinner, and he left. He knew her, she had done Pal Joey with him. So she and I were going to bed at 11:00 PM, we were just turning out the lights, and there was a knock on the front door in our bedroom. I thought 'Who the hell is here?' So I got up, opened the door and there was Bob Fosse standing there with a cassette tape. He said 'just listen, learn your second song, and come to New York in three days.' I listened to the tape with Stephen Schwartz playing the piano and singing all of the songs in Pippin. I then learned all the words to Corner of the Sky which is Pippin's main song. So I learned that, I came to New York about three days later, and I auditioned for Stephen, Roger O. Hirson, producer Stuart Ostrow, and Bob. I sang my Laura Nyro song again, played the piano for myself, and then I stood up on the stage with the accompaniment, I sang Corner of the Sky for them. And then, Bob ran down the aisles and said 'The part is yours if you want it.' right there at the theatre. So that's how I got into Pippin.
JK: Wow, an incredible story!
JR: Yeah, it's a good story.
JK: What was it like getting to performing on Broadway back in the day?
JR: It's pretty much the same as it is now. What I'll say is different the most are the ticket prices. When we opened Pippin in New York, our producer raised the ticket prices for Friday and Saturday evenings only, it was $27.50, and that was very expensive. Now, tickets go from $100-$400. When I went to New York as a young theatre person, I would be there for three or four days, and I got to see 5-7 shows. I can't even afford to do that now, that's what changed. But the experience for an actor to be working on Broadway is pretty much the same. The theatres have been renovated, but they're still the same old theatres. Times Square is much more crowded and crazy, but it's still Times Square. Some of the great old places to eat after the shows are now gone. But Joe Allen's is still there, it's the place I used to go to when I did Pippin, and I still go there a lot. So the experience is very much the same.
JK: About seven years later, you starred in the original production of Children of a Lesser God, what was that experience like?
JR: It was amazing! It was such a groundbreaking play. It was a role of a lifetime. It was almost a monologue, I mean it had a bunch of characters in it, but the real majority of the play was just me and Phyllis Frelich. She was deaf, though she did sign language for her whole part, so I spoke all of the lines back to her. So virtually, I never shut up. It was a great part in a wonderful moving play that was so beautifully written, directed, and acted by Phyllis and the rest of the company! I was so honored to be apart of it.
JK: You of course won a Tony Award for that play, do you remember what went through your mind after you heard your name called?
JR: I remember the first thing I did was that I kissed my wife. And then the second thing I did was give a hug to my friend Judd Hirsch who was sitting right behind me. He was also nominated in my category for Talley's Folly, and I thought he was going to win when in fact, it was he back in Los Angeles who told me that I was gonna win a Tony Award for that role. So I ran up onto the stage, and the main thing you think about is to get done quickly.
JK: It just goes to show how some things never change.
JR: It was all about being faithful, cherishing the moment, feel good, and say 'thank you' to all the people who gave you the award, the people that you worked with, the people who started out your career, and everybody. Instead of feeling all those wonderful feelings, you mostly feel 'Oh shit I've gotta get out of here!' I'm just not allowed to take up too much time, that's your main concern.
JK: You also took part in the original production of Love Letters which was just revived on Broadway earlier this season, you did a week-long stint with Stockard Channing, what was that experience like?
JR: I originated the part up in New Haven with Joanna Gleason, that was the very first performance of that play, which is a masterpiece. It's very simple, you sit at a table and you read. John Tillinger was the director originally, and he worked with me and Joanna Gleason. If I remember correctly, the three of us sat and read the play together in my apartment, and we all thought it was wonderful. We went up to New Haven, we did a very brief tech-rehearsal, the lights are here; you sit there; you walk in from there; here's how you take your bow; here's where you go out; etc. And we didn't rehearse, we just did the play. We opened, and that was the very first performance of that show. Both Joanna and I were completely swept by what an emotional, hilarious, deeply moving experience it was, I'll never forget that for as long as I live. I went on to do that play again and again. I did it when it opened off-Broadway where my first partner was Kathleen Turner. I then did it again with Joanna, and I did it again with Stockard Channing. I knew her from other places, and she is just fantastic!
JK: You also have so many of credits in Film/Television, what would you say were some highlights of those experiences?
JR: Oh my gosh, I've been doing television for 50 years. An early highlight would be getting to be on an episode of Dragnet with Jack Webb. I had watched that show as a little boy, I loved it. And then they'd given a second version of it, but with Jack Webb again and Harry Morgan, and I got a little part on it and that was very, very exciting. I loved being on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, that was a great experience with such wonderful, funny people. I had a ball doing that. There was a show called The Quest, which wasn't a big hit. It was a fantastic western with Kurt Russell and Tim Matheson. I also did a wonderful series called Family which Mike Nichols was an executive producer of with Aaron Spelling. I did that for five years with Sada Thompson, James Broderick, and Meredith Baxter. That was actually one of the first prime time shows to have had a continuing story, which virtually is what every television show does now. Back then, episodic television would have a beginning, a middle, and an end; they weren't in order; and there wasn't a continuing plotline, it was just always a different story. Family started doing where the story continues, and that caught on. It was all before those shows started doing that technique. But it was a beautifully acted show, beautifully written, and I loved doing that. I wrote the music for that too.
JK: Let's talk about your director, Diane Paulus, who has just opened Finding Neverland on Broadway. What is she like to work with?
JR: She's extremely bright with tremendous energy! She has a very infectious kind of enthusiasm, it's just fun to work with somebody like that. I think the vision she has for this production of Pippin was brilliant and it works just amazingly well! She's smart, creative, full of ideas and energy.
JK: What do you plan on doing once you're all done with the tour?
JR: I'm going to go play with my little boy, see the rest of my family and grandchildren in Los Angeles more often, going to to USC where I teach, and continue to try and make a living.
JK: To any aspiring kids out there wanting to work in show business, what advice would you give them?
JR: I would say that if you have any other interests that you can't decide whether you would want to be an actor or a marine biologist, take marine biologist because that's the only education where you can't consider doing anything else because it's a very insecure job when you're constantly looking for work. The rewards are tremendous not only financially, but spiritually as well for a great thing you get to do, it's a wonderful privilege. While it isn't easy, it is insecure. Just study, take it seriously, enjoy it, and be generous.
JK: John, I thank you very much for devoting your time to this interview, and I wish you the best of luck with Pippin!
JR: You're very welcome, it was lovely to chat with you! Thanks so much, I hope you enjoy the show!