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Thursday, May 21, 2015

The Once and Future King

State of the Stage Dept.: It was a pleasure to interview actor John Rubinstein, both because of his brilliant way with a story but also because we spent a little time talking about his father, pianist Arthur Rubinstein – with John insisting, quite rightly, that his father’s recording of the Brahms violin sonatas with Henryk Szeryng are the finest versions of those pieces.


WHEN JOHN RUBINSTEIN TAKES TO THE STAGE as King Charles in Pippin at Proctors May 26 (Tuesday) through the 31st, there will be no doubt that his is a regal presence. Rubinstein has earned it: he’s been in feature films since debuting in an Elvis Presley vehicle in 1969; his television appearances are legion. And he’s just as likely to be found on stage, where he won a Tony Award for Children of a Lesser God.

But he made his Broadway debut in 1972 in the title role of a new musical called Pippin. Does he have any problem returning to the show all these years later in such a different role?

“Not in the least. I felt lucky and blessed to get to do it.” He’s speaking by phone from Florida, where the tour has settled in for a while. He’s such a known quantity that choosing him for this role probably was simple. It was that first time wherein hangs a tale.

“Oh, all showbiz stories have some history,” he says with a laugh. “There was this company called ABC Pictures that was making a movie called Zachariah, which they called ‘an electric Western.’ It was basically Siddhartha, translated into a cowboy movie. I played the title character, which I got just by auditioning, auditioning, auditioning—I did a screen test, and I got the part.

“At the same time, ABC Pictures was preparing another movie, called Cabaret, and Bob Fosse was going to direct it. I had some history with Cabaret, because my very first Broadway audition was to take over from Joel Grey in the original cast. I didn’t get the part, but director Harold Prince wrote me a letter which was tremendously encouraging—he said he wanted to cast me, but I looked too young for the part. Which I did; I was 19, but I looked 15.”

When Rubinstein heard about the proposed movie of Cabaret, he figured that he could trade on the fact that he’d been cast in the lead of this other film. “If nobody knows anything about it yet, you’re sometimes given the benefit of the doubt. So my stock was sort of ‘up’ for a few weeks, and there was a big party given by the ABC Pictures people. I walked up to the head of ABC Pictures and said, ‘Look, you’re doing the movie of Cabaret, and I want to play the Joel Grey part,’ and he said, ‘We’ve got Joel Grey.’ So that was the end of that.

“We shoot my picture. It’s not out yet, so nobody knows it’s going to be a gigantic flop, so my stock is still up. And this guy calls me out of nowhere and says, ‘Can you do a British accent? Michael York has a scheduling conflict and may not be able to make it. You would be perfect.’ He arranged for me to meet Bob Fosse. I did, we got along very well, and he gave me a screen test for the Michael York role. Michael York fixed his schedule. End of story.

“Now it’s eight months later. Zachariah has come out. It is not a success. My phone rings. It’s Bob Fosse, and he asks if I can sing. I tell him, yeah, I can sort of sing, I can hold my notes, I’m a composer—but you’re never going to want to buy an album of my vocal renditions.

“He came over and brought the script of Pippin. I sat at my piano and played and sang two Laura Nyro songs, and he said, ‘You sing OK.’ He sat on my couch and we read Pippin from beginning to end–I read the part of Pippin and he read everything else. My wife made dinner; we ate; he left.

“A few hours later, we were turning off the lights, about to go to bed, and there’s a knock at the door. It’s Fosse, holding a tape. He says, ‘Learn the second song and be in New York in three days.’ We listen to the tape. It’s Stephen Schwartz, playing and singing all the songs, and the second one was ‘Corner of the Sky.’

“Three days later I’m in New York, and there’s this huge line around the block going into the Majestic Theater. They’d put an ad in the paper saying that any young man who wanted to try out should come in and sing. There were hippies with guitars, young actors fresh out of college, there was every kind of person you could hope to see.

“I had my appointment, so I went in and down to the orchestra pit, where there was a piano, and played and sang those Laura Nyro songs. Then I got up on the stage and the accompanist played while I sang ‘Corner of the Sky.’

“The producers talk for maybe a minute, and then Fosse comes running up to the stage and says, ‘The part’s yours if you want it.’”

Pippin tells the highly fictionalized story of a young prince from the Middle Ages in search of an identity even as he deals with an emotionally distant father and the consuming presence of war.

“I would say that the show is more relevant today than it was back then,” says Rubinstein, “but it’s ironic, because Pippin opened in the days of the Vietnam War, but nobody knows about this war today. Nobody gives a shit. We all gave a shit about the Vietnam War. It was a huge thing, but now, when you take the draft away, so that not every family in the country is affected by it, and you’ve learned your lesson to not put it on television every night, you get what you have now, where the country really doesn’t care.”

The cast also features Adrienne Barbeau, Sam Lips, and Sasha Allen. Chet Walker has choreographed the show in the style of Bob Fosse, and the acclaimed acrobatics are by Gypsy Snider of Montreal-based circus Les 7 doigts de la main.
The show plays Tuesday (May 26) through May 31. Performances are Tuesday and Wednesday at 7:30 PM; Thursday at 1:30 and 8 PM; Friday at 8 PM; Saturday at 2 and 8 PM; and Sunday at 2 PM. Tickets are $20 to $80. Call 346-6204 for tickets and info.

Metroland Magazine, 21 May 2015

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