Four Decades After John Rubinstein’s Debut in ‘Pippin,’ Everything Is the Same, Only Different

John Rubinstein, son of the famed concert pianist Arthur Rubinstein, will return to the “Pippin” stage as King Charlemagne.

When Pippin burst onto the Broadway scene in 1972, it was hailed for its innovative style, telling the story of the Middle Ages through music, comedy — and a little bit of magic.
Young John Rubinstein, son of the famed concert pianist Arthur Rubinstein, played the title role. But it was Ben Vereen who stole the show, winning the 1973 Tony Award for Best Actor in a Musical for his portrayal of the Leading Player. Renowned director and choreographer Bob Fosse took home two of Pippin’s four other Tonys.
That was a memorable time for Rubinstein, an accomplished musician himself, in addition to being a versatile character actor, who has since gone on to play the “perpetrator of the week for some crime show,” as he puts it, innumerable times.
Even better, now he gets to relive it all again when Pippin returns to the Academy of Music Feb. 23 to 28, with an older, presumably wiser Rubinstein now cast in the role of the father, King Charlemagne. “It’s sort of a wonderful gift — a treat I’ve been given in my ‘dotage’ to get to revisit things that were so meaningful and fun in my youngest days,” the 69-year-old Rubinstein told the Jewish Exponent by phone as he gazed out the window of his hotel in snowy Boston, where he was performing that week. “It brings back memories not only of all the wonderful people I worked with — many of whom are still my close friends — but just the time.
“I was a young man — just married,” he continued. “I had my first baby when we came to rehearsal. To me, Pippin is absolutely interconnected with that little daughter — my first child — and then my son, who was born during the run. I was dealing with babies and fatherhood while playing this young man who was trying to figure out what his life would be.
“It’s all very meaningful and emotional to me.”
Pippin is still relevant today, Rubinstein said. Following a Broadway run that lasted 1,994 performances over nearly five years with a cast that originally included Jill Clayburgh and Irene Ryan (Granny of The Beverly Hillbillies) it was revived in 2013, this time winning four Tonys.
“Absolutely, the story is eternally universal,” said Rubinstein, who expects to spend some of his time here visiting his in-laws, who live in Media. “A young man — or it could be a young woman — who is educated but innocent, realizes life is our only shot. He wants to be extraordinary and make something of himself to be important in the world. He wants to be special and is brought through a series of adventures that illustrate various aspects of life.
“And he has to make serious choices. So yes, it’s always going to be relevant. How it’s presented is the key to Pippin. It’s sort of an artistic blank canvas for the director. Our director has done a wonderful job reimagining the staging of the show.”
Rubinstein, who turned to directing as his acting career began to evolve, has a special appreciation for the way Diane Paulius, the production’s director, has picked up where Fosse left off. “I’ve been asked many times to direct Pippin and always said ‘no’ because I wouldn’t know how to stage it and conceive of it other than the way Bob Fosse did when I was in it,” said Rubinstein, whose film credits include Red Dragon, 21 Grams, The Boys from Brazil and Someone to Watch Over Me. “I never wanted to do it again. I believe that’s the reason it was never revived for 40 years, until Diane came up with this wonderful concept of the circus troupe playing around Pippin, bringing him his adventures. That makes the show a knockout. It’s very different from the original but it’s the same music and story and characters done in a spectacular new way.”
Growing up in Los Angeles as the son of the legendary Polish Jewish musician — with a mother, Aniela, who was a dancer but Roman Catholic — Rubinstein says he couldn’t help but be musical. Being Jewish, though, was a different story. “I spent my entire time hearing my father play and traveling around the world to concerts, so, yes, my love of music and music in our family was almost more important than food,” said Rubinstein. “My father was a very proud Jew, but not at all religious. He never celebrated anything. I was always mystified when people would come up to me and say ‘Happy New Year’ at Rosh Hashanah.
Ironically, while Arthur Rubinstein was not a religious Jew, his final request was to be buried in Israel. “My father was buried in Jerusalem,” said John Rubinstein. Arthur Rubinstein did live to see his son star on Broadway and win a Tony as Best Actor in a Play in Children of a Lesser God, before his passing in 1982. “He made that very clear in his will that was something he wanted.
“He played in Israel every year. He was extremely moved by the creation of Israel back in the 1940s. He took his Jewishness — his heritage — respectfully and seriously. “I’ve been there many times. There’s a piano competition in his name in Tel Aviv every three years. I’ve gone back to watch that several times. I love it there and I have several dear friends there.”
Of course, when you’ve been around as long as John Rubinstein and been involved in as many different artistic endeavors as he has, you’re bound to have plenty of friends. His TV resume seems to encompass just about every show that’s ever been on the air, and old-timers may recall he had regular role on Family in the late 1970s and later worked with Jack Warden for a couple of years on Crazy Like a Fox.
Now, though, he said, “I’d like to direct more film. It’s a very hard world to get into, especially for somebody in their 60s. And I’d like to write some important music. I’ve written a lot of film music. I always imagined myself ending my days writing a symphony. So far, I’ve always been raising children and needing to get the next job. Writing symphonies doesn’t do that.”
He’ll put that off for awhile with Pippin. The kid who used to scrape together his allowance to regularly go down to Broadway to see shows — his first was Wonderful Town, starring Rosalind Russell — back when ticket prices weren’t astronomical, said that the basic components of musicals hasn’t changed all that much.
“All art evolves,” said Rubinstein, who loves to take his bike on the road with him and ride throughout each city the tour stops in. “But basically, I don’t think musicals have changed. You go to see a drama or a comedy and the characters are singing what’s in their hearts. So that weird thing that started back in the days of opera has evolved.”
So has Rubinstein, once the young man filled with hopes and dreams, wondering what life had in store for him when Pippin came onto the scene in 1972. Chances are, an older, wiser John Rubinstein would tell him this:
“Sit back, kid, and enjoy it. You’re in for quite a ride.”
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