The last time John Rubinstein was on Broadway was 1999. After an illustrious stage career that included winning a Tony for his performance in Children of a Lesser God, Rubinstein departed New York after playing Tateh in Ragtime and made way for Los Angeles. Fifteen years later, he's finally back, and stepping into the show that launched his career. On June 19, Rubinstein takes on the role of King Charlemagne in Diane Paulus' Tony-winning revival of Pippin, almost 42 years after he created the title role in Bob Fosse's landmark original production.
"They didn't have to do a lot of arm-twisting," Rubinstein said with a laugh as he made his way to the Music Box Theatre before a recent rehearsal. "It was a little complicated to make room for it, because I live in Los Angeles and have other job commitments. But I'm very excited. It's a completely unexpected and amazing treat."
Rubinstein first saw this production right as it was opening last year. "It brought back a lot of memories, but it's a very, very different show; different in concept, different in execution." Still, "I hear those opening notes, the first sustained organ note, and my adrenaline charges. When I hear that music I think OK, I have to do the show. Just sitting in the audience chair gives me the same feelings."
His road to this Pippin is paved with many other productions that he's seen through the years — Rubinstein proudly admitted that he goes to see school productions whenever he's invited. "I was just at Santa Monica High School, and they had me there and asked a lot of questions and I told them everything I could," he said. "Then, they sang "Morning Glow" a cappella, and it brought tears to my eyes."
In proving how small the world is, he shared the story of seeing a Los Angeles County Museum of Art high school production that a friend directed 15 years ago. Cut to, "I'm standing in the back of the Music Box Theatre two days ago, about to watch the show, and this young man comes out and says, 'Hi, I am the musical director for the national tour, and I played Pippin in that LACMA high school production you came to.' I love those circular roads in this business."
Rubinstein let it slip that he will indeed be embarking on this production's national tour as well, his first since 1968. He's even more excited for that, as there's a Los Angeles engagement and he'll be able to frequently see his family. "I have five kids, and my middle boy just graduated from high school. Now, the only one I have at home is the little guy, who's eight." Which explains his long absence from New York's stages; raising a family is why nearly two decades have gone by since his last turn on Broadway. "I'll run away to do a TV show or a movie for two weeks at a time, but even that is a long stretch to be away." He does miss New York and the rhythm of theater. "Eight shows a week is my basic bodily and mental rhythm."
To prepare for his Broadway bow as King Charlemagne, Rubinstein noted that he's been talking to Terrence Mann, his dear pal who was nominated for a Tony for originating the role this time around. "He's been so helpful," Rubinstein said of his friend, whom he first met in 1996 when they starred in Stephen Sondheim and James Goldman's murder mystery play Getting Away With Murder. "I've never been a prop specialist, and the most difficult thing for me is all the magic tricks and the knife-throwing [which this production entails]. He was very helpful showing me all kinds of techniques, and I'm going to use them all."
Rubinstein is eager to point out that next year, while he'll be on tour, he'll celebrate his fiftieth year as a professional actor. Returning to Pippin is the best possible way to celebrate. "I'm excited to be on Broadway again and revisit my old show," he said. "I feel it's a rare and lucky piece of good fortune, and I'm going to enjoy every second."
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