Sons and Fathers: John Rubinstein in ‘Pippin,’ Again

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Terry Shapiro

John Rubinstein is back in Washington, D.C., where everything started.

“It feels very Freudian, certainly,” he said in a phone interview. “I mean, here I am, playing the father of a character whom I originated back in 1972.”

Rubinstein has returned to Washington in the Tony Award-winning revival of “Pippin,” an all-new production of Roger O. Hirson and Stephen Schwartz’s 1972 musical, directed by Tony winner Diane Paulus with choreography by Chet Walker in the style of Bob Fosse. The show opened here this week at the National Theatre and will run through Jan. 4.

Kyle Dean Massey stars in the title role, with Lucie Arnaz as Berthe and Rubinstein as Charles (as in Charlemagne), Pippin’s father.

In 1972, a young Rubinstein had garnered his first major Broadway role at the tender age of 25.

“It was a little frightening, sure it was,” Rubinstein said. “I mean, here I was, my first show, I was 25 and a lot was riding on me. And there were all these big names involved. Stephen Schwartz [of “Godspell” fame] and Bob Fosse, who was already a legend. Early on, I was sent to see him. I had some qualms about the show, to be honest. I didn’t know if it would work. But he was very generous, very kind and a tremendously gifted, brilliant man, an imaginative man, with a very tough, pragmatic side.”

“Pippin” had its out-of-town, pre-Broadway tryout at the Kennedy Center before becoming a long-running hit. It won five Tony Awards and five Drama Desk Awards and ran for nearly 2,000 performances.

The current revival, which opened at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass., in 2012, went to Broadway and won four 2013 Tony Awards, including Best Revival of a Musical and Best Director of a Musical.

Rubinstein remembers being here in the halcyon days of 1972. “You couldn’t help but be aware of what was going on – Watergate and everything surrounding it, the political atmosphere. It was exciting to be here.”

The show tells the tale of a young prince trying to become a man in the shadow of a powerful father. Although it features real people from the Middle Ages – Charlemagne and his son Pippin – it tells the tale by way of a carnival-circus atmosphere, with such songs as “Magic to Do,” “Glory,” “No Time at All” and “Morning Glow.”

Online you can find a picture of Rubinstein and a very young co-star, the late Jill Clayburgh. Rubinstein sports a boyish face and a big mop of curly hair.

“A lot has happened since then,” he said. He may never have quite made such a splash as he did with the original “Pippin,” but he got busy and forged a true career. He has been a professional actor for 50 years, though you may as well call him a Renaissance man: actor, writer, composer, singer, director, teacher.

Talking to him in Los Angeles, you see he did something else too: he forged a rich life. You can hear the sound of children.
“I’ve got five,” he said. “Four sons and a daughter. The youngest is eight. That’s Max you’re hearing in the background.”
“The thing is you work, all of the time, and you learn all of the time,” he said. Eight years after “Pippin” opened, he won a Tony Award, a Drama Desk Award, a Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Award and a Drama-Logue Award for “Children of a Lesser God.”

He was on the long-running television series “Family,” and he’s done numerous roles on television, as well as in films including “Mercy,” “Red Dragon” and “21 Grams,” among others. He’s composed, orchestrated and conducted the musical scores for five films, including “Jeremiah Johnson” and “The Candidate.”

The list is kind of exhausting, when you look at it. “I’m 67,” he said. “Teaching and learning, acting, doing what I love.”
Now he’s playing the father to the son he once portrayed. In real life, he’s a father, but always a son. His father was the renowned classical pianist Arthur Rubinstein, who died in 1982. (This may help account for his gift for composing music.)
“I think about him a lot,” he said. “Every day, every day.”

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