The national tour of “Pippin” stops at the Fox Theatre on May 5-10.
WHEN JOHN RUBINSTEIN was called back to Broadway to play King Charlemagne in Pippin, he had a one-word response.
In 1972, as a baby-faced, curly-haired unknown, Rubinstein won the title role in the original Broadway cast and spent two years playing the sensitive lad who would rather ponder the meaning of life than go roaring into battle.
He saw director Diane Paulus’ new version, an acrobatic rendering that departs quite radically from Bob Fosse’s original staging, in 2013. The actor-singer-composer, now 68, happily discovered that despite being a very different show, the new Pippin (which won Tony awards for best director and best musical revival) honors the essential story. The melodic Stephen Schwartz score also remains intact.
“It’s such a universal story,” Rubinstein says. “It’s a story about every single person in the audience, young or old. It’s not really about Prince Pippin, Charlemagne’s son in the Dark Ages. It’s about all of us and our search for fulfillment and our desire to accomplish something while we’re here.”
PIPPIN IS IDEAL for an innovator like Paulus (Hair, The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess), he says. “My Fair Lady needs to take place in London, and The Music Man has got to be in Iowa. But Pippin, even though it’s historical and set in the days of Charlemagne, it could take place on the moon and would still be a great show.”
The son of the world-famous classical pianist Arthur Rubinstein (1887-1982), John Rubinstein knew a big life well before he captured hearts as Pippin or won a 1980 Tony Award for playing James Leeds in Children of a Lesser God. The youngest of four, he knew “a fantastic childhood, a rarefied life full of music and great adventures.” His family traveled together as his father performed in the world’s great concert halls.
His mother, Nela, was a ballerina who became a gourmet cook, hosting dinner guests that included Hollywood royalty from Charlie Chaplin to Clark Gable. Her father, Emil Mlynarski, conducted the Warsaw Philharmonic.
Rubinstein’s career has been impressive in scope. He’s done a lot rather well: theater (acting and directing), film, television, music, teaching, radio commentary and more.
WHO KNEW that Broadway’s original Pippin composed and conducted musical scores for such feature films as Robert Redford’s Jeremiah Johnson and The Candidate? That he has done the same for more than 50 made-for-TV movies? That he has recorded some 200 audiobooks, including Jonathan Kellerman’s best-selling Alex Delaware detective series?
He’s pragmatic when asked how he does it all. “You know, very little choice goes into it. I have five kids, and things like college are expensive. I’m just in the habit of saying yes. I’ve turned down three jobs in my entire life. Whoever hires me gets me.”
He teaches musical theater at the University of Southern California and directs the big spring musical there each year. After becoming Pippin’s Charlemagne on Broadway last summer, he agreed to do the national tour, his first road show since 1968, when he did On a Clear Day You Can See Forever.
And, you’ve probably seen him on TV (“The Closer,” “ House,” “The Young and the Restless,” “Girlfriends”) most likely playing a doctor, a school principal or a judge.
Why is he so frequently cast as an authority figure? He replies, self-deprecatingly: “I think it’s because I speak in good sentences and I have white hair.”
HE HAS BEEN INVITED over the decades to high schools and colleges staging Pippin, and he’s happy to oblige when possible, as he did some 15 years ago at the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts, where he watched rehearsal and offered feedback.
Last summer, as he prepared to take over as Charlemagne, a young man approached him backstage at Broadway’s Music Box Theatre.
“’Hi, my name’s Ryan,’ he says, ‘and I’m the musical director for the national tour of this show, and actually we’ve already met. I played Pippin in the high school show you came to years ago.’
“Whoever would have thought?” Rubinstein says. “I love little circles like that. I love that our paths have crossed again in this wonderful way.”