John Rubinstein has lived the kind of old-school show business story that doesn’t occur any more. The 69-year-old actor and composer comes from a sensibility that calls movies “pictures” and plays “shows.”
His father was the famous concert pianist Arthur Rubinstein. The son’s musical background has helped him forge a career in composing for film and television that rivals his career as an actor and director for stage and his appearances in television and film.
John Rubinstein is featured in the national touring production of “Pippin,” which brings him full circle in the show that was his 1972 Broadway debut. He played the title role in that production directed Bob Fosse; now he plays the character’s father, Charlemagne.
The touring production presented by Broadway Sacramento comes to the Community Center Theater on Tuesday, Dec. 29. It is based on the 2013 Broadway version that won all the major awards for revival of a musical and four 2013 Tony Awards.
“I messed around and managed to stay afloat, so that’s a gigantic success story just in and of itself,” the generously and revealingly honest Rubinstein said in a telephone interview from his Los Angeles home.
Rubinstein was a young neophyte television actor out of UCLA when he landed the starring title role in a 1970 movie called “Zachariah” along side the equally young Don Johnson. It was called “the electric western” because the modern rock music soundtrack featured artists such as Joe Walsh and Country Joe and the Fish.
“It was a big flop, but when we made it we didn’t know it was going to be a flop,” Rubinstein said.
“There was a little period in there where I was – in very big, big quotes – a hot property.”
The film company that made “Zachariah” made only one other film, “Cabaret.” While it was in pre-production, Rubinstein was feeling pretty good about himself, so he went to the head of ABC Pictures to see if he could audition for the part of the Emcee in “Cabaret.”
“He told me, ‘Well, we’ve already got Joel Grey,’ ” said Rubinstein, who thought that was that. The production had cast Michael York is the lead role, Brian Roberts, but York was having scheduling problems, so the producers set up a screen test for Rubinstein with director Bob Fosse.
“We shot two scenes of ‘Cabaret’ with a young actress he brought in,” Rubinstein said. “I think he was going to give me that part, but then Michael York fixed his schedule.” Then Rubinstein really thought that was that.
Eight months later he was at his home in the Hollywood Hills working on the score for the film “Jeremiah Johnson” when the phone rang. Fosse was on the line.
“ ‘Can you sing?’ he asked and I said, ‘Well, yes, I can sing, but I wouldn’t call myself a singer.’ You wouldn’t want to come see me in a nightclub,” Rubinstein said. Fosse asked to come over to Rubinstein’s house and after dinner asked Rubinstein to sing something.
“I played (piano) for myself and sang two Laura Nyro songs, ‘Time and Love’ and ‘Emmie.’ ”
Fosse then took the script of “Pippin” out of his bag, and they had a read-through with Fosse doing all the parts except for Pippin, which Rubinstein read. Fosse left, and Rubinstein and his wife went to bed. A couple hours later there was a knock at the door. It was Fosse again.
“He hands me a tape and says learn the second song and be in New York in three days,” Rubinstein said. The song was Pippin’s big number in the show, “Corner of the Sky.” At the theater in New York at the appointed hour, Rubinstein sang his two Laura Nyro songs again plus the new song, this time for songwriter Stephen Schwartz, book writer Roger Hirson and a couple of producers, along with Fosse.
“They talked for a few minutes, and then Fosse ran down to the front of the aisle and looked up at me and said, ‘Part’s yours if you want it!’ ”
Naturally, Rubinstein wanted the part, even though script needed work and was in his opinion a little “dusty.”
Sam Wasson’s fine biography, “Fosse,” recounts a night after rehearsals finally had been set to start when Fosse had the young actor over to his Manhattan apartment to discuss how to fix the book of the show. Fosse unpacked a trunkload of fascinating ideas for both the physical production and themes of the show. It was clear Fosse had a remake of the existing script in mind.
“Bob was extremely smart,” Rubinstein said. “He was always aware of what the audience would need and would want to see. He helped the writers fix the script.”
The musical, which Schwartz wrote in college at Carnegie Tech, centers on a mysterious performance troupe led by Leading Player while also telling the story of Pippin, a young prince on a search for meaning and significance. One of Fosse’s first ideas was casting Ben Vereen as Leading Player and then having the script rewritten to fit Vereen’s attributes.
“Putting Ben Vereen as the Leading Player made the whole thing sort of change its nature. That made it go,” said Rubinstein.
After the original opened to mixed reviews, its run was rescued by a TV commercial for the production.
Rubinstein’s subsequent career would include other major works on Broadway and numerous awards, including a 1980 Tony for his portrayal of James Leeds in Mark Medoff’s “Children of a Lesser God,” but he maintains a great fondness and admiration for his first Broadway director. “He was fabulous. So creative and nurturing and sweet.”
In his 1996 book “From Assassins to West Side Story,” musical theater scholar Scott Miller wrote, “Pippin is a largely under-appreciated musical with a great deal more substance to it than many people realize. ... Because of its 1970s pop-style score and a somewhat emasculated licensed version for amateur productions, which is very different from the original Broadway production, the show now has a reputation for being merely cute and harmlessly naughty; but if done the way director Bob Fosse envisioned it, the show is surreal and disturbing.”
The current “Pippin” is spiced with circuslike theatrics and acrobatics created by Gypsy Snider of the renowned Montreal-based circus Les 7 doigts de la Main (the 7 Fingers of the Hand). The original choreography by Chet Walker is “in the style of Bob Fosse,” but Rubinstein said there are moments exactly the same as Fosse’s, in tribute to the master.
What: California Musical Theatre presents the national touring company of the 2013 Broadway production, which won four Tony Awards including best musical revival.
Where: Community Center Theater, 1301 L St., Sacramento
When: 8 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 29-Saturday, Jan. 2 and 2 p.m. Friday, Dec. 31, Saturday, Jan. 2 and Sunday, Jan. 3.