Stage and screen veteran John Rubinstein, who created the title role in the original Broadway production of Pippin, is currently playing Grandpa Joe in the new musical Charlie and the Chocolate Factory at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre. Here, the acclaimed actor, who won a Tony for his performance in Children of a Lesser God, recalls his favorite Broadway performances as a member of the audience.
I’ve been going to Broadway shows since the early 1950s; as an avid fan, not as a casual enthusiast. So, limiting to a mere ten the performances which made permanent marks on my mind and heart is impossible. Or picking the “best” or my “favorites.” Impossible. Nevertheless, I have tried to at least come close, for the purposes of this exercise. But first, here is a group of ten that I will always cherish as much as the others but which I did not put on my alleged final “list” (see below): Ben Platt’s overwhelming current performance in Dear Evan Hansen. Jennifer Holliday’s explosive work in Dreamgirls. Bernadette Peters (the gamut) in Sunday in the Park with George. Richard Kiley’s magical, mystical Man of La Mancha. Gregory Hines, both smooth and heartbreaking in Sophisticated Ladies. Mary Martin, otherworldly as Peter Pan. Zero Mostel (the Real Item) in Fiddler on the Roof. Jason Robards, so graceful and poignant in A Thousand Clowns. Art Carney, edible, in The Odd Couple. Joel Grey, the master of MCs in Cabaret. Okay, eleven: Ethel Merman, just unbelievably titanic in Gypsy. A dozen? Rosalind Russell doing the Conga in Wonderful Town (my first Broadway show). See what I mean? I could go on. (Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl. Changed the way people sing and act in Broadway shows. She did it. Sorry.)
Every single one of those was a landmark in my life, an education, a revelation. A moment I could write about for many pages. And there are more. (Dudley Moore, unable to finish his Beethoven version of the “Colonel Bogey March” in Beyond the Fringe. Rex Harrison, gliding and ranting through My Fair Lady. Barbara Harris, switching characters before our eyes in On A Clear Day You Can See Forever. Richard Burton, mourning his fleeting wisp of glory in Camelot. Carol Burnett, jumping, drenched, from the moat into our hearts in Once Upon A Mattress. Two words: John Cullum. Two more: Jack Gilford. I'll stop now.) Standing apart, two actors whose work I was lucky enough to witness every night for two years, from a distance of inches: Ben Vereen in Pippin and Phyllis Frelich in Children of a Lesser God. Working with them on the same stage didn’t lessen the impact on my life of the amazing force-fields they created for every audience.
All of that said, here is the list of ten that I am submitting for today. The moment I hit “send” I will want to change it, because it should be a list of around 50, or 100, at least. Here goes:
Uta Hagen in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
“I do not BRAY!” It was that line, which came from the agonizing center of her soul, and which was simultaneously desperate, raging, and gut-bustingly funny. That play, and Ms. Hagen's presence and performance, changed me, made me realize what heights and depths this profession could embody. I'll never get over it.
Robert Preston in The Music Man
Probably the most charming, skillful, endearing, dazzling, charismatic performance I have ever seen by anyone. I'd have followed him anywhere.
This show, and its extraordinary ensemble cast, saved my sanity. I was suffering through a terrible time in my life, and I went to ITW about 20 times, sometimes watching from the wings behind the stage manager. The musical and everyone in it were perfect and brilliant; Chip's forlorn Baker, with his gorgeous cello of a voice, singing “No More,” was one of the many moments that always both killed me and gave me strength.
I was in that masterpiece with her for two years, never onstage at the same time, and her ability to bare her heart with such raw, incredible light, power, and mind-boggling musicality, was earth-shakingly inspiring and deeply moving every single night.
Alan Arkin in Luv
Watching this crushingly sad farce by Murray Schisgal, I found myself actually on the floor several times, unable to remain seated because I was laughing so uncontrollably. I've never had that experience before or since. Arkin embodied that tragic clown's shattering leaps from ecstasy to suicide, making you recognize your own, and everyone's, delicate humanity in the process, but still causing you to fall off your chair laughing.
This remains the most exciting, enthralling, rapturously conceived and stunningly presented piece of theater I have ever seen. Nothing like it ever, and those four actors led the way magnificently. I brought my family to London solely to see it there; then when it came to New York, I was in another play on Broadway at the time, but I made friends with the house manager at the Plymouth, and she'd let me come in and stand at the back. I'd watch the first hour, run three blocks uptown and do my show, then run back down and watch the last 45 minutes. On Sunday nights I'd watch all four-and-a-half hours of Part 2. I did this for months. I was a groupie, and so lucky to spend so many hours with those people in that fantastic story.
James Earl Jones in The Great White Hope
Nothing could match the pure, visceral energy and the ferocious joy and anguish of this performance. It jumped off the stage and swept you away. Unique and brilliant. Astonishing and unforgettable.
Michael Jeter in Grand Hotel
I guess my recurring theme is the actors who break your heart while making you howl with laughter. Jeter's physical comedy, deeply truthful vulnerability and innocence, and utterly lovable, slightly insane stage personality were irresistible and uplifting and indelible.
Never saw Fred and Adele Astaire onstage. Saw the Lunts once (The Visit), and they were terrific. Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy in The Gin Game, sublime. Ron Silver and Joe Mantegna's word battles in Speed-the-Plow knocked my socks off. And, of course, Gielgud and Richardson in Home and No Man's Land were the most delightful and sophisticatedly adept tennis players. But Lansbury and Cariou's portrayal of the crazy, passionate, murderous, hilarious Lovett/Todd couple stands out as the most impressive, wild, unfettered, scintillating teamwork I've ever witnessed by two actors on a stage. Such musical dexterity and command, and such profound character work, grotesque but utterly real and full of heart! What skill and brilliance! Wow!
Anthony Newley in Stop the World —I Want to Get Off
I grew up on David Lean's film of Oliver Twist, with Alec Guinness as Fagin and young Anthony Newley as the Artful Dodger. And then Newley grew up and came to Broadway as Littlechap in his own (and Leslie Bricusse's) musical! I saw it many times, and was knocked out by Newley's ability to connect with the audience so deftly and intimately while so persuasively inhabiting his blundering, romantic, misguided Everyman on his life's journey. He was electric, full of emotion, wry, sarcastic, and sad, and had an easy music-hall crooning voice which melted around his melodies. I'm enjoying the fact that my main number in the show I'm doing right now was written by him!