John Rubinstein, Broadway's Original Pippin, Reclaims His "Corner of the Sky"

Playbill.com catches up with Tony Award winner John Rubinstein, who starred in the title role of Pippin in 1972, before he steps into the role of Pippin's father, King Charlemagne, in the award-winning revival.

John Rubinstein
John Rubinstein

Broadway has seen its share of show-actor reunions in recent years — occasions when an actor associated with the original production of a famous show returns to essay either the same or a different role in a revival of the same show.

Charles S. Dutton revived his portrayal of Levee in a 2003 revival of August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. Danny Glover, who played Willie in the original 1982 Broadway production of Athol Fugard’s ”MASTER HAROLD”…and the boys, revisited the play in 2003 to take on the part of Sam. More recently, Chip Zien, the original Baker in Into the Woods, played the Mysterious Man in the 2012 Central Park production. Alan Cumming repeated his performance as the Emcee is a replication of the 1998 Sam Mendes-Rob Marshall Cabaret.

Now, we have the return of John Rubinstein to Pippin. In 1972, Rubinstein made his name by playing the title role in the original Broadway production, directed by Bob Fosse. Now, he will play Pippin’s dad, King Charlemagne, for five weeks beginning June 20. 

How did this all come about?
John Rubinstein: I was in New York speaking at my 50th high school graduation ceremony. I came for the weekend. I was seeing all my old buddies I hadn’t seen for 50 years. It was really a wonderful event. And suddenly, on a Friday, my agent in New York called. He said, “Hey, can you get yourself to New York somehow?” I said, “Hey, I’m here!” He said, “Get yourself together, learn 15 pages of material and jump into an audition on Monday morning to take over for Terry Mann in Pippin.” So, I did. I auditioned for everybody on that Monday, and here I am. When you agent suggested the idea of going into Pippin, did that appeal to you?
JR: Sure, it did. I love the show. I love working on Broadway. It’s where I feel I live. But it’s easier to raise children — I have five kids — in California, than it is in New York City. I’m in L.A. with a big eye as to what’s going on in New York. It’s part of my DNA. The thought of returning to the show and playing the king was absolutely delightful.

John Rubinstein in Pippin.
Photo by Martha Swope

Did it take much studying to get back into the show, or did it all come back quickly?
JR: Well, here’s the problem. The song I had to sing in my audition, Charlamagne’s song — he only had one big number — it is a kind or Gilbert and Sullivan knock-off, fast words and quick lyrics. Part of the fun of it is how fast it goes.

I started learning it. And I sat on stage for two years and three months listening to that song, and participating in it, because Pippin has interuptions in it. There is an embedded memory of those words. But Stephen Schwartz has had the good taste to change all the lyrics of that song. They’re all brand new. They’re not the lyrics we did in 1972. That was very difficult. It’s a very fast-moving song. I was learning it in a couple of days to get it up to audition level. Whenever I was in any sort of doubt, the old lyrics from 40 years ago would come up.

Do you remember fairly well the performance that Eric Berry gave as Charlemagne in 1972?
JR: Oh, very well, sure.

Are you borrowing anything from that performance, or doing your best to avoid it?
JR: Well, Eric and I — he’s dead, rest his soul — are and were such completely different specimens. There’s no way I’m going to do Eric Berry. I don’t sound like him, I don’t look like him. I don’t have his royal bearing and dignity. Plus, Diane Paulus has directed this version of Pippin in a completely different way than Bob Fosse did. So I’m starting really with a blank slate.

I imagine a lot of the cast members are going to want to ask you a lot of questions about how the original production was.
JR: Oh, they might, I don’t know. Or it may be that they might be tired of hearing about the old version, they’re want to stick to the new version. I’m a voluble talker and I’m willing to tell them anything they want to know. So you’re in it for a short summer stay?
JR: Yes, five or six weeks. I will then do the national tour. I’ll take it on the road. That begins immediately, the day I close here. The very next day, we start rehearsing the tour. Then we leave New York, Aug. 27 or 28 for Denver on a tour that will last over a year.