What Did Bob Fosse Do to Stephen Schwartz's Gift For Pippin Star John Rubinstein?

Seth Rudetsky   What Did Bob Fosse Do to Stephen Schwartz's Gift For Pippin Star John Rubinstein?
 
This week in the life of Seth Rudetsky, Seth reveals secrets from the original Broadway production of Pippin—and finds out Michael J. Fox's real name during a Family Ties reunion.
Pippin_Broadway_Production_Photo_1972_Kathryn Doby, Ann Reinking, John Rubinstein & Jennifer Nairn-Smith_HR.jpg
Kathryn Doby, Ann Reinking, John Rubinstein, and Jennifer Nairn-Smith Martha Swope/©NYPL for the Performing Arts

We’ve had so many amazing Stars In The House episodes that I’m falling behind in my recaps! For TV fans, we had a Family Ties reunion, and it was so great to see how much the cast still loves each other. Turns out, one of my shocks was that Michael J. Fox is really Michael A. Fox!

When he joined the union in America (he’s Canadian), there was already another Michael Fox, so they suggested he add his middle initial. However, his middle name is Andrew, and he thought Michael A. Fox sounded like he was bragging ("Michael is a fox"), and he also thought the “A” sounded too much like the signature Canadian “Ay!” He decided to add the J simply because he was a fan of Michael J. Pollard.

P.S., there are lots of stories about people having to adjust their names to join the union. Nathan Lane’s real name is Joe Lane, but when he joined Equity, he found out there was already another Joe Lane. At the time, he was doing a regional production of Guys And Dolls, so he changed his first name as an homage to the character he was playing. Thankfully, he was playing Nathan Detroit or else his name could have Arvide Lane.

<i>Family Ties</i> cast reunion
Family Ties cast reunion c/o Stars in the House

Back to Family Ties. Gary David Goldberg, who created the show, wanted Matthew Broderick for Alex Keaton, but Matthew passed. Gary saw Michael J. Fox’s audition tape, but wasn’t interested. Judith Weiner, the casting director, knew that Michael was right for the role and kept hounding Gary to see him again, but Gary was decidedly not interested. Finally, after relentless “hocking” as my Mom calls it in Yiddish, Gary agreed to see Michael, and he immediately realized Judith was right. However, then it was Brandon Tartikoff, the head of NBC, who didn’t want Michael. He felt the Keaton parents on Family Ties were tall and it made no sense that their son was short. He finally accepted Michael was great in the role. Hmm…perhaps sometime between Michael’s second and third Emmy Award win?

Meredith Baxter recalled picking up Michael from his apartment to go to the studio every day during the run of the show. He admitted that if she were coming at 8:30 AM, he’d get out of bed at 8:29 and then jump in the shower. She remembered being near his apartment and thinking “Why is there water running?” I can totally identify: my friend Tim knows whenever he comes over for one of my parties, he’s always the first. I’ll buzz him in, leave my door unlocked, and when he enters the apartment, he always hears me in the shower. I think of it as “charming”, he thinks of it as “rude.”

Stars in the House also had a reunion of the three men who played the title role in Pippin on Broadway during the original run: John Rubinstein, Dean Pitchford (his standby), and Michael Rupert (his replacement). John told us he got the role in a roundabout way: He originally went in to replace the emcee in Cabaret on Broadway. Hal Prince liked him, but, unsurprisingly, thought John was way too young.

A few years later, John ran into the producer of the film and told him he wanted to be the emcee in the film version. They told him they had the emcee—Joel Grey—but he wound up being considered for another role. Michael York had been cast as Cliff but was having scheduling problems, so they gave John a screen test for the role. Michael wound up fixing his schedule, but John impressed Bob Fosse, who was directing the film. A year later, Fosse called John and asked him if he could sing. John responded with a “I don’t really sing… but I guess I can sing” response.

The director came over and John sang (and played piano for) two Laura Nyro songs. Then they read through the script of Pippin, with Fosse reading all the roles and John reading Pippin. Fosse left and John and his wife went to bed. Before they were asleep, there was a knock on the door. Fosse was back! He handed John a script and a tape, telling him to learn the second song on the tape and come to NYC in three days. The tape was Stephen Schwartz playing and singing the entire score, and the second song was “Corner of the Sky.”

John showed up at the theatre for the audition, and it was a massive cattle call because there had an ad saying that any man between 18–35 should come audition for the new Bob Fosse musical! Holy cow, that’s sweeping! John was asked to sing his own material first, but he had no sheet music for the pianist, so he went into the pit and played and sang his two Laura Nyro songs while Fosse, Stephen Schwartz, and Stuart Ostrow leaned over the pit to listen. Then he went to the stage and sang “Corner of the Sky.” The group of men conferred and then Fosse told John “It’s yours, if you want it.” His only note to John was “work out a little bit.” How incredible is it to get cast in a Broadway show on the same day you audition? Probably as un-fun as it is to be told to “work out a little bit”.

What was so wonderful about the evening was the information they each seemed to be learning about each other and the show! Michael Rupert asked why Pippin was barefoot, and John said it was because of him! Turns out, John had bunions (!) and the shoes costume designer Patricia Zipprodt made for him hurt his feet during the out-of-town tryout. He told her and she then made him a second pair she said would be more comfortable. They weren’t. Then she made him a third pair. He tried them on and they were worse than the first two! He told us he had what he called an uncharacteristic temper tantrum and took the shoes off in a huff and said he’d do that night’s show barefoot. Well, after the show, Fosse came backstage and said “I love it! Keep it in!”

Dean was in D.C playing Jesus in Godspell when Pippin came to town. When he saw John, he thought it was a role he could play sometime in the future. He was very excited about this career prospect…until John sat at the piano onstage and played up a storm. Ugh! Dean doesn’t play piano and figured he’d never be able to play the role. Of course, the good news for him was, the piano playing got cut. However, when John heard this story during our reunion, he said he never played the piano! He had zero memory of that ever happening. Finally, Stephen reminded him that there was a very small window of performances or maybe even one where John played the piano. And, P.S., in case you’re wondering why John has piano playing skills….this is his father playing one of my favorite concertos!

Betty Buckley and Michael Rupert in <i>Pippin</i>
Betty Buckley and Michael Rupert in Pippin c/o Michael Rupert

John remembered one time when Michael Rupert was about to take over the role and had been at the theatre rehearsing. John was ready to go on and Dean was there because he was the standby. John thought it was fun/bizarre that there were three Pippins there and decided to play a small prank. After “Magic to Do,” the curtain would open and the cast would present Pippin. Well, that night the curtain opened…and there were three Pippins! Yes, John stood in the middle and Michael and Dean stood at either side. Soon, Dean and Michael retreated into the wings and John finished the show. It made no sense to the audience, but the three men thought it was hilarious that they looked alike with their curly hair (P.S. Michael had to get his permed).

We talked about Fosse choreography and John remembered one day when they were rehearsing what he recalls was the fourth big production number where Pippin would sit cross-legged and watch everyone dance. When they started working on “On The Right Track,” it was being staged to showcase Ben Vereen’s amazing dancing. John said to Fosse that since he was playing the title role in a Fosse musical, maybe he should dance? Fosse told him he wasn’t dancing because “You can’t dance, John.” John agreed but asked if Fosse could somehow overcome that aspect. They then started rehearsing after rehearsal (for no pay, he remembered), and “On The Right Track” became a number about Pippin trying to dance well, but not being good. Perfect! You can watch it here:

John told another story that shows some of the tension between Fosse and Stephen Schwartz. He said that on opening night, Stephen gave him a framed first page of “Corner of the Sky” and wrote a message to John hinting towards the fact that they bonded during rehearsals…not literally anti-Fosse, but there was a subtext about them helping each other when things got tough. John had it hung up on his dressing room wall, which a lot of people in the cast used as their hang-out room because John was always onstage. Well, Fosse must have been in there one night and seen the photo and the message and, apparently, didn’t love it. How does John know? Because when he got back to his dressing room, the glass on the photo had writing on it. Yes, Bob had taken John’s eyebrow pencil and wrote (on the glass frame of the photo) “How nice!” If you heard John’s line reading, you’d know that Fosse didn’t think it was so nice. Two weeks later, John came back to his dressing room and saw that his eyebrow pencil had once again been used to scrawl something across the glass of the photo. This time, producer Stuart Ostrow was the calligrapher, and underneath Fosse’s comment, John saw, "Just send back the cash! -Stu." To this day, John has the photo hanging on his wall—with the eyebrow pencil messages still intact!

The reunion was so wonderful, and it ended with Stephen singing a beautiful medley of some of the amazing songs he wrote for the show. Listening to it, you can’t believe how many classic songs he wrote…all in his early 20s! And the moment that summed up the whole evening for me was, when Stephen got to the lyric, “Rivers belong where they can ramble…” all three Pippins started doing the original hand choreography!

And finally: Make sure you watch Stars In The House this week at 8PM at every night. We’re hoping people stay at home for Thanksgiving, so we’ll be doing a show that night so we can all spend it together! And, coming up this Sunday night at 8 PM, The Seth Concert Series will star Broadway power couple Patti Murin and Colin Donnell! Here they are together being adorable and sounding great. Get ready for our concert Sunday with songs from basically every show they’ve ever done! Get tix at TheSethConcertSeries.com. Watch this and peace out!

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