A Virtual Chat with John Rubinstein By Peter Filichia
John Rubinstein said I could share his two recent emails with you, and so I shall.
I first came to know John from The Theatre World Awards, which I’ve emceed each June since 1996 (aside from this past June, of course). We honor performers who have made their Broadway or off-Broadway debuts.
John won by originating the role of Pippin in the musical of the same name. In 2017, when he was doing CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY, he agreed to present to MISS SAIGON’s Eva Noblezada (who, incidentally, you can now hear on the soundtrack to YELLOW ROSE).
I introduced John by saying “Here’s the first person to sing ‘Corner of the Sky’ in PIPPIN, about a young man who’s trying to find his place in the world. He did indeed find his corner of the sky – for when you attend CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY, you’ll see him on a platform right up in the corner as close to the sky as the ceiling. We’re glad that he came down from his perch to be with us: the only performer in Broadway history to win a Tony for speaking English as well as American Sign Language in a play: CHILDREN OF A LESSER GOD’s John Rubinstein.”
Since then, John has been a faithful listener to host James Marino, Michael Portantiere and me on www.broadwayradio.com, which we record each Sunday morning.
Each week I challenge listeners with a trivia question. A couple of weeks back it was “Which Broadway musical was the first to use an answering machine within a song?”
John guessed “Hey, There” from THE PAJAMA GAME – “which,” he wrote, “Sid Sorokin (John Raitt) sings into a Dictaphone that then ‘sings’ part of the song back to him.”
And that brought back to John a memory of John Raitt: “I did ON A CLEAR DAY YOU CAN SEE FOREVER on tour in 1968 for seven months: 165 U.S. cities, plus Montreal, a bus-and-truck doing mostly one-nighters with some two-night stays. We started with Howard Keel playing the doctor, then Bill Hayes, and then John Raitt.
“I played Warren Smith, William Daniels’ part. Linda Michele and later Carla Alberghetti played Daisy. We ended the tour with three-week runs in Los Angeles and San Francisco with Tammy Grimes and dear John Cullum in his original role (after Louis Jourdan).”
(Confused why John added that name in parentheses? Jourdan was the show’s original lead; he did the Boston tryout but then gave way to Cullum.)
Back to Rubinstein: “Every night after the curtain call, John Raitt would do an encore: ‘Hey There.’ He sang it beautifully, adding a couple of high notes not in the score, but which I assume he sang on Broadway in the original show. Every audience went wild.
“One night we were supposed to do the show in Ashtabula. There was such a heavy snowstorm that the performance was canceled at the last minute. Our bus couldn’t have even gotten out of the parking lot. So the entire cast found ourselves hanging around the hotel’s convention banquet room where there happened to be a piano.”
(Which John knows how to play.)
“I knew so many Broadway songs by heart that lots of the kids in the company got up and sang songs they knew and I played for them. When it got late and we’d all had a bit to drink, people started to ask John Raitt to sing; someone even shouted out ‘Soliloquy!’ He laughed and said, “I couldn’t do that; even Rubinstein couldn’t play that without the sheet music.’
“Well, I knew every note of CAROUSEL from the original cast album, and I said, ‘I’m willing if you are.’ John said, ‘We have to go over it first in the other room.’
“There happened to be a piano in a smaller party room next door. We went in and I played the accompaniment in the same key as the record – and even knew the ‘When I have a daughter, I’ll stand around in bar-rooms. Oh, how I’ll boast and glow’ section that introduces ‘My Little Girl,’ and which, John told me that night, NOBODY knows because for some reason that short (and terrific) section was cut from the published score.
“So we went back into the main room and I had the tremendous honor and exciting chance to accompany big old John in the ‘Soliloquy’ from start to finish. And he knocked it out of the park. I’ll never forget that snowy night.”
Yeah, that section isn’t included in the “Soliloquy” on the 1966 revival cast album in which Raitt reprised his 1945 role. But even twenty-one years later he amazes in being so in control of the seven-minute-plus behemoth that he belies that so much time had passed since he’d introduced it.
Anyway, I had to write Mr. Rubinstein and relate that, no, the answer I had in mind was NOT “Hey, There” but “Revenge” from the 1962 musical A FAMILY AFFAIR, John Kander’s first musical – so early in his career that he hadn’t even met Fred Ebb yet and their FLORA, THE RED MENACE was still more than three years away. But, I conceded, the Dictaphone IS a machine that answers Sid, so I’d give him credit the following week.
That spurred another story that’s well worth hearing about “Wait Till We’re Sixty-Five” which Rubinstein got to sing from sea to shining sea.
“I loved that song and had such a blast singing it with my imitation William Daniels,” he wrote, mentioning the actor who was a featured supporting player in CLEAR DAY (and, if you believe the 1968-69 Tony committee, a featured supporting actor in 1776, too).
The nifty patter song with hellishly clever Alan Jay Lerner lyrics urges that we plan for the future. Daniels might have taken the advice to heart; as of this writing, he’s ninety-seven, so we know that he hasn’t died from worry about his future.
But Rubinstein wrote that “I could also argue that that song saved — or at least has prolonged — my life.
“I started smoking in high school – not terribly heavily, but still, I smoked through a pack of Marlboros every two days or so. Then through college I continued to smoke a bit more.”
This next line will really surprise young people: “You smoked in class and threw the butts on the floor; the teachers smoked while lecturing; every class, restaurant, airplane, movie theater was filled with smoke.”
(I remember back in those days, people in fact mocked community colleges as “high schools with ashtrays.”)
Continued Rubinstein, “At the end of 1967, in the third month of my senior year at UCLA, I got that CLEAR DAY job. Seven months’ employment — unheard of for an actor and a role I was so happy to get: $350 a week! A fortune for me in those days! I’d done a movie, some regional musicals, a bunch of TV. But all of those were quite short engagements that I managed to work in and around school. So I decided to quit UCLA and hit the road.”
So far, so great. “But,” John added, “during the first week of rehearsal after I’d learned my number – which had a big jazz-waltz dance break in the middle that involved lots of jumping and running about followed by a whole final sung verse with sustained notes at the end, I found that even at twenty-one I didn’t have enough wind to adequately sing that last verse after the dance.
“So I stopped smoking just to be able to get through ‘Wait Till We’re Sixty-Five’! And although I allowed myself to bum a very tiny smattering of cigarettes over the intervening years, I’ve never again bought a pack. At this point it’s been almost twenty years since I’ve even touched one. I do believe that I would have stopped smoking eventually, but the fact that I was hit with that particular song and its dance number so early in my life has made a huge difference for which I’m very grateful.”
John, I’ve often said that musical theater enhances lives. Nice to know it can save them, too.
Peter Filichia can be heard most weeks of the year on www.broadwayradio.com.