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Finding Light by Traipsing 'Into the Woods'

John Rubinstein, who drew strength in bad times as a fan of the Sondheim-Lapinemusical, sees good times ahead by bringing it to life.

December 01, 1996|Jan Breslauer | Jan Breslauer is a regular contributor to Calendar

Actor-director-composer John Rubinstein has performed in a vast array of plays, films and television programs during his adult lifetime, yet few works hold so special a place in his heart and memory as the Stephen Sondheim-James Lapine musical "Into the Woods," an adult fairy tale fraught with Freudian motifs.

In 1989, when Rubinstein first saw the musical in New York, his personal life was in turmoil.

"It happened that I was going through a very painful and tragic divorce at the time," says the outgoing Tony Award-winning performer during an interview in a dressing room at the Interact Theatre Company, in which he has been a member for the past four years.

"I was living very near to but not with my two children, who were 12 and 14 at the time," Rubinstein recalls. "I was guilt-ridden and grief-stricken and I was just a needy and unhappy man, wondering if I would ever climb up out of that hole."

But the musical threw the actor a lifeline.

" 'Into the Woods' was my therapy, and I've told this to Sondheim, thanked him with tears in my eyes," says Rubinstein, who remembers returning to watch the show more than a couple of dozen times.

"It got me through that period of my life. It made me able to feel those very deep emotions about children, about how parents set out to do everything the best for their children, and then later on it either works out or it doesn't."

Which is why he has seized on the opportunity to stage and perform in the musical. The actor, who co-directed and performed in the 1994 Interact hit "Counsellor-at-Law," is back at work at the small North Hollywood venue, directing and appearing in "Into the Woods," which opens there Friday.

Yet the show no longer needs to be a balm for Rubinstein; his life has changed radically since those difficult times. Just two months ago he became a father for the fourth time, with the arrival of his second son by his current wife, actress Jane Lanier.

He is, however, as mindful of his role as a father as he was back in those troubled years. And that, says the actor, who turns 50 this week, is also what is at the heart of "Into the Woods."

"This play takes you by the hand and says, 'Let's dance into this interesting fantasy world, and while we're there, let's think about ourselves and our parents and children and look at life a bit,' " says Rubinstein, who has never before worked on the show. "That's what this play is all about: parents and children. The things you try and teach your children, they don't necessarily learn. But what you do and who you are, they see and they get it, no matter what you try to hide."

For all the rich meaning that fatherhood has brought to his life, Rubinstein also knows well what it is to be a son. The actor, born in Los Angeles and raised in New York, is the youngest child of the legendary Polish-born pianist Artur Rubinstein and his wife of 50 years, Aniela.

Growing up in a household filled with classical music, the younger Rubinstein started piano lessons at age 4.

"I played the piano from a very young age, working very hard on my classical music, my Chopin, Beethoven and Brahms," he says. "Even as a little boy, the records I played were classical music, and to this day it's my love."

Inevitably perhaps, his interest strayed from the practice room. As an adolescent, he became infatuated with Broadway musicals.

"I grew up going to musicals all the time, during the golden age of the '50s and '60s," Rubinstein says. "That was the time where you had 'Gypsy' and 'The Music Man' and all of those amazing shows.

"There was a magic about the fact that people were telling you a story and living that story, plus singing and dancing with this huge orchestra which you couldn't see."

It was his first step toward forging his own creative identity.

"To my father in that day, I was a traitor, and he said so," Rubinstein says. "He felt betrayed.

"If I had an hour to spare, instead of going and figuring out my three-part Bach invention, which I wasn't playing really very well, I'd be playing and singing 'A foggy day, in London town. . . .' "

Still, it was the kind of parting of the ways that gives teenage rebellion a good name. More important, the young Rubinstein believed at the time that he was making an aesthetic decision.

"My father being who he was, I saw what a real pianist was right in front of me every single day," Rubinstein says. "I heard him practice, and there was a different sound when he practiced and when I practiced, and I was intolerant of myself.

"I don't think it ever got down into my heart. It wasn't that I felt a failure or any of those really bad things. It was more of an artistic judgment. I didn't like my piano playing, because I knew what really, really good piano playing was, and mine wasn't."

Rubinstein began creating his own compositions in high school, largely to score skits and revues he and his classmates would present. He continued to compose for the stage while studying theater at UCLA in the mid-1960s.

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