Tag Archives: John Rubinstein

Life Lessons from Pippin

How to separate the drama nerds from the fantasy geeks: mention Pippin. A drama nerd will start singing Corner of the Sky.

Pippin is a Tony Award-winning musical by Stephen Schwartz, who also wrote Godspell. It’s about a young prince’s search for something meaningful to do with his life. Pippin was the son of Charlemagne, but the musical is not a faithful historical narrative. Bob Fosse directed and choreographed the original 1972 Broadway production, which starred John Rubinstein (Pippin) and Ben Vereen (Leading Player). Pippin’s grandmother Berthe was played by Irene Ryan, best known as Granny on The Beverly Hillbillies. I grew up believing the story that she died onstage during a performance of her song No Time At All. Not true, but it still makes a good “what a way to go!” story.

As a teen in the late 1970s, I was a little bit obsessed with Pippin. I knew the music and lyrics from the cast album long before I saw it onstage. A friend took me to a student production at UC Irvine in 1982, with the musical re-imagined as a futuristic space opera with loads of silver lamé. Then, in 1985, I worked with John Rubinstein at the La Jolla Playhouse (described here) which got me listening to the Pippin original cast album all over again. William Katt and Ben Vereen appeared in a filmed stage version in the early 80s, which I saw on videotape many years later.

Fast forward to 2013, and Pippin is back on Broadway. I watched the Tony Awards that year, so I was aware of the production and saw the musical number performed during the ceremony. I was also vaguely aware when the touring version came to San Francisco in fall 2014, but my budget was tight and my mind was on other things. Mostly I was busy pouting because I had to stay home while friends were at a festival in Utah.

Last summer, I finally listened to the Pippin Broadway revival cast album. My first impression was that Matthew James Thomas has a pretty voice, but it’s very different from John Rubinstein’s. I went to YouTube to see if there were any Pippin videos. And here we go, down the rabbit hole again!

I’ve now watched everything I can find with Matthew James Thomas, going back to The Bill in 1999. I was sad that he deleted his twitter account before I had the chance to follow him. I purchased his UK series Britannia High on DVD, watching it once through before my region-free DVD player packed up and died (boo). Then I actually cried when I found out that the San Francisco Pippin tour brought both Matthew James Thomas AND John Rubinstein to my doorstep, and I missed them. Thomas had given his last performance on Broadway, but he came back and filled in for the touring Pippin when that actor was put on vocal rest. John Rubinstein toured with the show as Charlemagne. Even if the tickets were beyond my budget, I could have gone to the stage door to meet the cast and see Rubinstein again. Heartbreak!

The biggest lesson learned from Pippin? Pay attention to what’s happening around me. Instead of wishing to be somewhere else, make the most of what’s right here. San Francisco isn’t perfect, and it’s way too expensive, but a lot of events are free or cheap.

(click to see better version)

Happily, Matthew James Thomas is now back on twitter. He was cast in a pilot called Shelter for NBC, but it wasn’t ordered to series. I wish him the best, look forward to seeing him onscreen again, and hope he comes back to San Francisco. (John Rubinstein, too!)

If I could have one MJT wish granted, since I can’t travel back in time to 2014, it would be to hear his Fenwick solo from the musical Diner.

Matthew James Thomas (Fenwick) in Diner. Photo by Matt Urban, Mobius New Media

Photo sources:

San Francisco Pippin tour: Review: A masterful ‘Pippin’ showcases Paulus’ bold vision

http://www.delawaretheatre.org/diner (Fenwick photo)

Screen captures made from YouTube videos, particularly from the official Broadway Pippin channel: https://www.youtube.com/user/pippinmusical/videos


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Filed under Actors, Music, Television, The Internet, Theatre

My Sondheim Summer

In 1985, I was studying technical theatre at San Diego State. A friend passed along a tip that transformed my summer. La Jolla Playhouse needed students to crew their summer productions. Young and clueless, I had no idea of La Jolla Playhouse’s history, and I didn’t know who would be involved with their current season. It turned out to be an amazing experience.

I wish I could boast that my wonderful credentials got me the job, but I have to be honest. Just the willingness to work long hours for almost no money got me in, since they were short on hands and short on time. The locals who worked the crew were from colleges nearby, and most of us were studying acting or technical theatre. I developed a crush on one of the student actors, a big flirt with a conveniently absent girlfriend. Nothing happened between us, but it did earn me a crew nickname. He was Landshark, and I was Sharkette.

Crew members relaxing backstage

Crew members relaxing backstage

Once I arrived backstage for my first tech rehearsal, it became apparent that I was surrounded by some of Broadway’s best people. The show was the musical Merrily We Roll Along by Stephen Sondheim and George Furth. It wasn’t just that we were doing their show. They were there in person, doing daily re-writes and revisions. I peeked out at Stephen Sondheim from behind the curtain in awe, which is where I remained for the rest of the month. I never once had the courage to speak to him, but I watched him whenever I could. When the rehearsal began, I recognized the actor playing Franklin Shepard, one of the lead roles. It was John Rubinstein. I turned to my fellow crew members and said breathlessly, “It’s Pippin!  That’s Pippin!” They answered, “Who?” I dug out my tape of the Pippin cast recording and played it on my drive to the theatre all summer. The rest of the cast had intimidating Broadway credits as well. At least with them I wasn’t as awestruck. It helped that I didn’t get to read a program until much later.

Merrily We Roll Along programMerrily We Roll Along opened on Broadway in 1981 and closed after only 16 performances. The music was praised but the book had problems. It’s the story of three friends and the disintegration of their friendship, told in reverse chronological order. When the musical starts, the characters are angry, bitter, and compromised. At the end, they are young, optimistic and idealistic. One of the big problems was how to end at the beginning and still have it be interesting for an audience who knew the beginning at the end. La Jolla Playhouse’s production was the first of several attempts to rework the musical. It was a fascinating process to observe, and changes continued throughout the 24 performances. The local crew’s favorite regular re-write was seeing which gadget would get invented by one of the characters in the second act. Some nights it was the answering machine, but each night it was likely to be something else, and we never knew what until the scene came up.

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Filed under Actors, Theatre

Retro TV

Last month, I stumbled across KCNS channel 38, a local San Francisco TV station that broadcasts Retro TV.  The timing couldn’t be better.  Just as summer re-runs begin, I get to enjoy TV shows from the 60s, 70s and 80s.  Some of these series I watched growing up, like Daniel Boone and Starsky & Hutch.  Others are old enough to be completely new to me, like Naked City and Route 66.  I love watching these programs, then going online to look up the actors.

I guess Retro TV rotates their programming every now and again.  I wish I knew exactly when.  Just as I was settling into a groove with one set of shows, getting the schedule memorized, everything changed.  I don’t know if this will happen every month or every six months.  The Retro TV website doesn’t say.  Since the latest set includes Daniel Boone, I can’t complain too much.  I can’t even begin describe how much I love this show.  I’ve seen every episode on DVD, because a few years ago Fess Parker started releasing them season by season.  As much as I adore Fess as Daniel, I think Ed Ames (Mingo) is my favorite.  Growing up, naturally I liked Darby Hinton (Israel Boone) the best.   Fess Parker passed away recently, as did Jimmy Dean, who went from a frequent guest star to a series regular when Ed Ames left to pursue his singing career.  Ed Ames just turned 84 last Saturday (July 9th), so happy belated birthday, Mr Ames.  I have his greatest hits on mp3 player, and I listen to them all the time.  He’s just the best.

A couple of years ago I had a marathon viewing of Starsky & Hutch on DVD.  I know Starsky was the funny guy, but I always liked the blonde.  This series was about guns and hot cars, but what made it special was the caring relationship between the two leads.  There are certain episodes that stand out.  There’s the one where Starsky is shot in an Italian restaurant by hit men waiting for a mob boss, and Hutch takes care of him.  There’s also the one where Hutch is abducted and turned into a heroin addict.  Starsky helps him through his withdrawal.  The physical contact shared by these two straight characters is remarkable when you consider the show was made in the late 1970s.  Actually, straight male characters don’t really touch now.   Not that much has changed.  Anyway, both Paul Michael Glaser and David Soul went through very difficult times after Starsky & Hutch ended.  I’m still fascinated by these two actors.  Yeah, I have The Best of David Soul on CD, and I just put the songs on my mp3 player.  (Don’t Give Up on Us, Baby!)

One of the few shows on Retro TV that’s not that old is Da Vinci’s Inquest.  This Canadian show really sneaks up on you, sucking you in.  I have to confess, I turn on my TV’s captions when watching, because the actors talk fast and mumble a bit. I really like Ian Tracey, so I guess he’s the reason I keep tuning in.  I remember the first time I noticed him, he was a guest star on The X-Files (season 3: The Walk).  Of course, he was hard to miss, playing a soldier with no arms or legs, a brilliant display of special effects wizardry coupled with a standout performance.  According to IMDb, Tracey appeared on 21 Jump Street years before.  I loved that show because of Johnny Depp.   Now there’s a series that should be on Retro TV!  You can watch all of it on hulu, at least.  Of course, 21 Jump Street was not an original concept, with young-looking cops going undercover in high schools.  There was David Cassidy: Man Undercover, which was a spin-off of an episode of Police Story (also shown on Retro TV).  Before Man Undercover, there was The Mod Squad, another series that I adore.

Some of the shows from the last schedule provided me with lots of happy googling.  I was surprised to learn that Harry Morgan (M*A*S*H and Dragnet) is 96 and still with us, while Pete Duel (Alias Smith and Jones) committed suicide at the age of 31.  Watching Dragnet last month, I spotted a very young John Rubinstein (Family and Crazy Like a Fox).  The episode was called The Grenade, and it was his first TV role.   I worked with Mr. Rubinstein at the La Jolla Playhouse in 1985, and I have such good memories from that experience.  John Rubinstein is still really busy working in theatre and television.  He’s looking great, too.

The strangest thing about Retro TV’s programming?  The predominance of all male casts.  Women are almost as rare as hen’s teeth.  Sure, there are female guest stars, but very few women in regular recurring roles on these shows.  I don’t know why.  It’s a mystery!

Update:  I wrote an email to the Retro TV website, but they haven’t answered, and now the website has been down for a couple of weeks.  Very strange.


Speaking of old TV shows and female performers, a couple of nights ago I went to I Dream of Barbara Eden as the Castro Theatre.  It was a rather odd show consisting of belly dancers, film clips, a Jeannie look-alike contest, and an onstage chat with Barbara Eden.  She looks great, and she seems  like a very nice lady.  Most of the memories and anecdotes she shared were positive; Elvis Presley was a gentleman, Lucille Ball was lovely and down to earth, Marilyn Monroe just glowed.  She did say that Ann Southern was mean.  She also told us that Larry Hagman could act childishly when he felt threatened by the male guest stars on I Dream of Jeannie.  I think I will have to read more in Barbara Eden’s new book.


Last week I read the book Brady, Brady, Brady by creator Sherwood Schwartz and his son Lloyd Schwartz, who went from dialogue coach to producer and director of the show.  It was an entertaining behind-the-scenes book about The Brady Bunch.  I was shocked to find out that Sherwood Schwartz died today.   He was 94.  He had a good long life, and he certainly made us laugh.  Thank you, Mr. Schwartz.


Filed under Actors, Television