Tony Award winner John Rubinstein (Children of a Lesser God), who, under the direction of Bob Fosse, made his Broadway debut in 1972, originating the eponymous role in the iconic musical Pippin, is not only a renowned veteran of the New York stage. He’s also an accomplished screen star (including the TV series Family, for which he received an Emmy nomination, and such popular films as Being the Ricardos, The Boys from Brazil, Getting Straight, and more), voice actor (on over 200 audiobooks, most notably Jonathan Kellerman’s series of Los Angeles crime novels), and director, as well as a singer, composer, keyboardist, and host of two classical music radio programs, carrying on the tradition of his father, the legendary pianist Arthur Rubinstein.
Among his long list of NYC acting credits are appearances in the Broadway productions of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Ragtime, Hurlyburly, M. Butterfly, The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial (Drama Desk nomination), Getting Away with Murder, Fools, Love Letters, and the 2013 Pippin revival, and Off-Broadway in Counsellor-at-Law (2005 Lucille Lortel Award; Outer Critics’ Circle and Drama League Awards nominations), Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Urban Blight, Cabaret Verboten, and most recently Morning’s at Seven at the Theatre at St. Clement’s.
This month, Rubinstein will return to St. Clement’s as President Dwight D. Eisenhower in the new one-man play Eisenhower: This Piece of Ground. Adapted by Richard Hellesen from a vast array of Ike’s memoirs, speeches, and letters, the seven-week Off-Broadway engagement, presented by The New Los Angeles Repertory Company and directed by Producing Artistic Director Peter Ellenstein, follows the show’s critically acclaimed premiere in LA, in which Eisenhower reflects on his life and contemplates what makes an American President great.
Before heading out to NYC this month, John spoke with me from California to give our readers a preview of the upcoming show and his role in it.
How did this play first come to your attention and what about it captured your interest?
John: I had been looking for a one-man play for about twenty years, so I could book it at regional theaters, schools, and other places, as well as in LA and New York. I’m also a musician, so I thought about doing a solo musical but then I realized that’s been done a lot, so I started thinking about doing one on a classical composer and, since I’m not a writer, I began looking for someone who could write it for me. In 1987, I went to the annual William Inge Festival in Kansas, which honors playwrights – that year was Garson Kanin. After that, I did M. Butterfly on Broadway and was invited back to perform in the Festival in 2012, honoring David Henry Hwang; the man running it at the time was Peter Ellenstein. Cut to 2021; he emailed me about a one-man play on Eisenhower, which I thought was beautifully written, but wondered who would come see it. Peter, who was now with The New Los Angeles Repertory Company, had me read it with him and the playwright, and we decided to go ahead with it. I liked that it was about a troublesome day in the life of a very powerful and extraordinary man, all based on facts, but not a history lesson or lecture. It’s a human drama about a real person, filled with strength and emotion.
What do you consider to be Eisenhower’s most compelling qualities, and what about him is most relatable for you?
That’s hard to answer. As a little boy, I met him at the White House when he was President, but at the time, I didn’t really think much about politics. I knew he was a pleasant older guy, he gave speeches, he was the Supreme Commander of World War II. Then Kennedy came in and it was a new day, very different from the old times, and that’s when I first started thinking about the Presidency. Now I can say that with Eisenhower, it was his understanding and concern for people, which he learned from his mother, and his organization and discipline, which he got from his dad. Whether commanding the war, leading NATO to work for world peace, or serving us as President of the US, he had the well-being, security, and happiness of the people he represented always in mind. These days for politicians, it’s more about power, prestige, money, and what they’re being given, but Eisenhower was not that way.
What do you enjoy about performing a one-man show, and what do you find challenging?
Most challenging is that you’re all alone. The framework for being an actor is that you’re a part of the community and there’s a special camaraderie working with other people, often hundreds on a movie set; it’s a huge team effort, as it is with the theater. Now I show up and nobody’s there but the stage manager. We say hi and then I go to my dressing room and wait and worry if I’ll get through the marathon! I do it all alone and it can get lonely, but it’s also rewarding. In these politicized times, it’s great to have audiences come, open their eyes, learn about Eisenhower, and want to go home and read more about him, because they find him uplifting and inspiring. Ike was the guy!
In the current state of our strongly divided nation, what do you hope will attract audiences to a show about a Republican President in our largely Democratic city?
That’s a marketing question – how you sell it, how to advertise – and it’s also dependent on what the critics say, because people respond to trusted journalists. What the LA critics said was that the show is “important” and “mesmerizing” and that you’re given a view of what responsibility is and how to use it. Given these troubled times, Republican-leaning people will come, older audiences will come because they’ll remember Eisenhower and his era, and I hope Left-leaning and younger people will also want to come after they’ve read the reviews.
What message do you hope people take away from Eisenhower?
In the best of all possible worlds, I would hope they will re-evaluate how they look at this country and will be encouraged to take voting seriously as a responsibility and take action to change the things that have gone wrong. Eisenhower was intelligent and middle of the road; he respected everyone, no matter who they were, regardless of their political party. I think our country has lost sight of that. It’s fragile, delicate, and threatened, so I love giving an example that is real, not fictional – the defeat of Hitler, the revival of our post-war nation – which should inspire us to get something good done for the country and for our people.
Thank you, John, for this illuminating conversation! I look forward to seeing you back at St. Clement’s later this month.