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SMF: 'Death Cell Memoirs of an Extraterrestrial'
The multi-faceted actor John Rubinstein welcomes the SMF challenge
Actor John Rubinstein

Marc Neikrug’s Death Cell Memoirs of an Extraterrestrial (written for violin, piano, clarinet and actor) will receive its world premiere April 5 at a Savannah Music Festival concert at the Lucas Theatre.

SMF Associate Director Daniel Hope will play violin, with Simon Crawford–Phillips on the piano, and Patrick Messina handling the clarinet.

“It’s a piece that has a lot of whimsy to it, and yet as with everything Marc writes there’s a very deep undercurrent,” explains John Rubinstein, the fourth member of this unique chamber group. “It’s essentially the story of an alien who falls deeply in love, and does everything he possibly can to keep him and his new love together. And he’s willing to suffer for it.” Rubenstein has often performed the “actor” part of Neikrug’s award–winning Through Roses.

Rubinstein, 64, is a Tony winner (for 1980’s Children of a Lesser God), and a man who’s been in dozens of feature films, and omnipresent on television since the early 1970s.

He has voiced more than 75 books–on–tape, which should’ve been enough to get him the nod for narrating Death Cell Memoirs.

In truth, it was his long friendship with Neikrug, who’d spent many years as the pianist for classical violinist Pinchas Zukerman.

Zukerman was close friends with the Rubinstein family – John’s father was the legendary concert pianist Arthur Rubinstein, one of the most beloved figures in mid 20th century classical music.

There was definitely a father-son dynamic at play.

“We never actually had this discussion, but I knew him very well and I think he would’ve said he thought I should have been a conductor,” Rubinstein chuckles. “He wanted me to be in music, because he thought that I was gifted. But I didn’t want to go to a conservatory, and I didn’t want to continue my official music studies, and I fell in love with the theater. He never said ‘I don’t want you to do that’ or ‘That’s a bad idea,’ he always helped me and encouraged me.”

Music, however, was undeniably in his blood.

“While I was at the theater school at UCLA, I just fell into writing music, all by myself,” he says. “Certainly because of my long years of living with him, and observing music, and knowing music, and being a sort of budding musician myself.”

He composed the incidental music for college plays, and wrote and recorded music for student filmmaker buddies who didn’t have any money to pay for “real” composers.

As his theatrical career blossomed, Rubinstein composed for real movies (some of which he starred in, like Zachariah) and TV series, conducting the studio orchestra himself.

“My dad was exceptionally pleased about that,” Rubinstein explains, “because I had never really studied serious orchestration or harmony or counterpoint. I just played the piano.

“He would say to me ‘How did you figure out how to do this?’ I said ‘I learned it because I sat next to the oboe player in the London Philharmonic when you were recording the Mozart Concertos.’

“Whenever my dad played with an orchestra, when I was around, I would sit in the band, next to the brass or the tympani, or the woodwinds. They usually let me, because I was his kid. What were they gonna say?”

Rubinstein made his Broadway debut as the title character in Pippin, the Stephen Schwartz/Bob Fosse musical, in 1972

“The birthing of that play was not an easy one,” he says. “Fosse and Schwartz did not get along very well. They were at each other’s throats, and didn’t speak to each other for most of the rehearsal process. Stephen was banned from rehearsals, and had to sit in the back of the house only when we got to the Kennedy Center.”

Fast–forward to 2007, when Rubinstein was cast as the Wizard in the Los Angeles premiere of Schwartz’ Wicked. He stayed with the production for 18 months, and at some point was re–introduced to Schwartz.

“In the interim, I had seen a production of his newly–revised Pippin. Now that Fosse is dead and the rights reverted entirely to him and his co–writer Roger Hirson, they’ve changed the ending and, in my humble opinion, they’ve hurt it.

“In the old days, he was sentimental and Fosse was the cynical one. And now he’s gotten more cynical in his old age, and he’s made the ending be harsh, cynical and mean. And I think he’s done a disservice to his own piece.”

Be that as it may. Rubinstein’s still acting, when the offers arrive, but he now has a day job at the University of Southern California. He teaches a class in musical theater auditions, and directs the big student musical every spring.

He welcomes, with open arms, the chance to work with people like his old pal Marc Neikrug – and to participate in events like the Savannah Music Festival, which he believes are crucial to the growth of the arts in America.

“The arts are always if not directly under fire, they are frequently ignored in this country of ours,” Rubinstein says. “We take our Justin Biebers and Lady Gagas seriously as art, but not necessarily the work of painters and sculptors and poets, and composers and musicians. It’s very difficult for artists in this country to make a living.

“And the way they do it, other than academics, is through these wonderful festivals. They work so hard to raise the money from their local music–loving, art–loving communities. And they foster new work, without which there wouldn’t be the amount of amazing ‘classical’ music that is still being produced in this country.

“We owe these music festivals a great debt of thanks.”

Savannah Music Festival

Death Cell Memoirs of an Extraterrestrial

When & where: 7 p.m. Tuesday, April 5, Lucas Theatre

Also on the program (“Daniel Hope & Friends”): Vivaldi, The Four Seasons; Shostakovich, String Quartet No. 8 in c minor, Op. 100

Pre–concert conversation with Marc Neikrug at 6 p.m.

Tickets: $20–$65