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.
He has since composed the scores for such films as "Jeremiah Johnson" and "The Candidate," as well as for numerous TV movies and series, including "Family," which he also appeared in for five years, and "China Beach."
It was Rubinstein's acting career, however, that took off first and has remained his main pursuit. Even while chalking up credits in more than 100 TV films and a dozen feature films, Rubinstein has continued to work in live theater.
He made his Broadway debut in 1972 in the title role of "Pippin" and has appeared there numerous times since, in such plays as "Hurlyburly," "M. Butterfly" and Sondheim and George Furth's recent "Getting Away With Murder," in which he played the lead.
Rubinstein created the role of James Leeds in Mark Medoff's "Children of a Lesser God" at the Mark Taper Forum in 1979 and won a 1980 Tony for the role when the show moved to Broadway. Other roles he has created include Andrew Ladd III in "Love Letters" (at the Long Wharf Theater in New Haven, Conn., then later both off and on Broadway and in Beverly Hills) and Molina in "Kiss of the Spider Woman" (at SUNY/Purchase).
Yet it is the reworked version of the Sondheim-Furth musical "Merrily We Roll Along," directed by Lapine at the La Jolla Playhouse in 1985, that stands out in Rubinstein's memory--partly because he had so long admired the composer.
"It was with 'West Side Story' that I first heard the name Stephen Sondheim, and that show was just a marvel," Rubinstein says. " 'Gypsy' was another one of those unforgettable moments, and Sondheim's name was on both of those shows.
"Then suddenly came 'Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,' where he also wrote the music. And being a young and yet knowledgeable musical sort of fellow, I paid very close attention to Stephen Sondheim."
"Merrily We Roll Along" was Rubinstein's first opportunity to work with Sondheim.
"I played an unsympathetic leading character who starts out about as bad as you can get and then, as the play works its way backward in time, ends up being very youthful and idealistic," the actor says.
"That remains to this day one of the most gratifying, challenging and rewarding times I've ever spent in the theater as an actor."
Now, staging "Into the Woods" at tiny Interact is testing Rubinstein's creative mettle in new ways.
"It's tough when you're catching as catch can [with rehearsal time], as any [small theater] must," he says. "It makes me crazy.
"Every time I do something here, I do it with all my heart and soul and say I'll never put myself into this situation again."
Yet Rubinstein remains inspired not only by Sondheim's musical but also by the company he keeps.
"This is a very rare group of people," says the actor-director of the 50-member ensemble, in which he makes his creative home between more lucrative stage, film and TV assignments.
"They're very talented, committed [and] working for nothing, of course. We're all professional actors; we all have jobs. We're not using this as a showcase to get TV work, which some theater in L.A. inevitably is. Here we're doing this because we love the theater."
"INTO THE WOODS," Interact Theatre Company, 11855 Hart St., North Hollywood. Dates: Opens Friday. Plays Fridays and Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 3 p.m. Price: $22. Phone: (213) 466-1767.