June 19, 1997
‘I am Tateh’
In "Ragtime," the part of Tateh, a widowed, immigrant Jew who comes to New York with a young daughter in tow, is in many ways a role that is especially close to the heart of actor John Rubinstein.
"Twenty years ago, I wanted that part," said Rubinstein, who was "thrilled" to be approached for the role in the new musical. "I am Tateh. Like him, I have artistic aspirations. I enjoy the art of acting, but, ultimately, I'm Daddy." (He is the father of four children who range in age from infancy to adulthood.)
Both as a father and as a son, Rubinstein had plenty of material from which to build this character. His father, world-renowned pianist Arthur Rubinstein, was a Jewish immigrant from Poland who first visited the United States in 1906, the year that "Ragtime" begins.
"My parents were older, particularly my father, who was 61, when I was born," he said. "They both had such vivid memories of that period. My mother remembers fleeing Lithuania after the Russians took over. She and her family moved to Warsaw, where her father -- a conductor -- founded the Warsaw Opera. She was Catholic, so for her, it was all about nationality, about Russia confiscating her family's property.... Their estate was on a rather large piece of land. It was almost Chekhovian.
"For my father, being a Polish Jew was the flip side of that experience. It wasn't about Polish nationalism in the least. They left in '38 or '39, before I was born -- first to Paris and then to the U.S. When they fled Hitler, the Gestapo took over their Paris house and robbed it of everything, including a portrait of my father by Picasso."
Years later, the Rubinsteins traveled back to Poland. It was then when the enormity of the Holocaust began to take shape in the young actor's mind.
"We went back in 1958, when I was 12 years old," he said. "A huge swarm of people came to meet us from my mother's side. 'I'm your granduncle,' this one was saying. That one is your second cousin, and so on. Amid this mass of people, just one young man approached my father -- a nephew of some sort who had survived. Just him. It was then that I really got it."
Rubinstein said that while his father was never particularly religious, "he was a proud Jew and a staunch Zionist" who remained tremendously involved with Israel. "You know, after 1914, my father said he'd never play again in Germany, and he never did."
After months of rehearsal as a poor immigrant struggling to protect his daughter, Rubinstein has forged a close bond with Danielle Weiner, the young actress who plays Little Girl, Tateh's mostly silent daughter.
"I adore her," he said. "After every show, I get down on my knees and thank her for her energy. She's my partner. Eighty percent of my role, in a sense, is addressed to her. Her support and good acting make it work. And sometimes, she tells me to remember my props." -- Diane Arieff Zaga, Arts Editor