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Taking flight

Michael Rubinoff, BA’98, LLB’01, brings Canadian story to the Great White Way

by Krista Habermehl, MA'05 | May 8, 2017

Michael Rubinoff, BA’98, LLB’01, brings Canadian story to the Great White Way
Michael Rubinoff (centre), BA’98, LLB’01, brings Canadian story to the Great White Way.

Even after following a career path he called the “responsible thing to do,” Michael Rubinoff, BA’98, LLB’01, simply could not shake the draw of the big stage.

“I had multiple ambitions when I came to Western. Politics is a passion of mine. My father is a lawyer and has been a very positive role model,” said Rubinoff, now Associate Dean of Visual and Performing Arts at Sheridan in Oakville, Ont. “But, even at Western, I was involved in theatre on campus. I produced and directed a musical called Blood Brothers, which was performed at the Paul Davenport Theatre. That re-ignited this desire to pursue the business of producing.”

In parallel to his day job as a Bay Street lawyer, Rubinoff managed a production company for off-Broadway shows and mid-sized theatre in Toronto. “It was a challenging existence to take on both of those tasks. But it was something I needed to succeed at – and fail at – in order to learn,” he said.

During this time, Rubinoff guest lectured on the legal aspects of the business for musical theatre and performance students at Sheridan. In 2010, the college offered him the opportunity to take on the role of Associate Dean of Visual and Performing Arts.

“On Dec. 31, 2010, I worked my last day on Bay Street. In January 2011, I walked onto the Oakville/Trafalgar campus of Sheridan College. On that walk from the car to my office, I thought, ‘What the heck did I just do?’ Law was a pretty lucrative profession and here I was going into the unknown,” Rubinoff said.

In short order, however, he launched the Canadian Musical Theatre Project, an incubator involving students in the honours Bachelor of Music program working with professionals in the field to develop new Canadian musicals. One of the musicals workshopped was Come From Away, a tale of kindness and generosity in the face of tragedy surrounding 9/11, conceived by Rubinoff.

Currently playing on Broadway in New York City, the show is only the fifth Canadian musical to make it to the famed stage.

In March, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau surprised the cast and audience by taking the stage ahead of the show to speak, touting the importance of friendship between the U.S. and Canada. “The world gets to see what it is to lean on each other and be there for each other through the darkest times,” said Trudeau, who invited U.S. First Daughter Ivanka Trump to join the assembled Canadian dignitaries in attending the show four days before the official opening night.

In May, the show was nominated for seven Tony Awards, including for the coveted title of Best Musical.

“It’s still surreal,” Rubinoff said of his brainchild. “If you’re in any profession and you look at what is the pinnacle of that profession, as corny as it sounds, this is The Dream come true.”

The cast of Come From Away
The musical Come From Away tells the story of the people of Gander, N.L., who opened their hearts and homes to stranded plane passengers on 9/11. It was nominated for seven Tony Awards in May. (PHOTO BY MATTHEW MURPHY)

Rubinoff conceived the musical in the aftermath of 9/11. At the time of the attacks on the United States, 38 planes were grounded at the airport near Gander, Newfoundland and Labrador, for six days with 6,579 passengers on board. The passengers nearly doubled the population of the community for the duration of their stay and, without hesitation, the locals welcomed passengers into their homes to rest, gave them hot meals and showers and entertained them as well.

That outpouring of kindness and humanity during such a frightening time inspired Rubinoff. He felt others would respond to the story in a similar way.

“The best way I know how to tell stories is through musical theatre. When developing musicals, you need a compelling story and a compelling reason to musicalize it. Music is in the DNA of Newfoundlanders. I tried to buy every Great Big Sea recording so I could get the soundscape of Newfoundland,” he laughed. “These Newfoundlanders made me so proud to be a Canadian. To be able to honour them by sharing their story in this way is really powerful.”

He continued, “This is a story we need to hear. People need to know that at this very dark point in history there was this story about humanity and the best of our values and human kindness. It’s just as relevant today. It’s always a good time to share a story about human kindness.”

To pen the musical, Rubinoff enlisted Canadian writing team David Hein and Irene Sankoff, who travelled to Gander during the 10th anniversary of 9/11, staying for nearly a month to interview returning passengers and members of the community. When they came back to Ontario, they workshopped the musical with Sheridan students.

Since, Come From Away has played record-breaking engagements in La Jolla, Calif.; Seattle, Wash.; Washington, D.C. and at the Royal Alexandra Theatre in Toronto, Ont., where Rubinoff’s love of musical theatre was first sparked.

“For anybody involved in the theatre, there is always a moment in time when you see something that strikes you as wanting to be a part of it,” he said. “For me, it was seeing the Canadian company of Les Miserables at the Royal Alexandra when I was 13. It struck me as something I wanted to be a part of in some way.”

While both American and Canadian audiences have been enthusiastic, Rubinoff said it was interesting to note the differences in responses.

“Americans had no idea about this story. It catches them by surprise in a beautiful way. It’s comforting to them to know that there was this outpouring of humanity on that day. Our Canadian audiences reacted in a way that’s quite rare for Canadians. They said the show made them so proud to be Canadian. We don’t usually talk like that. We have quiet patriotism. That resonated with me.”

Although Rubinoff still pays his law society dues – “never, say never” about returning to the legal realm – he’s feeling “enormously fulfilled” right now. “I’m realizing my full potential,” he said.

“When you work in postsecondary, you mentally go back to your own experiences. You relive a lot of good memories,” he explained. “My point of reference has always been Western. Western was very influential in my career and gave me so many opportunities. At every Sheridan convocation I attend, I have on my velvet purple and white hood – I am representing the colours of Western. It’s a wonderful reminder of my academic history.”

This article appeared in the Spring 2017 edition of Alumni Gazette
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