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The Impresario

Life is a performance for Michael Rubinoff.

“There’s actually quite a bit of theatre in law – whether you’re in a courtroom or you’re in a boardroom negotiating a deal,” the Tony-nominated producer laughed. “I’ve always had in the back of my mind a musical about some aspect of the legal profession. I just haven’t figured it out yet.” 

Maybe not. But Rubinoff, LLB’01, has figured out quite a bit in the last few years. With the Broadway smash Come From Away selling out performances on Broadway, the multifaceted Western Law alumnus is looking to add further to the American musical canon with two new projects.

Prom Queen is inspired by the true story of Marc Hall, the Ontario teenager who took the Catholic School Board to court when it refused to let him attend his prom with his boyfriend. Launched through the Canadian Music Theatre Project at Sheridan College in 2015, a theatre incubator established by Rubinoff, the musical will be showcased at the National Alliance for Musical Theatre Festival of New Musicals in New York.

“It’s a big hurdle for the play and a huge accomplishment for the team,” Rubinoff said.  

Only eight out of 240 submitted musicals are performed in front of an exclusive audience of Broadway funders, producers and regional theatres. It’s the same festival where Tony-winning Come From Away was launched on its trailblazing journey to Broadway four years ago. 

Come From Away tells the story of the community of Gander, Nfld., that welcomed displaced passengers from grounded flights into their hearts and homes during the dark days that followed the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States.

Rubinoff admits that this subject is an unlikely one for a musical. But he knew there was compelling narrative in the outpouring of generosity. “It tells a story of humanity and human kindness,” he explained. “Taking in strangers – we need to hear that story. It’s such a beautiful Canadian story.” 

Rubinoff conceived the idea for the play when he was a young lawyer articling at a Bay St. firm at the time of the 9/11 attacks. He was deeply moved by the Newfoundlanders display of heroic hospitality during such a frightening and uncertain time, and felt others would respond to the story in a similar way.

Rubinoff, Associate Dean of Visual and Performing Arts at Sheridan College in Oakville, Ont., secured the talented musical theatre team of Irene Sankoff and David Hein to bring his idea to the stage. They went to Gander on the 10th anniversary of the attacks and then interviewed both residents and stranded passengers whose stories became the basis for the characters in the musical.

The musical was first workshopped through the Canadian Music Theatre Project and played to record-breaking crowds in a variety of theatres before landing on Broadway in March 2017, becoming only the fifth Canadian musical to make it to the Great White Way. 

The play was enormously well received and considered by critics as a “must-see musical.” New York Times theatre critic Ben Brantley called it “the catharsis we need in this American moment.” 

The show, which arrived on Broadway shortly after President Trump was sworn in and began issuing travel bans from seven majority-Muslim countries, has resonated in a way that Rubinoff never imagined. 

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau invited Ivanka Trump to a special Canadian showing of the musical, where she sat alongside Nikki Haley, the American ambassador to the United Nations, prompting a diplomatic theatrical moment. Addressing the audience from the stage of Broadway’s Schoenfeld Theatre, Trudeau praised the musical, saying, “The world gets to see what it is to lean on each other and be there for each other through the darkest times.”

Come From Away has exceeded so many expectations. It continues to play to sold-out audiences on Broadway and a second company is being launched in Winnipeg in January that will then move to Toronto in February. A third company will launch in Seattle in October 2018 and embark on a tour across North America.  

The play was ultimately nominated for seven Tony Awards and won for Best Direction of a Musical recognizing Christopher Ashley’s work.

Rubinoff is still pinching himself about that special night. 

“I’ve been watching the Tonys since I was a kid,” he said. “Going to the awards show at Radio City Music Hall, and realizing this was really happening, was a significant professional achievement, and the fulfillment of a dream.”

As a theatre producer, Rubinoff has to wear many hats. Having a legal one to put on when necessary is certainly an advantage and one that commands a certain amount of respect and trust. 

“Early on in my career when people found out I was a lawyer, sometimes the nature of the relationship would change very quickly and contracts, in some cases, would be renegotiated,” he laughed. 

“You’re dealing in a world of intellectual property. It could be optioning a book, a film, in some cases a catalogue of music or something original, and contracts are a big part of a producer’s role,” he said.

“There’s also diplomacy and negotiation skills that goes on in theatre decision-making, whether they be financial or creative, and having a legal background to help navigate those waters is a huge asset.”

Rubinoff is exuberant when speaking of his time as a student at Western Law. “I loved law school. I mean, I really loved it; I loved the community, and I was very involved.”

He served a precedent setting two terms as Student Legal Society President and was the student representative on Western’s Board of Governors. Rubinoff also performed in Obiter Dicta, and, in his last year of law, after securing his articling position, produced and directed the musical Blood Brothers at Western.

“I spent a lot of time in class and then would run off to rehearsal,” he recalled. “It was a tremendous amount of fun to be able to do that in my final year of law school.”

Rubinoff was also on Western Law’s Niagara International Moot Team, and enjoyed getting on his feet and arguing cases.  “We were a very successful team that year. There was certainly always a theatricality to mooting that I like a lot” 

Rubinoff’s next theatrical project may be his most ambitious yet; he’s pioneering new theatre in China by launching a musical about the life of Dr. Norman Bethune. 

“You need two things to make a musical,” he said. “One, you need a compelling story. And second, you need a compelling reason to musicalize it.”

And Bethune fits both bills, using music to transcend language. 

The Canadian doctor from Gravenhurst, Ont., is known as the father of modern medicine in China and became a god-like icon there during the 1930s. 

Rubinoff signed a co-development agreement to produce the musical between Sheridan and the Shanghai Dramatic Arts Centre during Prime Minister Trudeau’s state visit to China last September.  Using both English and Mandarin to tell the story, Bethune is in development, and the Canada-China production will premiere in 2019. 

“It was a very exciting thing to do. We’re pioneering what I’m calling ‘musical theatre diplomacy,’” Rubinoff explained. “We were very fortunate to have the Prime Minister attend the show on Broadway with Ivanka Trump as his guest; I certainly hope that Bethune might be another opportunity for musical theatre diplomacy between Canada and China in the future.

“Our values as Canadians place us in a unique position to collaborate in this way. Come From Away has certainly played a role in credibility, for sure, and that credibility has helped enormously in advancing future projects. 

 “You know what?” he laughed. “I’m having a great time.”

This article appeared in the Western Law 2017 Alumni Magazine.
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