It's the Fourth of July, and Joshua M. Rubins '70, dean of students at the Summer School, is sitting at his baby grand piano. Sheet music by Cole Porter, Rogers and Hart and Rubins himself litter his Lehman Hall office. "I'm sort of the resident Cambridge musical comedy buff," says Rubins. "I've studied it carefully. I'm really more than a fan."
Rubins, who graduated from Harvard Law School last month, is a songwriter, director, and sometime actor. He doesn't plan to practice law; he's headed for Broadway. Asked why he endured the rigors of law school, Rubins says, "I met a lot of lawyers who were nice people. I guess that like most people around here, I was pushed to feel that an A.B. was not enough. And besides, I wanted to stay in Cambridge; it was another three years away from the outside world."
"I'd like to somehow use the law in a government arts program," he says. "It's the only future for theater and opera. I don't believe in art for only one per cent of one per cent. Every once in a while, you reach a point where you say, 'Who am I doing this for?' You can't make it your prime goal or you won't get anything done as an artist, but I do want to spend some of my time getting an arts program financed. I know from a year I spent in Maine, doing shows for rural towns, that theater isn't just for the New York elite."
Even during his three years at the Law School, music remained the focus of Rubins's life. He maintains it was never a question for him of having enough time for music, but instead of having time for law. "As an undergrad, you can do well without working," says Rubins, who graduated magna cum laude from the College. "In law school, you can just get by without studying."
Rubins started writing lyrics when he was in high school. "I got out of papers by writing songs," says Rubins, smiling. "I did a musical on World War I for history and a musical version of 'Anna Karenina' for lit. They were farcical, horrible."
As an undergraduate, Rubins continued acting, directing, and writing. His repertoire included over 20 roles ranging from the monosyllabic Nagg in "Endgame" to Moonface Martin in "Anything Goes" to Teiresias in "Oedipus Rex." Rubins's favorite role remains Richard Miller, a lovesick teenager in "Take Me Along."
After his senior year, during which he directed "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," Rubins left Cambridge for a year. He spent the sabbatical from Harvard drama directing and writing children's theater in the forests of Maine.
"Winnie the Pooh," a musical, was an immediate success both with children and adults, but Rubins is somewhat skeptical of his other children's works--"Alice in the Wonderland of Pooh" and a kids' ecology play. "They were sort of tacky," he admits.
"I don't go for relevance, but I was under contract and had to turn out this ecology musical. Anyway, we had this character called Mother Earth. She was very dirty." Laughing, Rubins gestures with his hands to describe the character. "People would come to dump garbage on her. At the end, they decide to do something: they all sing a song, 'Gotta Clean Her Up.' I didn't even stay in Maine to direct it."
Rubins's theatrical ventures also included writing a Hasty Pudding Club show with George Birnbaum. He came away from the experience with feelings that are less than completely positive: "The Pudding is the biggest waste of student talent around Harvard. They're proud of the fact they do a garbage show. I think that's fine, but don't advertise it as theater and don't draw on members of the Harvard theatrical community who are needed elsewhere. They draw off some of the most talented technicians and actors, all to revolve around a piece of non-art."
The gushy, superficial image of musical comedy is something Rubins would like to change. His own songs are thoughtful, even melancholy. "In musicals when there's a choice between a clever rhyme and an honest feeling, most people go for the gimmick," he says. "Ideally, musicals should be more than just tap dancing and legs.
"Tears please me," Rubins continues. "When someone cries, you know you've broken through. I want to make people forget they're sitting in a theater at Harvard." The tear level has been high at Rubins's two most recent plays, "Suffragette" and "The Devil Touched My Tongue," and he's proud of it.
"Professionalism is something George and I always worked for. I try not to be a snob about it, but I am," Rubins says as he turns to sing some summer school papers and tell his assistants that he'll be glad to help type student telephone numbers. He continues, "Once I had a woman section leader who said about my show, 'Lots of fun, lots of fun.'" He mocks her, sounding like Truman Capote. "That infuriates me. It's like saying, 'Oh, look at those kids having a good time.' I'm not satisfied with that."
Rubins feels that television, that mega-media monopoly, undermines artistic work, encouraging indifference and non-participation from its audience. Conditioned by commercials, people cannot concentrate on long performances. Rubins says, "There are lots of things you just can't say in ten minutes. Maybe that's why songs are popular--they're short. You can say, 'Well, I had my little dose of meaning in Carole King today.'"
Yet for Rubins, commerciality does not automatically exclude integrity. "Since the Beatles, there's been a bridge," he says. "Now you can write a song like Carly Simon's 'Haven't Got Time for the Pain,' and people like it." While Rubins thinks "today's music is good," and considers Laura Nyro "mindblowing," he admits a prejudice: "Nothing is quite up to the 30's and 40's stuff. Nothing can compare with the simplicity of Coward's lyrics." Rubins pauses and sings a few bars from a Noel Coward hit: "My funny valentine, you make me smile with your heart." Short and sweet.