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Finding his stage

Cross Examined
|Written By Elizabeth Raymer
Finding his stage
Photo: Brayden Swire

Michael Rubinoff went from a legal career to teaching theatre and producing the hit musical Come From Away.

Rubinoff is ebullient. The hit musical that was his brainchild, Come From Away, is playing to sold-out audiences in Toronto, and it will soon open in previews on Broadway. And for this Toronto lawyer, the transition from a legal career to theatrical producer and associate dean of Sheridan College’s Visual and Performing Arts programs in Oakville, Ont. has been a fortuitous one.

Greeting a reporter at the Royal Alexandra Theatre in Toronto’s theatre district, where the show opened to rave reviews in November, Rubinoff introduces her to the press and public relations manager for Mirvish Productions for a brief tour of the theatre, which was recently renovated. The seats are all new, Randy Alldread points out, in traditional plush red (about 200 of the old ones were lost to allow for more legroom), the plaster cleaned and re-gilded.

Rubinoff is in his element here. The former real estate and entertainment lawyer was first bitten by the theatre bug as a youngster, attending Les Miserables with his mother in this very same theatre. He later directed a staging of Blood Brothers in his last year of law school at the University of Western Ontario (“I was fortunate to have my articling job lined up” during that busy year, he quips). After graduating from Western law in 2001 (he had also earned a B.A. in political science from the university), Rubinoff started his articles at Goodman and Carr in Toronto that September.

“9/11 happened on the second day of my articles at Goodman and Carr; the second day of my articles!” Rubinoff exclaims. He heard stories about the passengers who had landed at Newfoundland’s Gander airport after their flights were diverted from New York, and who had been taken in by residents of Gander and surrounding towns, and “the outpouring of generosity. As a theatre producer, I knew the best way to tell the story was through a musical — which is part of the DNA of Newfoundlanders.”

Parallel to his law career — with his father, M. Lloyd Rubinoff, in the latter’s real estate law practice in Thornhill, Ont., and later with Robins Appleby & Taub in Toronto — Rubinoff had been producing off-Broadway-type theatre in Toronto.

“I became the person who was doing off-Broadway plays in Toronto; I started to get a lot of calls from producers on Broadway asking about producing in Toronto. Dog Sees God was about the Peanuts gang in high school. This was in 2008 or 2009,” Rubinoff says. “It starred an incredible group of young actors, including Tatiana Maslany” of Orphan Black. Another play he produced was Love, Loss, and What I Wore, by Nora and Delia Ephron, which ran for four months at Toronto’s Panasonic Theatre and starred Mary Walsh.

“But it was always a challenging existence,” Rubinoff says. “The law is demanding, and I would say the theatre is equally demanding. I spent a lot of time getting into my office at 5 a.m., when it was quiet, then running off to a theatre at 7 p.m.” It was a “dual existence” that was gratifying but ultimately not sustainable.

The idea of a musical about the Gander experience percolated for many years, but “most people didn’t think it was a good idea.” Then, around the time Sheridan College came knocking on his door, Rubinoff saw a staging of My Mother’s Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding, by Canadian husband-and-wife team David Hein and Irene Sankoff, and went out to dinner with the couple. “A little while later they said, ‘We’d be interested in doing that’,” and Come From Away began to sprout wings.

Rubinoff had already started discussions with Sheridan College about joining as associate dean of the Visual and Performing Arts programs. “I knew that one of my objectives was developing an incubator for new musical products, and had committed to David [Hein] and Irene [Sankoff] that Come From Away would be the first,” he says. The Canadian Music Theatre Project, which incubated Come From Away, provides professional directors with a show to stage; they then work with Sheridan’s fourth-year Bachelor students in musical theatre. At Sheridan, the students first gave life to the roles through two workshops for Come From Away, beginning with a 45-minute exploratory workshop.

The play was mounted in November 2016, with script, music and lyrics by Sankoff and Hein, directed by Christopher Ashley and choreographed by Kelly Devine; Rubinoff was a producer and the creative consultant. After closing at the Royal Alex in January, Come From Away will open in previews on Broadway in February and officially open there in March.

Rubinoff seems to have found his niche. He says he loved practising as a lawyer, and finds his legal training still useful. “It serves me well in garnering respect in the entertainment business.” But leaving law for arts academia was a big jump.

“On Dec. 31, 2010, I worked my last day at Robins Appleby & Taub, and then walked into Sheridan,” he says. “It was an enormous transition, walking out of a law firm at York and Adelaide [in downtown Toronto], then walking into academia in Oakville. It was not something I imagined doing, although I should say I knew that perhaps some of my passions lay elsewhere.”

Sheridan was a place where he could maximize his passions, he says. “What I’m best at.” Rubinoff oversees seven programs there, in Arts and Performing Arts areas. “It’s been incredibly fulfilling to work with this exceptional group of faculty and students, and then to develop shows that go on to Broadway. It’s been a really amazing journey that through Sheridan, by developing this at school, and then being involved with Broadway producers [now] is an extraordinary thing. For me, it’s a dream come true.

 “We all have different passions, backgrounds, experiences,” he says. “For me, it was the theatre. When somebody asks me ‘How do you identify success?’ I say, ‘Identifying your full potential.’ . . .  For me, it’s allowed me to realize my full potential. This is a very tiny piece of the world where I feel most comfortable in and able to excel in.”

The practice of law involves theatre, Rubinoff notes, and he says he wouldn’t be surprised if the legal part of his career some day makes its way to the stage. “Names to be changed!”

There are certainly many ideas there from his days as a lawyer, he says — and he doesn’t regret any of them.

“I am so happy that I went to law school, that I practised. Now, when I reflect back, I spent four years working with my father, and in retrospect I think that was very special. I was very proud when I was called to the bar to be admitted to my father’s profession. There may have been a few pangs of guilt [in leaving the practice] . . . but he’s proud,” Rubinoff says, noting that his father was bringing his law team to see the show that afternoon. “Very rarely do we get a chance to understand what our parents do,” he points out, adding that his younger brother, Jonas, is now in practice with their father.

Rubinoff hasn’t forgotten his roots, either. The Thornhill native who now lives in Toronto says he loved Western’s law school, and London, Ont. (where Western is based). At law school, he served two years as the Legal Society president, running for office at the end of his first year. He even ran for political office on the “Education Party of Canada” ticket in 1997 (beating the Marxist-Leninist party, he points out with some pride). “It was a wonderful way to get to know London.”

Soon he will be involved with some projects for the Grand Theatre there. London has a good performing arts high school, H.B. Beal Secondary School, and three or so of its students join the program at Sheridan each year.

“I’m always an advocate of pursuing legal studies,” Rubinoff says. “You acquire a certain number of skills that will help you excel . . .  on and off stage.

“I am waiting for the first number of Sheridan students under my tutelage to go on to law school,” he adds. “They may find their stage . . . in the profession of law.”