Arthur B. Rubinstein was born in Brooklyn, New York on March 31, 1938. Rubinstein cited as his greatest youthful influences composer-conductor Leonard Bernstein, Klezmer clarinetist Naftule Brandwein (Rubinstein’s own grandfather), and baseball shortstop Phil Rizzuto (whom Rubinstein hoped to someday replace on the New York Yankees). After attending the High School of Music & Art, he earned a Bachelor of Music degree at Yale University, where his friends included John Badham, the older brother of To Kill a Mockingbird’s young star Mary Badham.
For the early part of his musical career, Rubinstein worked largely for the stage, providing incidental music for such acclaimed theater organizations as San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater, the Williamstown Theater Festival, and the Stratford Shakespeare Festival. He served as musical director for two Broadway shows -- Gantry, a musical version of Elmer Gantry starring Robert Shaw and Rita Moreno, which closed immediately after its opening night performance in 1970; and 1975’s Goodtime Charley, an original musical with Joel Grey as the Dauphin of France and Ann Reinking of Joan of Arc. He performed similar duties for stage musicals in Los Angeles, earning an L.A. Drama Critics Circle Award for his work on a production of Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music.
Rubinstein felt his theater scoring experience was the perfect groundwork for his later career: "It’s the kind of training ground that not many film composers have had. It starts you with certain kinds of constrictions, to begin with, because music in the theatre is not approached in the same way as music in films. First of all, because of the kind of instrumentation that you’re limited to, and also because you’re not dealing as much with the technical end of making music, you’re dealing simply with dramatics, with character delineation in music. You don’t have to provide that kind of musical glue around a screen that you often do in writing film music. It’s really down to essentials. That was, really, my beginnings as a film composer."
These experiences made him perfectly suited for his first assignment in TV scoring, providing original music for harp and piano for the 1971 Hallmark Hall of Fame adaptation of Arthur Miller’s play The Price, starring George C. Scott and Colleen Dewhurst. This led to more TV projects, including adaptations of such stage classics as Look Homeward, Angel, Harvey and The Seagull. Rubinstein made his feature scoring debut with the 1978 caper comedy The Great Bank Hoax, and followed it up with the Gary Coleman vehicle On the Right Track.
His breakthrough into high-profile studio films occurred due to his friendship with fellow Yalie John Badham. Badham had become an A-list feature film director with his 1977 blockbuster hit Saturday Night Fever, and had signed on to direct the film version of the acclaimed Broadway play Whose Life Is It Anyway?, about an artist, paralyzed in an accident, who engages in a legal battle for the right to die. Richard Dreyfuss, John Cassavetes and Christine Lahti starred in the drama, and Badham had the clout to bring on Rubinstein as his composer, providing the film with a fresh, thoughtful and satisfying score. Though the film was neither a box-office hit nor the Oscar contender its makers must have hoped for, it helped legitimize Rubinstein’s status as a feature composer and solidified his working relationship with his former classmate.
Rubinstein spent the 1980s working steadily in both features and television, with his ongoing collaboration with Badham leading to two box-office hits in 1983. Surprisingly, Rubinstein was not the director’s first choice to score the sci-fi-tinged, police-helicopter thriller Blue Thunder – the filmmakers were considering an electronic composer like Giorgio Mororder or Tangerine Dream (despite having temp-tracked the film with cues from Raiders of the Lost Ark) -- but Rubinstein had recently worked in an electronic vein scoring the short-lived science-fiction TV series The Phoenix, and gave Blue Thunder a carefully conceived score that was one of the most exciting action scores of the 1980s, utilizing simple but memorable themes and incorporating the film’s inherent aural elements (like figuring out the rhythmic meter of a helicopter rotor) into the score.
Immediately following Blue Thunder, Badham took over the directing chores on the lighthearted hacking thriller WarGames from Martin Brest, and Rubinstein ultimately won the scoring assignment, noting that the producers’ top, wildly different choices to score the film, John Williams and Marvin Hamlisch, indicated that they hadn’t really decided on an approach to the score. Taking a more traditionally orchestral approach than on Blue Thunder, Rubinstein worked to balance the film’s variety of tones, and worked on thematic material that he termed “devilish”: “I guess that’s the key word to most of the score, that there is a devilish quality to the whole thing, because that’s how I perceived both David [Matthew Broderick's character] and the WOPR [the military's super-computer]. They’re both impudent and impish in their own way. I decided that the computer is a character, a malevolent one, and proceeded from there. Throughout the score whenever the computer is shown there is this sort of malevolent but yet sardonic treatment. I didn’t see David as a charming, misunderstood kid at all, I saw him as being very much involved with this impudence. I would say that David’s music, if you could call it that because it is rarely stated as such, has a slightly more playful and magical quality but it is still drawn from the same idea that there is impudence at foot here.”
The mid-1980s proved to be a peak period in Rubinstein’s scoring career. He reteamed with Badham for one of the director’s last big box-office hits, the buddy comedy Stakeout, and worked with other feature directors including Albert Brooks (Lost in America), William Friedkin (Deal of the Century), and Roger Spottiswoode (The Best of Times). He was even more prolific in television, scoring many TV movies as well as episodes of such series as Amazing Stories (“Remote Control Man,” directed by Bob Clark), Bring ‘em Back Alive, The Wizard and Scarecrow and Mrs. King – he wrote the theme and 61 episode scores for the latter, winning a 1986 Primetime Emmy for the episode “We’re Off to See the Wizard.”
As Badham’s feature directing waned, Rubinstein scored mostly television projects, and his last high-profile feature was Badham’s 1995 real-time thriller Nick of Time, starring Johnny Depp. During this period he began to devote much of his attention to Symphony in the Glen, an organization he founded in 1993 with his wife, Barbara Ferris, which over the next two decades would present more than 60 free classical concerts to families, in L.A.’s Griffith Park. The selection included classics as well as original Rubinstein concert pieces, and on October 4, 2009, Rubinstein conducted a brand-new piece, “Observations,” in honor of the International Year of the Astronomer, on the front lawn of the Griffith Observatory, with narration by Leonard Nimoy.
Rubinstein died on April 23 this year at the age of 80, of complications resulting from cancer. He is survived by his wife, Barbara Ferris Rubinstein, and his daughter, Alexandra Nan Rubinstein.