Paul Rubin has a lot in common with the Wright brothers. He’s passionate about flight and has spent a lifetime dreaming up new flying contraptions.
Yet you won’t find Rubin in hangars or at airports; he’s more likely to be found at a theater. Best known as The Fly Guy, Rubin has been choreographing flying sequences for stage shows for more than four decades. He’s launched 300 different productions and 2,500 performances of “Peter Pan” and he’s always present when Kathy Rigby flies out into the audience as Peter.
Rubin helped Elphaba defy gravity in “Wicked” and has launched on-stage characters ranging from “Tarzan” and “Spiderman” to “Sponge Bob Squarepants.” (To see video clips of his flying successes, check out the introductory video on www.theflyguy.com)
Rubin’s special kind of magic will be on view locally when Disney’s “The Little Mermaid” comes to the Schuster Center Tuesday, Aug. 8 through Sunday, Aug. 13. The whimsical musical, brought to Dayton by the Victoria Theatre Association as a Project Unlimited Star Attractions presentation, is a Pittsburgh CLO & Kansas City Starlight’s production.
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Based on one of Hans Christian Andersen’s most beloved stories, this Broadway version features music by eight-time Academy Award winner Alan Menken, the composer behind many of Disney’s most popular films — “The Little Mermaid,” “Beauty and the Beast, ” “Aladdin,” “Newsies” and ” Pocahontas.” In this show, you’ll recognize songs including “Under the Sea,” “Kiss the Girl,” and “Part of Your World.”
Thanks to Paul Rubin’s imaginative choreography, Ariel — the young mermaid princess who longs to leave her undersea world to live in the world above and falls in love with the human Prince Eric— is able to “swim.” Rubin says he often labels himself an “aerial” choreographer, but in this case thinks that might be confusing since other characters — in addition to Ariel, fly in this production as well.
Rubin is currently working as the Creative Flying Director for Franco Dragone’s “La Perle.” Dragone, an Italian-Belgian theatre director, is known for his work with Cirque du Soleil. “In one of the numbers for this show, I fly 18 people,” Rubin says.
FASCINATED BY FLIGHT
Rubin, who started out as an actor and magician, says he’s always been intrigued by the way things worked back stage. In college at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas, he was on a dual track —studying both performance and technical theater. “My father was a writer; my mother an artist/illustrator,” says the Brooklyn native. “But I’m the only theatrical one in my family.”
At age 19, Rubin had a friend who worked as a secretary for a company that specialized in flying. The company owner was impressed with his background. “I had no idea at that point in my career that a company could specialize in flying people,” he remembers.”I wondered how you could hire all of these people for this, but it turned out a lot of shows have flying.”
What attracted him to the profession? “It was both the technical stuff and the chance to be creative,” he says now. “It was the ability to create something that most people can’t create or design. It’s so specific and detailed. The challenge is always coming up with something new and different, trying to push the envelope.”
As the head of Fly Guy Productions, Rubin is hired to “take care of everything.” “I design and figure out equipment, I create sequences,” he says. “I try not to be tied down to what equipment is already available, I’ve designed new equipment as well.”
He works with the performers to choreograph the flying sequences. “Some performers are very cautious but no one is really afraid to fly,” he says. “If they’re concerned, I have games so they don’t realize how far off the ground they really are. In this show in Dubai, performers are 75 feet off the ground; in ‘Little Mermaid,’ they’re 15 feet.”
Rubin says the majority of the performamers he’s launched into the air enjoy it and are anxious to find other shows where they can do it again.
“THE LITTLE MERMAID”
Working on “The Little Mermaid” was a favorite, says Rubin, because he started from the ground up. “On Broadway, the show didn’t have flying so we re-invented the wheel. I studied a lot of animals, I swam with dolphins because, in my opinion, a mermaid is closely related to dolphins because of their body structure and how their tail moves and pushes them through the water.”
Scuttle — Ariel’s seagull friend —also flies in the show. “So I studied how seagulls fly,” Rubin says. “It needs to be different than the mermaid swims. I tried to find a very big difference so now when you see Scuttle flying, you can easily tell he’s flying through the air while Ariel is swimming through the water.”
It took about seven week to come up with the flying sequences. “It’s all computer-programmed and fully automated,” Rubin explains. “It took five weeks just to program the show because there are so many cues. Seven perfomers fly and every time they move they go up and down so we have to meticulously program each move one-by-one to make it smooth and fluid.”
For the character of Ariel, he adapted a flying rig with two wires attached to the hips. “The wires go up to a trolley and the trolley rotates so I can force the actor into the direction I want them to fly,” Rubin explains. ” So, for example, if she’s swimming to the right, she’s facing right, and then the trolly rotates and faces her to the left, so she’s swimming facing left. Since she doesn’t have legs, it’s hard for the actor to have body control. The equipment does that for her.”
He made sure that the harness didn’t impede on the character’s diaphragm so that she is able to sing while she’s in flight.
Rubin says those who are interested in his unique profession need to think out of the box. “You need to be very creative and although obviously you have to follow the rules of physics, you also can’t be restricted by certain rules. You can’t look at a single wire and think it can only go up and down, you need to ask yourself: “How can I look at it as if it were a pendulum?”
Rubin says you can’t go to school to learn his craft. “It’s on the job training. You’d have to get lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time.”
It’s the first time Diana Huey, cast as Ariel for this 18-city tour, has ever flown in a musical production. “I spent a lot of hours learning to fly when we started rehearsing for the show in October,” she says. “It’s a lot of fun and it’s definitely a very physical workout.”
Huey, who grew up in Seattle and now lives in New York, says one of her favorite roles over the years has been Kim in “Miss Saigon.” She grew up watching Disney movies and has always been interested in storytelling and dance.
She says the musical version of “The Little Mermaid” is very similar to the 1989 animated musical Disney movie. “It’s all of the music everyone knows but they’ve gone deeper into the characters. A lot of magic Disney things happen in this show.”
She says for many in the audience, the story is very nostalgic. “A lot of millennials who grew up watching the movie are now seeing it with kids who are in the age group we were when we were watching it,” she says.
Huey says those of all ages relate to a story about a mermaid who doesn’t feel like she fits in under the sea. “In the film, it’s more that she’s interested in human things,” she says. “In the musical, it’s about self-discovery, standing up for yourself, finding yourself and doing what you believe is right. Ariel’s father is afraid of humans and forbids her to go there but she’s very much an independent woman.”
Huey says the kids in the audience are the best part of being in this show. “They come in costumes and have so much fun and respond so well,” she says. A good example occurred when she was on stage in Orlando singing “Part of Your World.”
“I was singing ‘I want to be where the people are, I want to see, want to see ‘em dancing, walking around on those … whadd’ya call them?’ and this little girl in the audience screamed out ‘FEET!’ She knew all the lyrics!” says Huey. “It was this little 5- or 6-year-old screaming out in pure joy!”
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