October 12, 1918– Jerome Robbins:
“Dance is like life. It exists as you are flitting through it, and when it’s over, it’s done.”
There is this famous anecdote about Jerome Robbins. I first heard it when I was a high school drama nerd. Robbins was known for dressing down his actors in rehearsal. He was not kind. It seems that he had a tantrum while directing West Side Story (1957) in previews in Washington DC. In a pique, while ranting, Robbins backed up and fell into the orchestra pit leaving the cast with great big smiles on their faces.
Robbins was both a great choreographer of classical ballet and a Broadway innovator. From 1944-1997, he choreographed 66 ballets and choreographed and/or directed 15 Broadway musicals. During his extraordinarily prolific career he not only excelled in two different fields, but he also worked with uncommon versatility.
But, Robbins was so afraid that he might be outed as gay, that he “named names” during a meeting of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Many major figures in the arts never could forgive him.
Dance and Theatre critic Clive Barnes:
“Jerome Robbins was an extremely demanding man, not always popular with his dancers, although always respected. He was a perfectionist who sometimes, very quietly, reached perfection.”
Born Jerome Wilson Rabinowitz in NYC, not far from where West SideStory was filmed, he changed his last name to Robbins to hide his Jewishness. He accompanied his sister to dance classes, and at 19-years-old, he made his professional debut at the Yiddish Art Theater. In the summers, Robbins choreographed and performed at a Jewish resort in the Poconos during the day while dancing in Broadway musicals in the evenings. In 1940, he joined Ballet Theatre (later to become American Ballet Theatre) where he danced as a soloist.
For Ballet Theatre, Robbins choreographed and performed in Fancy Free (1944), a new ballet about sailors on shore leave in NYC, with sets designed by gay Oliver Smith and a score by gay composer Leonard Bernstein. Robbins Smith, and Bernstein were all just 25-years-old when their collaboration became a phenomenal success. In 1945, the same team put together On The Town, a musical inspired by Fancy Free, launching their Broadway careers. In 1947, Robbins created the dances for the musical High Button Shoes, celebrated for his crazy Keystone Kops Ballet, bringing his first Tony Award for Best Choreography.
Robbins directed and choreographed Ethel Merman in Call Me Madam (1950) with a score by Irving Berlin. He created the dance sequences for Rodgers And Hammerstein’s The King and I ( 1951), famous for his March Of The Siamese Children, the ballet The Small House OfUncle Thomas and the Shall We Dance polka.
Throughout his career, Robbins was discreetly noted as a “show doctor”, offering uncredited help for troubled stage musicals, including Bernstein’s Wonderful Town (1953), The Pajama Game (1954) and the Mary Martin version of PeterPan (1955). All the while, Robbins officially directed and choreographed Bells Are Ringing (1956) with Judy Holliday, Gypsy (1959) with Merman, and Fiddler On The Roof (1964) with Zero Mostel.
Robbins had ratted out Mostel to The House Un-American Activities Committee the decade before. Mostel and the great Jack Gilford (whose wife Robbins had also been named to HUAC) had already worked with Robbins when he unofficially staged the opening Comedy Tonight number for Stephen Sondheim’s AFunny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum (1962). Sondheim pitched Robbins to producer Harold Prince as the savior of Forum which was floundering in its out-of-town tryouts. Prince phoned Mostel to ask whether he might be prepared to work with Robbins.
Mostel: “Are you asking me to eat with him?”
Prince: “I’m just asking you to work with him.”
Mostel: “Of course I’ll work with him. We of the Left do not blacklist.”
When Robbins showed up at his first rehearsal, Mostel greeted him with: “Hiya, Loose Lips!”
Unlike other directors of musicals, Robbins demanded that his actors dance as well as sing. His high expectations of the cast of West Side Story created what we now know as the “triple-threat performer”: actor/singer/dancer.
The extraordinary West Side Story was the product of a seven member creative team of gay geniuses: Robbins, book writer Arthur Laurents, Bernstein, Sondheim, set designer Smith, lighting designer Jean Rosenthal, and costume designer Irene Sharaff, plus to the original actor to play the male lead Tony, Larry Kert was also gay.
Robbins was a driving force with West Side Story, coming up with the original idea of a modern, urban retelling of Romeo And Juliet. Bernstein and Laurents brought in the idea of rival street gangs in a turf war to serve as Shakespeare‘s Montagues and Capulets. The gangs were divided into Puerto Ricans against Anglos. The story served as an allegory of love surviving the violence of a society built on prejudice.
Making the whole process of collaborating on West Side Story particularly interesting, both Bernstein and Laurents had been blacklisted, during the McCarthy era. Robbins had cooperated with the House Un-American Committee by naming names, mostly out of fear of being discovered as being a gay. Somehow, being a dancer and choreographer was not thought to be a tip-off in those days. It says something about Robbins singular talent that creative people continued to work with him for the rest of his career even after nearly ruining their lives, if not actually forgiving him. He was a self-proclaimed:
“Jewish ex-commie fag who had to go into a mental hospital.”
The creative flexibility, plus the artistic give-and-take among the young, gay Jewish West Side Story team was extraordinary. Each member brought out the best in the others, each one an absolute genius.
“I think the difficulty was having death, rape and murder in a musical. The subject matter: bigotry, violence and prejudice, might have precluded people from paying money to see that sort of thing with dancing and an orchestra.”
Actor, Carol Lawrence, West Side Story’s original Maria at just 19- years-old:
“The opening night in 1957 in Washington, DC, when the curtain went up for our curtain calls (after Tony’s lifeless body had been taken away and the strains of Somewhere played under the tolling of a single bell, it still breaks me up) we ran to our places and faced the audience holding hands. As the curtain went up, and we looked at the audience, they just looked at us, and we at them, and I thought, ‘Oh, dear Lord, it’s a bomb!’ and then, as if Robbins had choreographed it, they all jumped to their feet. I never saw people stamping and yelling, and by that time, Bernstein had worked his way backstage, and he came at the final curtain and walked to me, put his arms around me, and we wept.”
West Side Story, a groundbreaking landmark musical, lost the Tony Award for Best Musical to The Music Man, but Robbins won Best Choreographer. The film version won the Academy Award for Best Picture with Robbins winning for Best Director, along with eight other Oscars, the most ever for a movie musical.
Robbins suffered a massive stroke and took that final curtain call at his home in NYC in 1998. On the evening of his passing, the lights of Broadway were dimmed for a moment in tribute. Among his many lovers were actor Montgomery Clift, Broadway dancer Buzz Miller, photographer Jesse Gerstein and filmmaker Warren Sonbert.
“I told you to sell it, not give it away.”
The late, great Beatrice Arthur, who was directed by Robbins in Fiddler On The Roof:
“Talk about a gift from God! But he really wasn’t a very nice person. Actually, he was the only director who ever made me cry. He was a really dreadful human being. Everybody hated him. I was friends with a dancer called Sven who raised Yorkshire terriers who would do dog tricks. Whenever Sven had a party, he always left the door open. At some point in the evening, he’d go to the doorway and look out and say, ‘Oh my God, here comes Jerry Robbins!’ and the little dogs would fling themselves against the door and slam it shut.”
Check out PBS’sGreat Masters, Jerome Robbins: Something To Dance About available on PBS archives and the biography Dance With Demons: The Life Of JeromeRobbins (2001) by Greg Lawrence.