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 he also choreographed and/or directed 15 Broadway musicals. During his long, 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 were never able to forgive him.
Still, Dance and Theatre critic Clive Barnes wrote of Robbins:
“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 New York City, not far from where West Side Story 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 sort of 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. The popular success of Fancy Free and On The Town turned Robbins into a public figure who could not afford to have his queerness become generally known. From then on he conducted himself very discreetly, going so far as to become engaged to the ballerina Nora Kaye.
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 Peter Pan (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. 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 A Funny 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 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 out of fear of being discovered as being gay, but 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, wrote:
“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 Montgomery Clift, Broadway dancer Buzz Miller, photographer Jesse Gerstein and filmmaker Warren Sonbert.
The late, great Beatrice Arthur, who was directed by Robbins in Fiddler On The Roof, had this to say:
“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.”
Robbins remains a key figure in the Dance world. Though his ballets are far less widely performed than those of Balanchine, his mentor and master, they are staples of major companies including the Paris Opéra Ballet, the San Francisco Ballet, and especially the New York City Ballet (NYCB), the company for which Robbins created the vast majority of his dances. And though comparatively little of his work for Broadway survives except in fragments, West Side Story and Fiddler On The Roof continue to be performed in versions based on his original dances .
Check out the documentary Something To Dance About (2009), featuring excerpts from his journals, archival performance and rehearsal footage, plus interviews with Robbins and his colleagues, premiered on PBS in 2009 and won both an Emmy Award and a Peabody the same year; available on PBS archives. I also like the biography Dance With Demons: The Life Of Jerome Robbins (2001) by Greg Lawrence.