About Jerome Robbins
Jerome Robbins (October 11, 1918 – July 29, 1998) was an American theater producer, director, and choreographer known primarily for Broadway Theater and Ballet/Dance, but who also occasionally directed films and directed/produced for television. His work has included everything from classical ballet to contemporary musical theater. Among the numerous stage productions he worked on were On the Town, Peter Pan, High Button Shoes, The King And I, The Pajama Game, Bells Are Ringing, West Side Story, Gypsy: A Musical Fable, and Fiddler on the Roof. Robbins is a five time Tony Award winner and a recipient of the Kennedy Center Honors. He also received two Academy Awards, including the 1961 Academy Award for Best Director with Robert Wise for West Side Story. A documentary about his life and work, Something to Dance About, featuring excerpts from his journals, archival performance and rehearsal footage and interviews with Robbins and his colleagues, premiered on PBS in 2009.
Robbins was born Jerome Wilson Rabinowitz, exactly one month before the end of World War I, in the Jewish Maternity Hospital in the heart of Manhattan’s Lower East Side – a neighborhood populated by many immigrants. The Rabinowitz family lived in a large apartment house at 51 East 97th at the northeast corner of Madison Avenue. Known as "Jerry" to those close to him, Robbins was given a middle name that reflected his parents' patriotic enthusiasm for the then-president. Rabinowitz, however, translates to “son of a rabbi”, a name Robbins never liked, since it marked him as the son of an immigrant. So he took the name "Robbins".
In the early 1920s, the Rabinowitz family moved to Weehawken, New Jersey. 10 years earlier, Fred and Adele Astaire had lived there briefly as children, only a block away from one of Robbins's boyhood homes. His father and uncle opened the “Comfort Corset Company,” a unique venture for the family, which had many show business connections, including vaudeville performers and theater owners.
Robbins began college studying chemistry at New York University (NYU) but dropped out after a year for financial reasons and to pursue dance. He studied at the New Dance League, learning ballet with Ella Daganova, Antony Tudor and Eugene Loring; modern dance; Spanish dancing with the famed Helen Veola; folk dance with Yeichi Nimura; and dance composition with Bessie Schonberg.
1930s and 40s
By 1939, Robbins was dancing in the chorus of such Broadway shows as Great Lady, The Straw Hat Revue, and Keep Off the Grass, which George Balanchine choreographed. Robbins was also dancing and choreographing at Camp Tamiment in the Poconos of Pennsylvania. Here he choreographed many dramatic pieces with controversial ideas about race, lynching, and war. But in 1940, he turned his back (albeit temporarily) on the theater and joined Ballet Theatre (later known as American Ballet Theatre). From 1941 through 1944, Robbins was a soloist with the company, gaining notice for his Hermes in Helen of Troy, the Moor in Petrouchka and Benvolio in Romeo and Juliet.
At this time, Broadway dance was changing. Agnes de Mille had brought not just ballet to Oklahoma! but had also made dance an integral part of the drama of the musical. Challenged, Robbins choreographed and performed in Fancy Free, a ballet about sailors on liberty, at the Metropolitan Opera as part of the Ballet Theatre season in 1944. The inspiration for Fancy Free came from Paul Cadmus' 1934 painting The Fleet's In! which is part of the Sailor Trilogy. Robbins was recommended for a ballet based on the art work by his friend Mary Hunter Wolf. Distancing himself from the implicit homosexuality of that depiction, an element of controversy, Robbins said in an interview with The Christian Science Monitor, "After seeing...Fleet's In, which I inwardly rejected though it gave me the idea of doing the ballet, I watched sailors, and girls, too, all over town." He went on to say "I wanted to show that the boys in the service are healthy, vital boys: there is nothing sordid or morbid about them." Oliver Smith, set designer and collaborator on Fancy Free, knew Leonard Bernstein and eventually Robbins and Bernstein met to work on the music. This would be the first of several collaborative efforts. Fancy Free was a great success.
Later that year, Robbins conceived and choreographed On the Town (1944), a musical partly inspired by Fancy Free, which effectively launched his Broadway career. Once again, Bernstein wrote the music and Smith designed the sets. The book and lyrics were by a team that Robbins would work with again, Betty Comden and Adolph Green. His next musical was Billion Dollar Baby (1945). He was reportedly so unpopular by this point, that the company of this show watched silently as he backed up to the orchestra pit – and fell in. Two years later, he received plaudits for his hilarious Keystone Kops ballet in High Button Shoes (1947), including his first Tony Award for choreography. That same year, Robbins would become one of the first members of New York's newly formed Actors Studio, attending classes held by founding member Robert Lewis three times a week, alongside such similarly accomplished classmates as Marlon Brando, Maureen Stapleton, Montgomery Clift, Herbert Berghof, Sidney Lumet and about 20 others. (Fellow founder Elia Kazan held his own similarly sized gathering twice a week.)
During this period, Robbins continued to create dances for the Ballet Theatre, alternating between musicals and ballet for the better part of the next two decades. Barely a year went by without a new Robbins ballet and a new Robbins musical. With George Balanchine, he choreographed Jones Beach at the City Center Theater in 1950, and directed and choreographed Irving Berlin's Call Me Madam, starring Ethel Merman.
In 1951, Robbins created the now-celebrated dance sequences in Rodgers and Hammerstein's The King and I (including the March of the Siamese Children, the ballet The Small House of Uncle Thomas and the "Shall We Dance?" polka between the two leads). That same year, he created The Cage for the New York City Ballet, with which he was now associated. He also performed, uncredited, show doctoring on the musicals A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1951), Wish You Were Here (1952), and Wonderful Town (1953).
Robbins collaborated with George Abbott on The Pajama Game (1954), which launched the career of Shirley MacLaine, worked on the 1955 Mary Martin vehicle, Peter Pan (recreated for the small screen in 1955, 1956 and 1960) and directed and co-choreographed (with Bob Fosse) Bells Are Ringing (1956), starring Judy Holliday. In 1957, he conceived, choreographed, and directed a show that some feel is his crowning achievement: West Side Story.
West Side Story is a contemporary version of Romeo and Juliet, set in Hell's Kitchen. The show, with music by Leonard Bernstein, marked the first collaboration between Robbins and Stephen Sondheim, who wrote the lyrics, as well as Arthur Laurents, who wrote the book. To help the young cast grow into their roles, Robbins did not allow those playing members of opposite gangs (Jets and Sharks) to mix during the rehearsal process. He also, according to dancer Linda Talcott Lee, "played psychological games" with the cast: “And he would plant rumors among one gang about the other, so they really hated each other.” The original Broadway production featured Carol Lawrence as Maria, Larry Kert as Tony and Chita Rivera as Anita. Although it opened to good reviews, it was overshadowed by Meredith Willson's The Music Man at that year's Tony Awards. West Side Story did, however, earn Robbins his second Tony Award for choreography, and is now hailed as a groundbreaking classic.
The streak of hits continued with Gypsy (1959), starring Ethel Merman. Robbins re-teamed with Sondheim and Laurents, and the music was by Jule Styne. The musical is based—loosely—on the life of stripper Gypsy Rose Lee.
House Un-American Activities Committee
While Robbins's career seemed to be a charmed one, it was not without a period of difficulty. In the early 1950s, he was called to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC), suspected of Communist sympathies. Threatened with the exposure of his homosexuality, Robbins named names along with Sterling Hayden, Burl Ives, Robert Montgomery, Elia Kazan and Lela Rogers (mother of Ginger Rogers). Because he cooperated with HUAC, Robbins's career did not visibly suffer and he was not blacklisted. Robbins named more names than any other HUAC witness.
Robbins directed, with Robert Wise, the highly successful 1961 movie version of West Side Story. However, he took so long with rehearsals and filming of dances that he was fired during production, though he did receive credit as co-director.
In 1962, Robbins tried his hand at a straight play, directing Arthur Kopit's unconventional Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mama's Hung You in the Closet and I'm Feelin' So Sad. The production ran over a year off-Broadway and was transferred to Broadway for a short run in 1963.
Robbins was still highly sought after as a show doctor. He took over the direction of two troubled productions during this period and helped turn them into smashes. In 1962, he saved A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1962), a musical farce starring Zero Mostel, Jack Gilford, David Burns and John Carradine. The production, with book by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart, and songs by Stephen Sondheim, was not working. Robbins staged an entirely new opening number which explained to the audience what was to follow, and the show played beautifully from then on. In 1964, he took on a floundering Funny Girl and devised a show that ran 1348 performances. The musical helped turn lead Barbra Streisand into a superstar.
That same year, Robbins won matching Tony Awards for his direction and choreography in Fiddler on the Roof (1964). The show starred Zero Mostel as Tevye and ran for 3242 performances, setting the record (since surpassed) for longest-running Broadway show. The plot, about Jews living in Russia near the beginning of the 20th century, is based on the stories of Sholom Aleichem. The subject matter allowed Robbins to return to his religious roots.
1970s and 80s
Never deserting the ballet, he continued to choreograph and stage productions for both the Joffrey Ballet and the New York City Ballet into the 1970s.
Robbins became ballet master of the New York City Ballet in 1972 and worked almost exclusively in classical dance throughout the next decade, pausing only to stage revivals of West Side Story (1980) and Fiddler on the Roof (1981). In 1981, his Chamber Dance Company toured the People's Republic of China.
The 1980s saw an increased presence on TV as NBC aired Live From Studio 8H: An Evening of Jerome Robbins' Ballets with members of the New York City Ballet, and a retrospective of Robbins's choreography aired on PBS in a 1986 installment of Dance in America. The latter led to his creating the anthology show Jerome Robbins' Broadway in 1989 which recreated the most successful production numbers from his 50-plus year career. Starring Jason Alexander as the narrator, the show included stagings of cut numbers like Irving Berlin's Mr. Monotony and well-known ones like the "Tradition" number from Fiddler on the Roof. For his efforts, he earned a fifth Tony Award. Jerome Robbins was a great choreographer. He liked to express emotion while dancing.
Following a bicycle accident in 1990 and heart-valve surgery in 1994, in 1996 he began showing signs of a form of Parkinson’s disease, and his hearing was quickly deteriorating. He nevertheless insisted on staging Les Noces for City Ballet in 1998, his last project. He suffered a massive stroke two months later, and died at his home in New York on July 29, 1998. On the evening of his death, the lights of Broadway were dimmed for a moment in tribute. He was cremated and his ashes were scattered into the Atlantic Ocean.
Robbins was bisexual. He had a relationship with Montgomery Clift and never married.
On screen, Robbins recreated his stage dances for The King and I (1956) and shared the Best Director Oscar with Robert Wise for the film version of West Side Story (1961). In fact, Robbins was one of only six directors who won the Academy Award for Best Director for a film debut. That same year, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences honored him with a special award for his choreographic achievements on film. By the end of his life in 1998, he was awarded with 5 Tony Awards, 2 Academy Awards, the Kennedy Center Honors (1981), the National Medal of Arts (1988), the French Legion of Honor, three Honorary Doctorates, and an Honorary Membership in the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters.
Robbins was inducted into the National Museum of Dance's Mr. & Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney Hall of Fame in 1989.