Role models of greatness.

Here you will discover the back stories of kings, titans of industry, stellar athletes, giants of the entertainment field, scientists, politicians, artists and heroes – all of them gay or bisexual men. If their lives can serve as role models to young men who have been bullied or taught to think less of themselves for their sexual orientation, all the better. The sexual orientation of those featured here did not stand in the way of their achievements.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Jerome Robbins

Jerome Robbins (1918-1998) was an American theater producer, dancer, director, and choreographer. Known primarily for his work in Broadway theater and ballet, he also directed Hollywood and television films. Of all his contributions over a career that lasted many decades, he is perhaps best known for the stage and film versions of West Side Story, which he choreographed and directed. Robbins was one of four gay male Jewish creators of this landmark show, collaborating with Leonard Bernstein, Arthur Laurents and Stephen Sondheim. Robbins won the Academy Award for Best Director with Robert Wise for the film West Side Story.

Born Jerome Wilson Rabinowitz in NYC, one month before the end of WW I, Robbins changed his last name to Robbins to disguise his ethnicity. He accompanied his sister to dance classes, and by the age of 19 had made his professional debut in a Yiddish Art Theater production. Robbins choreographed and performed at Lake Tamiment resort in the Poconos for five seasons, all the while dancing in Broadway musicals. In 1940 he joined Ballet Theatre (later known as American Ballet Theatre) and was soloist with that company from 1941 through 1944.

Robbins choreographed and danced in Fancy Free, a ballet about sailors on liberty that was staged at the Metropolitan Opera as part of the Ballet Theatre season in 1944. Oliver Smith, set designer and collaborator on Fancy Free, knew Leonard Bernstein, and eventually Robbins and Bernstein, both just 25 years old,  met to work on the music, resulting in a work of phenomenal success. Later that year, Robbins conceived and choreographed On the Town, a musical inspired by Fancy Free, thus launching his Broadway career. Again, Bernstein wrote the music. In 1947 he was praised for his comic Keystone Kops ballet in High Button Shoes, earning his first Tony Award for choreography.

During the 1950s barely a year went by without both a new Robbins ballet and a Broadway musical, and in this dual career he reached stratospheric heights in both fields. He directed and choreographed Irving Berlin's Call Me Madam, starring Ethel Merman. Robbins created celebrated dance sequences for Rodgers and Hammerstein's The King and I (1951), 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. He became associated with the New York City Ballet and was called in to perform uncredited assistance on troubled stage musicals, including Wonderful Town (1953). He worked on The Pajama Game (1954), which launched the career of Shirley MacLaine, and the Mary Martin vehicle Peter Pan (1955). As well, Robbins directed and co-choreographed Bells Are Ringing (1956), starring Judy Holliday. Other famed Broadway productions involving Mr. Robbins were Gypsy (1959) and Fiddler on the Roof (1964). But the magic year was 1957, when he conceived, choreographed, and directed a show that most feel is his crowning achievement, West Side Story. He won the Academy Award for Best Director with Robert Wise for the film version of that show, and the movie still holds the record as the film musical with the most Academy Award wins (10).

Robbins dominated the production of West Side Story, coming up with the original idea of a modern, urban Romeo and Juliet. Bernstein and Laurents added the idea of warring street gangs in place of Shakespeare's feuding families. The street warfare was between Puerto Ricans and U.S. born Americans, and at its most basic level the story is about how love can survive in a violent world of prejudice. The creators, all four of them homosexual and Jewish, knew a thing or two about prejudice. Other homosexuals involved in the project were set designer Oliver Smith, lighting designer Jean Rosenthal, costume designer Irene Sharaff as well as the first actor to play Tony, Larry Kert.

The West Side Story Broadway production team (1957), left to right: lyricist Stephen Sondheim, scriptwriter Arthur Laurents, producers Hal Prince and Robert Griffith (seated), composer Leonard Bernstein and choreographer Jerome Robbins (on ladder).

Complicating their bond, however, was the fact that Leonard Bernstein and Arthur Laurents, both of them blacklisted, were working with Jerome Robbins, who only a few years earlier, during the McCarthy era, had cooperated with those responsible for the blacklist by naming names. This was a stain on the record of Jerome Robbins and alienated him from many people. Robbins, a closeted homosexual, cooperated with the House Un-American Activities Committee under threat of exposure as a homosexual. Nevertheless, Broadway dancer Buzz Miller and Robbins carried on a five year live-in relationship (1950-1955), and Robbins later had affairs with actor Montgomery Clift, photographer Jesse Gerstein and film maker Warren Sonbert.

Bernstein recalled that the give and take and flexibility among the four young West Side Story creators was extraordinary. Each inspired the other to greater heights of creativity and genius. Robbins insisted that the entire ensemble of actors also sing and dance, which was an innovation and challenge in casting the landmark musical.

Laurents said, "I think the difficulty was having death, attempted 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."

Carol Lawrence, who created the role of Maria, said, "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!' "

"We thought the thing was going down the drain," Laurents added. "Oh, it was awful."

"And then, as if Robbins had choreographed it," Carol Lawrence said, "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."

Walter Kerr of the Herald Tribune opened his review with the classic and much-repeated line, "The radioactive fallout from West Side Story must still be descending on Broadway this morning."

The rest is American musical theater history.

Here’s a video of the 9-minute prologue from the movie version of West Side Story (1961). In spite of the Broadway production's critical success, the show seldom sold out, and it didn't make money until the movie version came along, introducing the show to millions. The choreography of Jerome Robbins is beyond brilliant, from the opening finger snaps to classical ballet moves incorporated into the movements of street gangs, to a choreographed rumble with rock throwing.

1 comment:

  1. I do believe that "Brilliance" does not exempt one from that special place in Hell reserved for those who insult and demean their heritage "for business purposes" and for those who destroy others to protect their own skins.

    On a lighter note, that musta been some fk-fest.. led by that ole horn dog Lenny. ;>)~