NYPL Beneficiary of Robbins' Archives; Collegues Share Memories at April 12 Memorial

News   NYPL Beneficiary of Robbins' Archives; Collegues Share Memories at April 12 Memorial
 
At an April 12 memorial for the Broadway director-choreographer Jerome Robbins, it was announced that his personal archives have been bequeathed to the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.
Watercolor costume designs for the Sharks, from West Side Story, by Irene Sharaff, part of the Jerome Robbins Collection.
Watercolor costume designs for the Sharks, from West Side Story, by Irene Sharaff, part of the Jerome Robbins Collection.

At an April 12 memorial for the Broadway director-choreographer Jerome Robbins, it was announced that his personal archives have been bequeathed to the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.

The legendary dancer and ballet choreographer, who also directed and choreographed some of the most important Broadway musicals of the 20th century, died July 29, 1998, age 79, after suffering an earlier stroke.

Library president Paul LeClerc announced the archive bequest at the April 12 Majestic Theatre memorial, which was largely devoted to memories of Robbins' musical theatre work -- On the Town, West Side Story, Gypsy and Fiddler on the Roof.

The Jerome Robbins Collection, as the archive will be called, will be catalogued and preserved over the next two years by the library's Dance Collection and will be open for study. It is drawn from 100 boxes and some 30 file drawers of letters, business correspondence, scripts, contracts, art pieces, sketches, tour schedules, programs, rehearsal and show notes and more, Le Clerc said. There are more than 50 files on Fiddler on the Roof alone, many concerning international productions and the motion picture

Robbins' personal journals, private letters, and notes pertaining to unproduced ballets and stage productions will be retained by the library on a completely restricted and confidential basis for 13-15 years in accordance with the terms of Robbins's bequest. It was Robbins who helped establish, in 1964, a New York Public Library film and video archive of dance, funded by a percentage of his royalties from Fiddler on the Roof. The Jerome Robbins Archive of the Recorded Moving Image has become one of the largest specialized film collections in the United States, seen by thousands every year.

Other highlights of the new collection:

* Irene Sharaff's costume design sketches for Maria from West Side Story, inscribed to Robbins.

* Robbins' own costume sketches and dance pattern "doodles" from ballets (some penned when his leg was in a cast).

* The set design for Fancy Free, the ballet that inspired On the Town, by Oliver Smith.

* Robbins' 1955 Emmy Award for "Peter Pan."

* A letter from Jacqueline Kennedy dated April 13, 1962, noting, "the President and I felt (your program) was one of the most pleasant and distinguished evenings we will ever have in the White House."

The almost three-hour public memorial April 12 at the Majestic included comments by friends and colleagues, many admitting that Robbins could be a tyrant and a taskmaster, but also showed great selflessness and support to friends in need.

Among highlights:

* Sondra Lee, the original Tiger Lily in Peter Pan, talked about how there were numerous versions of the Indian dance, cut and added and exhaustingly reworked, all based on children's games. They were blissfully unaware of political incorrectness, she said.

* Yurio Kikucki, the original Eliza from The Small House of Uncle Thomas ballet in The King and I, shared how Robbins worked her through repetitious shouting exercises in the ballet and then groused that she had lost all the Oriental quality of the work.

* Arthur Kopit, who, as a young playwright, had his non-musical, Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mamma's Hung You in the Closet and I'm Feelin' So Sad, directed by Robbins, said the director was willful about what he did know, but also "honest about what he didn't know."

* Maria Karnilova, who played Golde in Fiddler on the Roof and danced with Robbins in their early careers, said, as did others, that Robbins worked in the Method tradition -- immersing his companies in the worlds of the works they were performing. They attended Hasidic weddings, for example, to prepare for Fiddler on the Roof, and when Jerome Robbins' Broadway (1989) was being rehearsed for a year, the company was made to study entire shows even though they were only performing excerpts.

* Lighting designer Jennifer Tipton talked about the process of lighting Jerome Robbins' Broadway as being "torturous," but she conceded that she and others who worked with perfectionist Robbins' "knew it was his torture too."

* Scott Wise of Jerome Robbins' Broadway said the director lived on Snickers bars and Coca Cola through rehearsals, and by the end of the yearlong process some of the company members adopted the same diet.

* Grover Dale told of how he misdialed Robbins' number after suffering a head injury out of town, and several hours later Robbins appeared at his bedside.

* Helen Gallagher said Robbins asked her to come rehearse a show for a couple of weeks, although he wasn't sure what he had for her. She joked that strict Actors' Equity rules today are largely a result of the way Robbins and Agnes DeMille used performers in the process -- but she wouldn't have missed the chance to work with a genius.

* Austin Pendleton and others admitted that their careers were made by Robbins. Pendleton appeared in Fiddler on the Roof and Oh Dad, Poor Dad...

* Carol Lawrence spoke of rehearsal games and the process of finding the right passion in the balcony scene from West Side Story, and Alan Johnson, who danced in the West Side Story replacement cast and maintained and recreated Robbins' West Side Story vision in subsequent productions, said he was honored by -- not saddled with -- the task of keeping the work alive.

Also appearing were Fiddler on the Roof collaborators Jerry Bock, Sheldon Harnick and Joseph Stein; the original London Tevye, Topol; Debbie Gravitte of Jerome Robbins' Broadway; Betty Comden & Adolph Green; Schuyler Chapin; dancer-choreographer Donald Saddler; critic Clive Barnes; director Herbert Ross; ballet dancer Natalia Makarova; and Robbins' lawyer Floria V. Lasky.

The evening ended with a black-and-white film of Robbins on a windswept beach, surf crashing behind him. In the distance, standing on shore, he waves as if to say, "come in." Per Robbins' wishes, his ashes were strewn on the beach outside his home.

Speakers and friends sang West Side Story's "Somewhere" on stage before the lights dimmed.

-- By Kenneth Jones

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