Jerome Robbins Dead at 79

Obituaries   Jerome Robbins Dead at 79
Recreations of Jerome Robbins' dances from the 1989 musical Jerome Robbins Broadway. Clockwise from top left: Fiddler on the Roof; West Side Story, The King and I; On the Town.
Photo by Photos by Martha Swope

Recreations of Jerome Robbins' dances from the 1989 musical Jerome Robbins Broadway. Clockwise from top left: Fiddler on the Roof; West Side Story, The King and I; On the Town.

Jerome Robbins, the elegant choreographer/director who turned the swagger of New York teen gangs into the purest of dance in West Side Story on stage and film, died July 29. He was 79.

In a career that alternated between the highest levels of ballet and Broadway, Robbins created some of the defining moments of musical theatre in shows including the original On the Town, Gypsy, Fiddler on the Roof, The King and I, The Pajama Game, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Peter Pan, High Button Shoes, Miss Liberty, Wonderful Town, Call Me Madam and many more.

Marquees will be dimmed at all Broadway theatres at 8 PM July 30 in Robbins' memory. Robbins suffered a stroke July 25 and lingered until July 29 when he died, at his Manhattan home. Robbins' office told Playbill On-Line that a private cremation is planned. New York City Ballet is planning a memorial at a date and time TBA. As of Aug. 25, no date has been scheduled.

Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization president Ted Chapin, who met with Robbins when preparing the recent revival of The King and I, said, "He's one of the seminal choreographic and directing figures in the American musical theatre. He was able to use a modern dance vitality in a way that nobody else did. He breathed theatre. His work was so athletic and energetic and youthful and theatrical. He was just incredibly theatrical. But part of his art was the essence of simplicity. Everything was so simply done, so elegantly done. Everything was precisely in the place it should be. That's the kind of genius he had."

How will theatregoers forget these defining Robbins moments:

* Three rambunctious American sailors bursting onto the stage, throwing back their arms and proclaiming "New York, New York, a helluva town" in On the Town.

* Tony and Maria suddenly noticing one another during the raucous Latin "The Dance at the Gym," and then performing a quiet pas de deux of immediate love in West Side Story..

* Ugly duckling Louise Hovik, suddenly misnamed Gypsy Rose Lee, discovering she's "a pretty girl" during a demure striptease in Gypsy's "Let Me Entertain You."

* Mary Martin as Peter Pan bursting through the Darling's nursery window, then leading Wendy, Michael through the London sky to Neverland in Peter Pan's "I'm Flying."

* Pseudolus tumbling over the Proteans in "Comedy Tonight" from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum .

* The villagers of Anatevka using a circle dance to illustrate the tight circle of their lives in Fiddler on the Roof's "Tradition."

* The slave Tuptim reimagining "Uncle Tom's Cabin" in purely Siamese terms in The King and I's "Small House of Uncle Thomas."

Most of these and many other highlights of his career were introduced to a new generation in the 1989 a dance revue retrospective of his career, Jerome Robbins Broadway, which ran 624 peformances and won the Tony Award as Best Musical.

Robbins began as a dancer. His first Broadway show was a 1938 flop called Great Lady. It was notable because it was also Frederick (My Fair Lady) Loewe's first Broadway show. He wrote the music, Earle Crooker the lyrics and Mr. Crooker & Lowell Brentano the book. It starred Norma Terris, Irene Bordoni and Tullio Carminati and the great ballet dancer Andre Eglevesky. Listed as chorus dancers were such future ballet greats as Robbins, Nora Kaye, Alicia Alonzo and Paul Godkin. The musical, about a Revolutionary War courtesan, only ran for 20 performances at the Majestic Theatre.

Robbins' second Broadway musical was Stars In Your Eyes (1939) starring Ethel Merman, Jimmy Durante and the great Russian ballerina, Tamara Toumanova. In the chorus once again were Robbins, Kaye, Alonzo and Godkin and a newcomer, Maria Karniloff (later Karnilova, whom he'd later memorably direct as the balletic stripper Tessie Tura in Gypsy and the put-upon mother Golde in Fiddler.). The score was by Arthur Schwartz and Dorothy Fields, the book by J.P. McEvoy and direction by Joshua Logan. This Hollywood spoof received good notices. Its rather short run of 127 performances was blamed on the 1939 World's Fair, which lured theatregoers to Flushing Meadows. It also played at the Majestic Theatre.

Robbins's third Broadway show was 1939's The Straw Hat Revue, starring Imogene Coca, Danny Kaye (Broadway debut) and Alfred Drake. Robbins was listed as a dancer, but he also provided some uncredited choreography. It ran for 75 performances at the Ambassador Theatre.

However, his first great splash came under the auspices of Ballet Theatre (later renamed American Ballet Theatre) at the old Metropolitan Opera House in 1944 when he performed his own choreography as one of the three original sailors on leave in New York in the ballet "Fancy Free" with music by Leonard Bernstein. A period Playbill records that he enjoyed 26 curtain calls on opening night

Bernstein and Robbins expanded their work into the musical On the Town that same year, and Robbins had arrived.

In the 1940s, Robbins lived in Weehawken, NJ. Madelaine Bagley (mother of the future revue and record producer Ben Bagley) was Robbins's piano teacher. Knowing that Ben was stagestruck at an early age, Robbins gave him the sailor suit he wore in "Fancy Free."

Actor and director Austin Pendleton, who originated the role of Motel Kamzoil in Fiddler on the Roof told Playbill On-Line, "He was responsible for my career. He gave me my first two jobs: Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mama's Hung You In The Closet and I'm Feeling So Sad and Fiddler On The Roof. After Oh Dad I was typecast and no one would hire me. But I auditioned and Robbins cast me again in Fiddler. And he's been supportive all these years. When I wrote my play, Uncle Bob, he saw it twice and even sent other people to it. He really helped get the word out."

Asked about Robbins' work and technique, Pendleton said, "He was always after the humanity of the piece. He wanted it very active and truthful all the time. He was fierce about that. He reminded us all of the clarity of telling the story. It was always about that."

Though Robbins is rumored to have been a tough taskmaster, Pendleton said "he was no more difficult than a lot of people I worked with -- and unlike them, he was a real artist."

Continued Pendleton, "Robbins was always after telling the story. That was the great, under-appreciated virtue of what he did. He would throw away everything that didn't make clear what the story was. For example, all out of town everyone said act two of Fiddler needed a big final number. The whole second month of our eight-week try-out was devoted to developing a big number involving the entire Anatevka community.   We get to New York with two days of rehearsals before five previews. So we perform the big number in the rehearsal space, and it was brilliant. Then Robbins said, `we don't need this,' and he threw it out. 'If the second act says what we want, we don't need anything more than that,' he said. The song was history after that moment. It was the fiercest, bravest thing I've ever seen."

Robbins won Tony Awards in 1948 (High Button Shoes, choreography), 1958 (West Side Story, choreography), 1965 (Fiddler on the Roof, direction and choreography), and 1989 (Jerome Robbins' Broadway, direction).

Robbins won two Oscars in 1962 for West Side Story: direction (shared with Robert Wise), and a special award "for his brilliant achievements in the art of choreography on film."

Robbins had a long and distinguished career in ballet. In 1949 he was named associate artistic director of New York City Ballet with George Balanchine. It became his artistic home, and the place he expended most of his creativity in the years following the success of Fiddler on the Roof.

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