News

When West Side Story Was Romeo

GROVER DALE REMEMBERS IT ALL FOR YOU By Peter Filichia

Here was Grover Dale, more than sixty years after originating the role in Snowboy in West Side Story, telling us his recollections of the famous classic.

So it’s true.

When you’re a Jet, you’re a Jet all the way.

 

Dale was on a panel I was moderating at BroadwayCon. Also on hand were Joey DeDio and Dennis Grimaldi, both of whom are making a filmed documentary on the musical.

Two other original casters were there. Jet girl Marilyn D’Honau recalled that “One of the Shark girls was named Elizabeth Taylor, even though she wasn’t that Elizabeth Taylor. She wound up marrying Miles Davis.”

Jaime Sanchez noted that “As Chino, I had to make sure that when I took Maria from the dance after she’d kissed Tony, I had to say ‘Come, Maria’ very loud so that Tony could hear her name, which he didn’t know yet; if he didn’t hear me, he couldn’t start singing ‘Maria.’”

Most of the talk, however, concerned West Side’s conceiver-director-choreographer Jerome Robbins.

“I was a kid who grew up in a three-room shack on a dirt road in rural Pennsylvania,” Dale began. “So my eighteen months in West Side Story were like attending the most advanced university course in musical theater. Twenty-eight of us were educated by a genius and the three colleagues at his side.”

I assumed he meant librettist Arthur Laurents, composer Leonard Bernstein and lyricist Stephen Sondheim, but I didn’t have a chance to ask, because soon he was up and dancing the opening moments of the Prologue. (D’Honau soon joined him for “The Dance at the Gym.”)

“On day two of rehearsals,” Dale continued, “Robbins demanded that we write descriptions of each character’s background. I turned to Tony Mordente – A-Rab — and said that I didn’t understand what he was talking about. ‘Never admit that!’ Tony snapped back. ‘He’ll destroy you!’”

Yes, as time went on, the entire cast would come to love/hate – but certainly respect — the hard-nosed, often insulting and rarely approving Robbins. (Have you ever heard the orchestra-pit story? More on that later.)

Mordente, Dale recalled, told Robbins that A-Rab stole money from his father to buy cigarettes. “That had Robbins nodding,” Dale said, “and that night, I knuckled down with pad and pencil.”

Finishing his homework still didn’t make Dale feel he was in the clear. “During rehearsals, I felt Robbins’ eyes constantly evaluating me. Hiding from them didn’t work. Often he sent me to his associate Gerald Freedman to coach me. There were bars on the windows, which made me feel like I was in a jail cell. I thought I was done for.”

Dale truly feels he was saved because of what just happened to be sitting outside the stage door of the Mark Hellinger Theatre where final rehearsals were held.

“a stack of cardboard boxes caught my eye,” he said. “And I got an idea. I checked to see if my dance bag still had a box of crayons that had been there, and it did. I selected the biggest piece of cardboard, took it inside the dressing room and started drawing a six-foot shark on it. Lee Becker – Anybodys – saw what I was doing before the other Jets wandered in, but soon we were all hatching a plan to get the Sharks mad.”

They all collaborated on the mock carcharodon carcharias – “and during our lunch break,” Dale said, “all the Jets and I climbed the back stairway to the fifth floor with our creation. When lunchtime was over, the Sharks and crew returned – but the Jets didn’t. Robbins turned to Ruth Mitchell, his production stage manager, who couldn’t tell him where we were.”

And that’s when the Jets let the cardboard shark drop down to the stage as they yelled “The Sharks are dead meat!”

Dale threw out his arms wide and recalled “Bullseye! It landed directly at Robbins’ feet. Big Daddy burst out laughing; this was exactly the competitive spirit he’d hoped to see between the Jets and Sharks.”

The Sharks, however, were furious – undoubtedly wishing that they’d thought to make a Jet from the cardboard and given it a crash-landing.

Lee Becker then helped Dale. “She spied a broken crayon that had fallen onto the stage,” he said. “When she gave it to me, she made sure Robbins saw it so I’d get credit for the stunt. She also whispered ‘For the dancer Big Daddy was thinking of firing a few days ago, this crayon pretty much saved his butt.’

She wasn’t wrong. “For,” Dale said, “when we were rehearsing the Mambo, a grinning Robbins slapped me on the back of the head and pointed to the crayon in my hand.”

(And walked away without saying a word.)

Now that his job seemed more secure, Dale could afford a dog, whom he named Skitter. “Going home to walk her between shows on matinee days was a pain,” he said, “so I brought her to my dressing room where I taught her a trick. I’d open the door a few inches, point to it, hold up a puppy treat and say ‘Here comes Jerry Robbins.’ To get the treat, she had to jump up to the door and slam it shut. Only then could she have what was in my hand.”

Skitter’s performance soon had every member of the cast dropping by the dressing room to see it. To paraphrase a line from a later Robbins musical: “May the bitch keep the bitch far away from us.”

One day Becker popped her head into the dressing room that Dale shared with Musante, David Winters (Baby John) and Eddie Roll (Action). She said that Robbins was across the hall talking to Chita Rivera (Anita) while adjusting our door to the perfect position. She assured us that Robbins would love Skitter’s trick when it he saw it.”

Dale, of course, wasn’t so sure. Would an unamused Robbins fire him on the spot.

Becker saw the panic on Dale’s face and said “Robbins likes goofy ideas — like the shark. He’s going to love this.”

Robbins entered the dressing room and all five cast members yelled out “Here comes Jerry Robbins!” said Dale, “Skitter’s slam that day was one of her finest moments. And Robbins he did laugh. Seconds later, Skitter was in his arms, nuzzling close and completely engaged in kissing his face.”

That wasn’t all. Said Dale, “Robbins then said ‘I’m not sure who’s the most inventive around here — you or your dog. Whoever it is is invited to join me at New York City Ballet tomorrow where I’m trying out some experimental ideas with a group of dancers. It’ll mean taking a 10 a.m. ballet class, rehearsing for five hours and then doing West Side at night.’ I didn’t think I should do it, but Lee urged me to.”

And so Dale said yes. “Once Jerry left, though,” he recalled, “I punched Lee on the shoulder and said ‘I’m terrible at ballet! Why did you encourage me to do this?’”

Becker’s answer suggests that she was an excellent Anybodys: “The only thing you’re terrible at is not seeing an opportunity staring you right in the face! Instead of teaching your dog to slam doors, teach yourself to see opportunities, for Crissake! Wake up, Snowboy! Do you want to experiment with a genius or do you just want to dance in the chorus all your life?”

Dale didn’t want to — and never again had to. Working with Robbins that next day led to a collaboration that lasted thirty-five more years. Robbins made him associate director of the American Theatre Lab, co-director of Jerome Robbins’ Broadway and had him restage that Tony-winning musical for the national tour. What’s more, Dale directed and choreographed The Magic Show, which closed in 1978 as Broadway’s ninth-longest-running musical.

I had to ask, “Does this mean Robbins held no ill feelings over the orchestra-pit incident?” – referring, of course, to the now-infamous late-in-the-process rehearsal. By this time, most everyone had come to hate Robbins’ hard-line approach. So when he was giving notes on stage, facing the back wall but walking backwards, no one said “Jerry! Watch it or you’ll fall into the orchestra pit!”

And that is precisely what he did – “literally landing with a boom,” said Dale, “on a big bass drum.”

However, Dale had a loftier explanation. “When Jerry gave notes,” he said, “you were mesmerized by his eyes. We were all concentrating on those so much that we didn’t even notice he was near the pit.”

You be the judge: the truth — or just a (West Side) story?

Peter Filichia also writes a column each Monday at www.broadwayselect.com and each Friday at www.mtishows.com. His book The Great Parade: Broadway’s Astonishing, Never-To-Be Forgotten 1963-1964 Season is now available at www.amazon.com.