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JEROME ROBBINS’ BROADWAY Is Alive and Well By Peter Filichia 

I’ve often felt bad for musical theater aficionados who were born after 1991.
Ditto to the ones who only became interested in this art form after that year
came and went.

For I’ve assumed that if these young‘uns have the goal of seeing a production of
every Tony-winning musical — and which of us does not? — they’d never have
the chance to see a revival of JEROME ROBBINS’ BROADWAY.

The 1989 mega-musical that required twelve weeks of rehearsals (and thus set
an outrageously high ticket price of — gulp! — $55!) hasn’t been seen in New
York since it closed on Broadway in 1990. As for the rest of the country, no one’s
witnessed it after the national tour closed fifty-three weeks later.

I assumed that chances were slim to slimmer that it would ever be revived, not
only because it’s a big show to do, but also because Robbins’ name has meant
increasingly less to younger musical theater fans. True, they could see
replications of his work, for new productions of WEST SIDE STORY and FIDDLER
ON THE ROOF are honor-bound to follow his template. But photocopies aren’t
ever as sharp and clear as the originals, are they?

So while musical theater newbies might have seen original cast mountings of
musicals by such twentieth century stalwarts as Stephen Sondheim, Andrew
Lloyd Webber, Kander and Ebb, Charles Strouse and Maltby and Shire, Jerome
Robbins was a name found only in history books and on the artwork of original
cast albums.

Well, as Jerry exclaims in SUGAR, “Wrong again!” Last year, St. Louis’ The Muny
(as it’s affectionately known) announced JEROME ROBBINS’ BROADWAY for its
2018 summer season and delivered a production that wrapped up last month.
“Darn!” you say. “Missed it again! And that had to be my last chance!”
Not necessarily. As my faithful reader Paul Witte in Wichita recently informed
me, Houston’s Theatre under the Stars will be doing JEROME ROBBINS’
BROADWAY in May, 2019.

This information may only get you to moan “Who’s kidding who? I can’t manage
a trip to Houston.”
Well, my fellow completists, at least you can listen to the cast album of every
Tony-winning musical, for JEROME ROBBINS’ BROADWAY, along with the seventy other winners, was recorded and only one of the dozen that was
released on two discs.

It surprises us from the Overture that starts with “Gotta Dance!” What, Robbins
did SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN? No — this is a song from the 1948 musical LOOK MA,
I’M DANCIN’. It wasn’t a hit, but Robbins’ choreography garnered no blame.
After the final fanfare of “Shall We Dance?” — yes, Robbins choreographed THE
KING AND I, too — we’re ON THE TOWN, the 1944 musical which was inspired
by Robbins’ own FANCY FREE, his ballet of nine months earlier.

(Imagine — an original Broadway musical was written, composed, optioned, cast,
rehearsed and opened in fewer than nine months!)

From it comes “New York, New York,” which was considered the ultimate paean
to the city for a full third of a century until Kander and Ebb’s anthem eclipsed it.
The joyous cry of three sailors ready for their Manhattan adventure was thought
to be so vital to the property that when the creators of the film version dropped
most of the Leonard Bernstein, Betty Comden and Adolph Green songs, they
didn’t dare cut that one.

“Ya Got Me,” though, did walk Hollywood’s plank; happily, it’s featured here. It’s
one of musical theater’s favorite excuses for a number: the cheer-up song. Gob
Gabey’s newfound love has stood up our stand-up guy who’s now inconsolable.
His pals work to get him out of his blue funk, each saying “You Got Me” and all
concluding “You Got We.”

Yes, that’s ungrammatical; the word was obviously chosen for the rhyme. Yet an
argument could be made that children of immigrants back then did
overcompensate with high-falutin’ language in hopes that people would think
they belonged to a better class.

BILLION DOLLAR BABY was denied a cast album in 1945 — that’s since been
rectified — but JRB gave us the first chance to hear the legendary “Charleston.”
That’s also true of “Bathing Beauties Ballet” from HIGH BUTTON SHOES, which
didn’t make the abbreviated 1947 original cast album. Sure, seeing both would
be far more fun, but we must take what we can get, and the two offer fun
listening.

There had been an earlier recording of “The Small House of Uncle Thomas,” but
see if you like this one better. Most musical theater enthusiasts I’ve known do.
Stephen Sondheim’s “Comedy Tonight” for A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE
WAY TO THE FORUM may well have been the best number ever written out of
town until Sondheim himself eclipsed it nine years later when he wrote “I’m Still
Here” for FOLLIES.

FORUM’S original marquee at the then-Alvin Theatre made room for “Dir. by Geo
Abbott.” His name and not Robbins adorns the original cast album. So why is this
in JRB?

Because Robbins gave Sondheim the idea for the song and came in to stage it,
too. For decades, that was an open secret that became WIDE-open when JRB
debuted.

Out of the four acting categories for musicals, JRB yielded three Tony-winners.
Jason Alexander, still some years from his SEINFELD household-name status,
played the show’s narrator as well as Tevye and Pseudolus.

(Hmmm, when James Corden bowed out of that FUNNY THING revival to take
CBS’ big bucks, did anyone think to ask Alexander to step in?)

Also emerging victorious was Debbie Shapiro (she has since added her husband’s
surname of Gravitte). Her “Mr. Monotony” will make you wonder how the song
could have been dropped from show after show – until you remember that songs
are required to fit the book, situation and mood, aren’t they?

The third Tony-winner was Scott Wise, one of the ON THE TOWN sailors and Riff
in the WEST SIDE STORY sequence. He gets to sing “Cool” from the former
show.
And don’t say “How could he? He’s dead by that point!” No, that’s only the case
in the film; in the stage show, “Cool” is in the “Gee, Officer Krupke” spot, so our
favorite Jet is still alive and well. Sing out, Scott Wise!

Louise doesn’t get to sing out in the GYPSY tribute, but Shapiro, the Tony-
nominated Faith Prince and Susann Fletcher remind us that “You Gotta Have a
Gimmick.” (Robbins had one: talent.)

The recording ends with “Some Other Time.” Is this the most beautiful song ever
written? Certainly it’s the one that set the words “Oh, well!” to the two most
beautiful notes.

Robbins wasn’t eligible for a Tony for choreographing this show, as the feeling
was he’d done all that before. However, bit by bit, putting it together did allow
him to be eligible as Best Director of a Musical – which did bring him his fifth
Tony.

Just before the start of the previews for JEROME ROBBINS’ BROADWAY, I
interviewed Jason Alexander. Of course, I had to ask him about Robbins the
man, who had a reputation as an unholy terror.

Alexander smiled broadly, threw out his arms wide and gave me the evasive
answer that I’m sure he’d been preparing for weeks, one he would give all
interviewers. The way that he punctuated the line with a definitive raise of the
eyebrows made clear that this would be all he’d have to say:

“Everything you’ve ever heard about Jerome Robbins is true!”

And everything you hear on JEROME ROBBINS’ BROADWAY is true-blue
Broadway.

Peter Filichia also writes a column each Monday at www.broadwayselect.com
and each Friday at www.mtishows.com . He can be heard most weeks of the year
on the Internet via www.broadwayradio.com .