Jason Alexander gave me a brilliant pre-emptive strike.
That was late ’88, I recall. He was about to open as the leading man of JEROME ROBBINS’ BROADWAY. In addition to performing, he’d write the continuity which he’d deliver as narrator.
Robbins was both creating and recreating his previous successes. With an unprecedented 22 weeks of rehearsal –
four weeks is the norm – Alexander was having ample time to see if the good, bad and horrifying stories about Robbins’ behavior had merit.
Now, just in case his interviewer asked for some juicy observations, Alexander threw his arms out wide with gusto beforehand and exuberantly proclaimed, “Everything you’ve ever heard about Jerome Robbins is true!”
Sure. Why risk Robbins’ terrible swift sword that would give him the ax?
Alexander’s quip came back to me last month when he was honored at The Actors’ Temple in conjunction with a night that celebrated Robbins. Producers Douglas J. Cohen, Carol Ostrow and Rabbi Jill Hausman also brought me and – latter but not last – Amanda Vaill, author of Somewhere: The Life of Jerome Robbins. She was also the editor and commentator of Jerome Robbins, by Himself: Selections from His Letters, Journals, Drawings, Photographs, and an Unfinished Memoir.
Vaill gave the opinions of two performers that Robbins had cast in WEST SIDE STORY: Larry Kert, the original Tony, said, “He’s a perfectionist who destroys you.” Tony Mordente, the first-ever A-Rab, talked about Robbins’ interaction with Mickey Callin, who’d played Riff: “He pounded him into dust.”
But after that, a compliment followed: “And then he molded him back into clay.”
The bottom line about Robbins? Said Mordente, “I never knew him to be wrong.”
Robbins himself admitted that “my tactics are not the best.”
No. Back in 1980, when a top-rated TV series called Dallas asked, “Who Shot J.R.?” Carolyn Leigh said to me, “On Broadway, we’ve all wondered why no one has ever taken a shot at our J.R.”
And to think that we might not ever had known him. Jerome Wilson Rabinowitz had a father who hoped that his son would one day assume control of his Comfort Corset Company. He wasn’t happy when his son wasn’t interested but was planning to major in chemistry.
Yes: chemistry, which mollified the elder Rabinowitz – until the lad told him he’d changed his mind and was going into show business. The elder Rabinowitz undoubtedly thought what Tevye would later sing: “Unheard of! Absurd! Unthinkable!”
But here’s the thing: after young Jerome met with enormous show-biz success, guess who changed his surname to Robbins …
First came Fancy Free, the ballet that Robbins and composer Leonard Bernstein saw its opening night result in – here’s that number again – 22 curtain calls. Next to come was another ballet, a sequel called Bye Bye Jackie.
Bernstein didn’t come through on that project, but he certainly did deliver the goods when Fancy Free morphed into the Broadway musical ON THE TOWN. After the critics raved, Robbins, Bernstein and lyricists Comden and Green could have sung a lyric from the show: “Fortune smiled and came my way.”
Before we now and forever scratch off Robbins’ name on any humanitarian award ballot, give him credit for casting four African Americans in ON THE TOWN. He soundly reasoned that in real life, Blacks were very much on the town, too.
Vaill noted that Robbins was “vehemently opposed to the conventional idea of having leads who had to move to one side of the stage when the dancing began.” Indeed, that had been the norm, and Robbins hated the artificiality of it.
Vaill reminded us that Robbins conceived of what’s come to be known as “the triple threat.” Until WEST SIDE STORY, the musical formula put on stage 1) actors, 2) a singing chorus and 3) a dancing chorus. Robbins demanded that his cast exhibit all three skills, and he indeed found performers who could.
(Ironic, isn’t it, that the intimidating and bullying Robbins should invent a theatrical term that contains the word “threat”?)
On the WEST SIDE STORY movie, it wasn’t so much Robbins’ behavior but his money-costing perfectionism that resulted in his dismissal. And yet, Robbins not only won an Oscar for his co-direction but also a special one for his choreography. Has anyone else held the distinction of winning not one but two Academy Awards for a film from which he’d been canned?
Add to that the observation from Richard Beymer, the film’s Tony; he said that he received more direction from Robbins than from co-director Robert Wise. Screenwriter Ernest Lehman insisted that “Jerry was the man behind the gun. He put the bullets in, cocked it and shot it. Everyone else was smoke and noise.”
Vaill gave one example out of dozens of Robbins improving a musical on which he’d work. Three months before FIDDLER ON THE ROOF began rehearsals, he told songwriters Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick that Golde and Tevye, who had no musical moment between them, should.
And that’s how “Do You Love Me?” came into being.
Many times during the four-months-plus JEROME ROBBINS’ BROADWAY rehearsals, he’d show up wearing a T-shirt that stated, “It’s going well, thank you.”
Translation: Don’t ask. Leave me alone.
The T-shirt was black as were most of his outfits – one reason why he was called “Black Jerome.” Vaill gave another: Robbins had “eyes and scowl to match.”
But what about his naming names during the McCarthy Blacklist era? Vaill noted that Robbins seemed interested in Communism because it would ostensibly help minorities.
As much of a demon as he was to others, he was a demon to himself. Despite his success with FIDDLER, a September 1976 letter saw him admit, “I didn’t want to be a Jew.” Although he admired the religion’s “warmth, color and mysticism,” he also feared that “the façade of Jerome Robbins would be cracked open and behind everyone would be Jerome Wilson Rabinowitz.”
In January 1974, Robbins wrote, “I’m angry at all my life. It’s fake, and all I do is fake.” So, a year and a half later, he committed himself to a psychiatric hospital.
That stint away from everybody and everything obviously did him some good. In January 1976 he wrote, “I like the theater of my life. I like my life to be full of events and ups and downs.”
That included his sex life. Robbins had affairs with Harold Lang, Oliver Smith and Tommy Abbott as well as with Nancy Walker, Nora Kaye and Lee Becker – WEST SIDE STORY’S original Anybodys, the cisgender female character who felt more like a man.
Late in his life, Robbins wrote, “I feel ready to die happily. I could end it all at this time of recognition and achievement and having great friends, great success and sex returned as contented a life as I’d want. I’d like to go on working and be at the opening of a work I knew was really good.”
So, what do we ultimately learn from Amanda Vaill’s two books? Everything you’ve ever heard about Jerome Robbins is true.
Peter Filichia can be heard most weeks of the year on www.broadwayradio.com. His THE BOOK OF BROADWAY MUSICAL DEBATES, DISPUTES, AND DISAGREEMENTS is now available on Amazon. He’ll be teaching Master Classes on Lerner and Loewe on July 11 and 18. Sign up at TheBroadwayMaven.com.”