On screen, Robbins recreated his stage dances for The King and I (1956) and shared the Best Director Oscar with Robert Wise for the film version of West Side Story (1961). That same year, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences honored him with a special award for his choreographic achievements on film.
The son of corset manufacturer, Robbins began college at NYU, but dropped out after a year to pursue dance. He studied ballet with Ella Daganova, Anthony Tudor and Eugene Loring, modern dance at the New Dance League and Spanish dancing with the famed Helen Veola.
By 1939, he was dancing in the chorus of such Broadway shows as Great Lady, The Straw Hat Revue and Keep of the Grass. Robbins was also dancing and choreographing at Camp Tamiment in the Poconos of Pennsylvania. But in 1940, he turned his back (albeit temporarily) on the theater and joined the Ballet Theatre (later known as the American Ballet Theatre). From 1941-44, Robbins was a soloist with the company, gaining notice for his Hermes in Helen of Troy, the Moor in Petrouchka and Benvolio in Romeo and Juliet.
At the same time, Broadway dance was changing. Agnes de Mille had brought not just ballet to Oklahoma, but had made dance an integral part of the drama of the musical piece. Challenged, Robbins choreographed and performed in Fancy Free, a ballet about sailors at liberty, at the Metropolitan Opera as part of the Ballet Theatre season in 1944.
Later that year, he choreographed and created On the Town, a musical based on the ballet, which effectively launched his Broadway career as a dance director. His first assignment was Billion Dollar Baby (1945) and two years later he won his first Tony Award for choreographing Nanette Fabray and Phil Silvers in High Button Shoes.
During this period, Robbins continued to create dances for the Ballet Theatre, alternating between the two for the better part of the next two decades. Barely a year went by without a new Robbins ballet and a new musical choreographed by Robbins. With George Balanchine he choreographed Jones Beach at the City Center Theatre in 1950, and directed and choreographed Irving Berlin's Call Me Madam, starring Ethel Merman.
In 1951, Robbins created the now celebrated dance sequences in Rodgers and Hammerstein's The King & I (including the children's ballet, The Small House of Uncle Thomas and the celebrated Shall We Dance? waltz between the two leads). That same year, he created The Cage for the New York City Ballet, with which he was now associated. Robbins collaborated with George Abbott on The Pajama Game (1954), which launched the career of Shirley MacLaine, worked on the 1955 Mary Martin vehicle, Peter Pan (recreated for the small screen in 1955, 1956 and 1960) and directed and co-choreographed (with Bob Fosse) Bells Are Ringing (1956), starring Judy Holliday. In 1957, he was involved with a show that some feel is one of his crowning achievements: West Side Story.
With its exuberant ballets and lively dances set in and around NYC's of Hells Kitchen, West Side Story is now hailed as a classic. But in its time, it was overshadowed by Meredith Willson's The Music Man. It did, however, earn Robbins his second Tony Award for choreography. His streak of hits continued with Gypsy (1959), another Ethel Merman vehicle. By 1962, he had turned to straight play directing with Arthur Kopit's Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mama's Hung You in the Closet and I'm Feelin' So Sad. In 1964, Robbins won matching Tony Awards for his direction and choreography of Fiddler on the Roof, one of the most successful musicals of all time that for many years also held the record as the longest running Broadway musical. Never deserting the ballet, he continued to choreograph and stage productions for both the Joffrey Ballet and the New York City Ballet into the 70s.
Robbins became ballet master of the New York City Ballet in 1972 and worked almost exclusively in classical dance throughout the next decade, pausing only to stage revivals of West Side Story (1980) and Fiddler on the Roof (1981). In 1981, his Chamber Dance Company toured the People's Republic of China.
The 80s saw an increased presence on TV as NBC aired Live From Studio 8H: An Evening of Jerome Robbins' Ballets with Members of the New York City Ballets and a retrospective of Robbins' choreography aired on PBS in a 1986 installment of Dance in America. The latter led to his creating the anthology show Jerome Robbins' Broadway in 1989 which recreated the most successful production numbers from his 50-plus year career. Starring Jason Alexander as the narrator, the show included stagings of cut numbers like Irving Berlin's Mr. Monotony and well-known ones like the Tradition number from Fiddler on the Roof. For his efforts, he earned a fifth Tony Award.
While Robbins' career seemed to be a charmed one, it was not without a period of difficulty. In the early 50s, he was called to testify before the House Committee on un-American Activities HUAC, suspected of communist sympathies. Because he cooperated with HUAC, Robbins' career did not suffer and he was not blacklisted.
He died of a stroke in his home in New York City.
Jerome Robbins Facts
|Birth Name||Jerome Rabinowitz|
|Birthday||October 11, 1918|
|Date of death||July 29, 1998 (age 79)|