West Side Story, a show clouded in controversy, sits close to the top of the list of the most well know shows ever produced. What is it known for? Not for being a complete knock off of the Romeo and Juliet story we have seen many times before. It is known for the dancing, the leaping and the snapping and the terrifying dance gangs plaguing cities across America. Considering why it is so popular, the person responsible for the fame of the show is Jerome Robbins.
Jerome Robbins, born as Jerome Rabinowitz died at the age of 79 in 1998 after a long life of Broadway Theater and Ballet and Dance. He worked on plays such as Fiddler on the Roof, The King and I, Peter Pan, and West Side Story as well as many others. West Side Story, generally considered his most successful work, won him an Academy Award in addition to the five Tony Awards he had won.
Having grown up in a theater family with connections to vaudeville performers and theater owners. He however, went off to New York University to study chemistry, but the siren song of dance called him back (and he had financial issues).
As a young man he was dancing in many shows, such as Keep off the Grass, The Straw Hat Revue, and Great Lady while a camp in the Poconos of Pennsylvania allowed him to practice dance and choreographing.
Many of the pieces that he choreographed had controversial ideas regularly avoided. His controversial ideas about race, lynching and war were quite edgy at the time. He later went on to choreograph West Side Story, a musical in which the relationship between the leads is generally considered controversial due to the mixed race nature of the characters. This play set in Hells’ Kitchen gave Robbins the idea to split up the dancers in the gangs and plant rumors in order the help them dislike each other and really sell the roles and the emotion of the dance. Method dancing.
When he had the chance to move into the film industry he was able to co-direct West Side Story. Ultimately he was credited for co-directing the film but he was fired mid production for taking to long with rehearsing and filming the dancing. Moving from the stage to the screen demanded more precision and focus because the audience has a much closer view of the performers. This desire for perfection turned out to be just what the film needed, making it much more popular than the stage show and giving access to non theater going populous.
Going on to stage, choreograph and direct more shows, Robbins was a very notable fixer. He helped many shows to succeed with his expertise, but more specifically he drastically saved two productions, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, in which he was able to better explain what was happening to the audience, turning the production from a wreck to a success. In addition, he took a seriously struggling show called Funny Girl and turned it into a monster that was able to run for over 1300 shows.