On this day in 1918, Jerome Wilson Rabinowitz – better known to the world as Jerome Robbins – was born in New York’s Jewish Maternity Hospital. Robbins became legendary as one of the great theatrical choreographers and directors of the 20th century, with stage credits that include “On the Town,” “West Side Story” and “Fiddler on the Roof.”
Robbins was the son of a delicatessen owner who later owned a corset factory, and his older sister had a childhood career as professional dancer in the 1920s. Although his professional stage debut was a two-word acting role in “The Brothers Ashkenazi,” with the Yiddish Art Theater, Robbins really began his career as a dancer, first in the theater and later as a soloist with the Ballet Theatre (today known as the American Ballet Theatre). By 1944, he choreographed an adaptation of a painting by artist Paul Cadmus depicting sailors on shore leave in New York for the Ballet Theatre. The dance, called “Fancy Free,” was set to music by Leonard Bernstein, the first of a number of collaborations between the two, which also included the musical “On the Town,” itself an adaptation of “Fancy Free,” with lyrics and book by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, which premiered later that year.
During the 50s, Robbins alternated between musical theater and ballet. His work in the former included not only choreography, but direction and sometimes the very concept of the play as well. Such was the case with 1957’s “West Side Story,” a tale of star-crossed love in the middle of New York gang wars which Robbins based loosely on “Romeo and Juliet.” His collaborators in this effort included Stephen Sondheim as lyricist; Bernstein as composer; and Arthur Laurents, who wrote the book. “West Side Story” was beaten out of the Tony for best musical that year by “The Music Man,” but the 1961 movie version, where Robbins is credited as co-director with Robert Wise, garnered 10 Academy Awards out of 11 nominations, including Best Film. (Actually, Robbins, known as a hard-driving perfectionist, was fired during production for taking too long with rehearsals and the filming of dances.) He also began working during this decade with legendary choreographer George Balanchine at the New York City Ballet, where he became ballet master in 1969, and after Balanchine’s death in 1983, co-artistic director with Peter Martins
In May 1953, faced with a choice between being blacklisted from work in entertainment or testifying before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, Robbins appeared before the committee and confessed his membership in the American Communist Party during the preceding decade, naming eight other colleagues in the party, more than any other witness.
Robbins never denied his Jewish background, but was clearly ambivalent about it. He did, however, spend part of his later years working on an autobiographical theatrical work, never completed, called “My Name Is Rabinowitz.” Toward the end of his life, when the film “Schindler’s List” came out, he recalled that he had been so driven in his career during the 1940s, that he had only been slightly aware of the Holocaust (many others made similar claims). Robbins was also highly secretive about his homosexuality, and often made it known he was having affairs, or was even engaged to, various women, though in fact he never married.
Robbins died in 1998, and although his last years were characterized by illness, he continued working with the City Ballet until shortly before his death.
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