Greatest genius

Exploring the Magic of Jerome Robbins

The famed choreographer's work reappears across Houston's stages this spring, and for good reason.

By Holly Beretto April 15, 2019

Jerome Robbins in rehearsal for West Side Story.

“I think he was probably the greatest genius director, dancer, choreographer we’ve seen,” says Debbie Dickinson, discussing the impact Jerome Robbins has had on musical theater.

Dickinson, who teaches acting and musical theater at Rice University and worked as an actress in New York, will host a discussion about Robbins’ legendary creative force in a lecture called “Jerome Robbins on Broadway” at the Evelyn R. Rubenstein Jewish Community Center on April 17. Her talk comes in advance of TUTS’ production of Jerome Robbins’ Broadway, opening in May, and not long after Houston Ballet presented its centennial salute to the legend in March.

“I’m very excited about that show,” she says of the TUTS production. “I saw it when it opened on Broadway, and some of the original choreography had been lost—almost nobody wrote anything like that down in those days—and they had to gather all these old dancers together to recreate the steps.”

For her discussion, she’s talking about what she calls “the big three” Robbins shows—West Side Story, Gypsy, and Fiddler on the Roof—as well as the influence Robbins had on generations of directors and choreographers after him. She’ll also explore a little about his personality.

“He was difficult to work with,” she says. “But everyone wanted to work with him because they knew he’d make them better. That’s fascinating to me, that love-hate relationship. And I hope people come away with an appreciation of his genius, and that he influenced theater more so than anyone else.”

Dickinson says if theater lovers want to trace the roots of many beloved shows, from West Side Story to Hamilton, Robbins's fingerprints are all over the place. He inspired choreographers like Bob Fosse and Michael Bennett and directors like Hal Prince. He inspired Stephen Sondheim, who would, in turn, inspire Lin-Manuel Miranda. Robbins approached choreography, Dickinson says, starting with the characters, not the steps.

“When you see those boys dancing in West Side Story, you believe that’s how a gang of boys in New York at that time would move. When you watch the sailors in Fancy Free or On the Town, you feel like, yes, that’s how sailors on liberty would dance if they could dance.”

Obviously, On the Town and West Side Story are dramatically different from each other, as are Fiddler on the Roof and The King and I, all of which Robbins choreographed (and he directed the original Broadway production of Fiddler). But that, says Dickinson, is part of why Robbins is so iconic.

“My favorite piece of his choreography, which I think is so exciting and so true to character, is that moment in ‘Shall We Dance?’ in The King and I when the King puts his arm around Anna,” she says. “These two people don’t even know what they think about each other yet, and it’s the only moment in the show where they reveal any attraction to each other at all. It’s just the sexiest moment.”

Robbins made a career building on moments like those. He also, says Dickinson, provided a template for what a concept musical could look like, even if he didn’t invent it. His dance sequences and his innate eye for how to move a production along has reverberated across musical theater since the 1930s. Audiences who see Jerome Robbins’ Broadway will get a taste of his style and evolution across his career, with selections from On The Town, Peter Pan, The King and I, High Button Shoes, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, and Billion Dollar Baby.

And those who pair seeing it with taking part in Dickinson’s lecture will have an insider look at how those moment came to be.

More info about the April 17 lecture can be found here; info about the upcoming TUTS production is available here.

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