Practitioners: Jerome Robbins

Jerome Robbins

Jerome Robbins

Nationality: American

Profession(s): Director, choreographer

Keywords: choreographer ballet director tony award golden era academy award film stage american contemporary 


Jerome Robbins was born Jerome Wilson Rabinowitz in New York City in 1918. He was the second child of Harry and Lena Rabinowitz; his father had emigrated from Poland in 1904. In the 1920s, the family moved to Weehawken, New Jersey where his father established a corset company. The family made many show business connections through their business and, in the 1940s, changed their surname to Robbins.

In 1953, Robbins shocked the theatrical community by giving a testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee. He admitted to being a former member of the Communist Party and named eight other individuals who he claimed were also former members. Robbins refused to justify or explain his actions, although it is believed he may have been threatened with being exposed as homosexual.

Robbins was bisexual and is known to have had relationships with several well-known actors and dancers, including Nora Kaye, Montgomery Clift, and Buzz Miller. However, he never married. He began to show signs of Parkinson’s Disease in the mid 1990s and his hearing deteriorated, although he continued to work. Robbins suffered a stroke in 1998 and he died at home in New York on July 29, 1998. The lights on Broadway were dimmed on the evening of his death.

Education & Influences

Robbins graduated from Woodrow Wilson High School in 1935. He intended to study either chemistry or journalism at New York University and matriculated in the autumn of 1935. However, the Depression hit his family’s business and they could no longer support his education after 1936. Having had some dance training in high school, Robbins then joined the company of Senya Gluck Sandor, who encouraged Robbins to learn ballet and Spanish dancing. Robbins trained in ballet with Ella Daganova and made his Broadway debut in the Yiddish Art Theatre production of The Brothers Ashkenazi.

During the late 1930s, Robbins worked as a dancer in Broadway revues at Camp Tamiment in the Poconos, while also dancing in the chorus on several Broadway shows. It was at Camp Tamiment that he began to choreograph both dramatic and comic routines for dancers such as Danny Kaye, Carol Channing, and Imogene Coca.

In 1940, Robbins was accepted into the Ballet Theatre (later known as the American Ballet Theatre). He swiftly progressed into becoming a soloist with the company and worked with choreographers such as Agnes de Mille, Antony Tudor, and Mikhail Fokin. He finally got the chance to experiment with his own choreography in 1944. Recruiting the musical talent of the (then) little known composer, Leonard Bernstein, he choreographed his first ballet about three sailors on shore leave in New York City. This ballet was called Fancy Free and it received such acclaim that it rapidly developed into the hit Broadway musical On the Town and premiered in December of the same year.

Career Milestones

Following the success of his Broadway debut On the Town, Jerome Robbins worked consistently on Broadway and in the ballet world. In 1949, he left the Ballet Theatre and joined the newly formed New York City Ballet, where he was appointed Associate Artistic Director. Robbins continued to dance as a principal dancer before retiring in the mid-1950s. While at the New York City Ballet, he boosted his reputation as one of the foremost modern ballet choreographers of the twentieth century. In the early 1960s he formed his own short-lived company, Ballet: USA, while continuing to work with the New York City Ballet until months before his death in 1998.

On Broadway, Robbins became known as a noted choreographer for the newly evolving musical comedies that preceded and led into the Golden Age of musical theatre. He choreographed shows such as Irving Berlin’s Miss Liberty (1949) and Call Me Madam, Comden and Green’s Billion Dollar Baby (1946), and High Button Shoes (1947) for which he won his first Tony Award. In 1948, he added another string to his bow by gaining his first co-director credit for Look Ma, I’m Dancin!.

He continued his Broadway success choreographing Rodgers & Hammerstein’s The King and I in 1951, but his next move shocked the Broadway community. Called before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1953, he offered the names of several actors, playwrights, and filmmakers whom he declared were Communists. Yet, despite this, Robbins’ career did not suffer, although he lost the respect of many of his contemporary artists. He had a streak of Broadway hits in the 1950s, including The Pajama Game (1954), Gypsy (1959), and, most significantly, West Side Story (1957). West Side Story was conceived and directed by Robbins, who worked with Arthur Laurents, Leonard Bernstein, and Stephen Sondheim on the project. It earned Robbins his second Tony Award for Best Choreography.

West Side Story choreography

Jerome Robbins' choreography for West Side Story has remained impactful for decades.

In the 1960s, Robbins’ experience was called upon when he was brought in to supervise and oversee two productions that were in danger of becoming flops. When A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum proved unpopular during its out of town tryouts in 1962, Robbins was called in to make changes. His biggest change was to ramp up the show’s comedic potential and overhaul the opening number of the show, which then became “Comedy Tonight.” Two years later, Robbins was listed as “production supervisor” on the musical Funny Girl, which had also floundered in its early stages. However, he came back to Broadway with full credits on Fiddler on the Roof in 1964, for which he won the Tony Awards for Best Director of a Musical and Best Choreographer.

Robbins did not restrict his directorial prowess to musicals. In 1963, he directed the Broadway premieres of Arthur Klopit’s Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mamma's Hung You in the Closet and I'm Feelin' So Sad and Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage and her Children, which starred Anne Bancroft and was nominated for four Tony Awards (including Best Play). Robbins’ final Broadway production, Jerome Robbins’ Broadway (1989), won six Tony Awards including Best Musical and Best Director.

Robbins also directed and choreographed for film, although his reputation for being a difficult perfectionist hampered the longevity of his movie career. In 1961, he shared the Academy Award for Best Director with Robert Wise for West Side Story, despite being dismissed from the project for being behind schedule. He also won an Academy Honorary Award for his choreography on the film.

In 1979, Robbins was admitted into the American Theater Hall of Fame and, two years later, he was awarded the Kennedy Center Honors. This was followed by the National Medal of Arts in 1988.

Lasting Impact

Jerome Robbins’ influence on the world of contemporary dance and musical theatre cannot be underestimated. His award-winning choreography on West Side Story broke the mould and inspired generations of future dancers. While dance had become an integral part of the Golden Age musical by enhancing the story rather than merely providing a distraction, in West Side Story dance was essential to the show as the plot was often conveyed through movement and musicality. Robbins’ work on West Side Story showed him to be a force to be reckoned with, in many ways. Although he developed a reputation for being a perfectionist and a difficult task-master, Robbins’ commitment to dance and his desire to create unique and distinctive productions pushed the dance world forwards. He was committed to both Broadway and the New York City Ballet and epitomized the American dance scene of the second half of the twentieth century.

In 1958, Robbins established the Jerome Robbins Foundation with the aim of supporting dance, theatre, and their associative arts. The Foundation still runs today, awarding financial grants and the Jerome Robbins Award to individuals and/or organizations of exceptional importance in the world of dance and musical theatre.