Prelude, Fugue & Riffs

The True Gesture — Jerome Robbins and West Side Story

by Amanda Vaill

As credits go, it's a small thing: a line, under the title, West Side Story, that says, "Based on a conception of Jerome Robbins." It's not as prominent as the names of book writer Arthur Laurents, composer Leonard Bernstein, or lyricist Stephen Sondheim; it's not enshrined in a box, as Robbins's credit for choreographing and directing the show is. But those seven words speak volumes about the origins of this revolutionary musical, and about the reasons for its success.

When, in the late 1940's, he famously advised the actor Montgomery Clift to play the character of Romeo as if he were "among the gangs of New York," Robbins had been struggling to create a dance-drama about disadvantaged urban youth for at least a decade (there are at least two unproduced scenarios on this theme in his papers), and had created a ballet (The Guests) about social intolerance. All the ideas that would become West Side Story were revolving in his head already — including the notion of a "new theatrical form," what he called a "braiding" of dance, drama, and song, that would culminate in West Side Story's fluid musical narrative, where his choreography is as much a means of plot and character development as Laurents's book or Bernstein and Sondheim's score.

In this sense, certainly, Bernstein was accurate when he told a Dramatists' Guild symposium that "Jerry was our source" for West Side Story. But there was a more important way in which Bernstein's statement — and Robbins's credit line — was true. What Robbins gave to the show, and what he encouraged his collaborators to give, was what he called aspiration. "Why did Lenny have to write an opera, Arthur a play, me a ballet... separately and elsewhere?" he said. "Why couldn't we, in aspiration, try to bring our deepest talents together to the commercial theater in this work? That was the true gesture of the show."

A half-century later, it still is.

Amanda Vaill is currently writing the screenplay for a 2-hour PBS American Masters documentary on Jerome Robbins; her biography of him, entitled Somewhere, waspublished in late 2006.

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