Born on October 11, 1918 in New York, New York, Jerome Robbins went on to become a dancer and celebrated choreographer, earning raves for his ballet debut piece “Fancy Free.” He eventually served as director and/or choreographer on a number of musicals destined to become classics, including The King and I, West Side Story, Gypsy and Fiddler on the Roof. Robbins won an Oscar for his directorial efforts on the film version of West Side Story, and later focused on creating ballets for the stage. He died on July 29, 1998.
Background and Early Career
Jerome Wilson Rabinowitz was born on October 11, 1918 in New York, New York, with his family moving to Weehawken, New Jersey and, decades later, legally changing their last name to Robbins. The young Jerome initially studied with his sister’s modern dance instructors and was planning to major in chemistry at New York University. After leaving school due to economic hardship with his father’s business during the Depression, Robbins chose to make a career in dance, eventually going on to work in musical productions and dance for Ballet Theatre (later known as American Ballet Theatre).
The choreographer worked with up-and-coming composer Leonard Bernstein to create “Fancy Free,” Robbin’s first dance for a ballet company. The piece made its debut on April 22, 1944 to an ecstatic reception, receiving 22 curtain calls. “Fancy Free” would be turned into the stage musical On the Town by the end of that year.
Robbins went on to serve as choreographer and/or director on a number of Broadway productions that would become part of the American stage canon. Some of his projects included Billion Dollar Baby (1945), High Button Shoes (1947, for which Robbins won his first Tony), Miss Liberty (1949), The King and I (1951), The Pajama Game (1954), Peter Pan (1954) and Gypsy (1959).
'West Side Story'
Fall 1957 saw the Broadway debut of West Side Story, with Robbins creating, directing and choreographing a modern New York update of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. The production was turned into a 1961 movie musical with Robbins serving as co-director with Robert Wise. But Robbins was let go from the film before its completion as his harsh perfectionist proclivities were causing the production to go over budget.
Yet West Side Story became a revered cinematic experience and went on to win 10 Academy Awards in the spring of 1962. Robbins and Wise were both awarded statuettes for their directing work (with two directors winning jointly a historical first), while Robbins was also given an honorary Oscar for his achievement in film choreography.
'Fiddler on the Roof' and Later Projects
After Robbins served as production supervisor on Barbra Streisand’s Funny Girl, September 1964 saw the debut of Fiddler on the Roof, an esteemed musical based on the writings of Sholem Aleichem and connected to Robbins’ Jewish heritage. He won both choreography and directing Tonys for the show, which became a 1971 film. Robbins later received his fifth and final Tony for directing 1989’s Jerome Robbins’ Broadway, an anthology of his work from various productions.
After the mid-1960s, Robbins chose to focus on creating ballets, and in fact chose the world of classical dance over more popular productions. After George Balanchine’s death in 1983, Robbin succeeded his fellow choreographer and served as co-artistic director of New York City Ballet along with Peter Martins. Robbins held the position until 1990.
Jerome Robbins died on July 29, 1998 at the age of 79 after suffering a stroke, leaving behind a monumental legacy that continues to be performed and honored.
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