The Saturday List: A Jerome Robbins Countdown!

Three iconic Jerome Robbins shows: GYPSY, WEST SIDES STORY and FIDDLER ON THE ROOF
Three iconic Jerome Robbins shows: Gypsy, West Side Story and Fiddler on the Roof

Today is the anniversary of the opening of Jerome Robbins’ Broadway, the great revue showcasing iconic numbers from shows that Jerome Robbins either directed or choreographed. Jerome Robbins’ Broadway won six Tony Awards, including a fifth Best Director nod for Robbins himself, and ran for 633 performances. To commemorate this anniversary, this week’s Saturday List takes a look at the five best Robbins shows, all of which were featured in this iconic production.

5. The King and I

The King and I is one of those classics that sits on the edge of a knife. In a world where we recognise the damage that colonialism has done to people in countries around the globe, a show that tells the story of a king who is resisting colonialism might seem like an easy win. The thing is that The King and I tells King Mongkut’s story from the perspective of Anna Leonowens, a British woman whose political influence makes it seem like she’s doing the job from the inside. Bartlett Sher did a fantastic job of walking the treacherous path of putting this show on in a twenty-first-century context, but it is difficult to get away from what is woven into the writing. Still, the score from Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II gives us some classic Broadway songs, of which the choreography-driven showpiece “The Small House of Uncle Thomas” is seen in Jerome Robbins’ Broadway alongside “Shall We Dance?”

4. On the Town

On the surface, On the Town is what they call a bop, but it is a musical comedy from the 1940s that packs a punch even today in a world that continues to be torn apart by war. With Jerome Robbins’s own ballet Fancy Free serving as a basis, Leonard Bernstein, Betty Comden and Adolph Green fashioned a show that doesn’t show the audience any of the major events of World War II. Nobody dies. There isn’t a great battle on stage. And yet, the sense of the war permeates every second from the joyous “New York, New York” through the plaintive “Some Other Time,” both of which are showcased in Jerome Robbins’ Broadway. The way it reflects so much about the world through inference is pure genius.

3. Fiddler on The Roof

I’m sure there are some of you, dear readers, who will have qualms about Joseph Stein, Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick’s masterpiece ranking only third on this list, but what is a show queen to do when three such legendary shows as these appear in one body of work? Fiddler on The Roof is great because it just works anywhere and everywhere. It doesn’t matter whether you’re Jewish or not, because the story is universal and resonates beyond its cultural specifics because of the integrity with which it handles that very specificity. Jerome Robbins’ Broadway revisited some of the high points of this show in an extended sequence consisting of “Tradition,” “The Dream,” “Sunrise, Sunset” and the “Wedding Dance.” 

2. West Side Story

West Side Story, which was showcased in an extended sequence in Jerome Robbins’ Broadway, is a landmark musical. It was a show that brought Broadway up to the minute in 1957 and even though we look at it now through a different lens, where we acknowledge its shortcomings in not being created with an authentic Puerto Rican perspective, it remains a piece of theatre that has a great deal to teach about prejudice and systemic racism. Beyond that, it is just so moving, with the marriage of Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim’s perfectly deepening moments set up in Arthur Laurents’s book. Is it possible today not to start weeping for Maria as soon as the opening bars of “Something’s Coming” strike up?

1. Gypsy

It’s not difficult to place a show in the top spot because Gypsy, quite simply put, is a perfect show. Arthur Laurents’s book perfectly crafts a legend around the story about ‘Madame Rose… and her daughter, Gypsy,’ while Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim punctuate it with one of the greatest scores ever written for a musical, period. Every number achieves something in this show and it gave us both “Some People” and “Rose’s Turn!” In Jerome Robbins’ Broadway, we are treated to “You Gotta Get a Gimmick,” a great comic number in which Mazeppa, Electra and Tessie Tura teach Louise everything they know about stripping. Something wrong with stripping? Well, maybe there’s something wrong with your bumper!

Robbins was, of course, involved in many other shows that haven’t made this list. The Ethel Merman extravaganza Call Me Madam and the joyous Bells are Ringing. There are also several shows on which he worked, uncredited, as a show doctor and instances like The Pajama Game, which he co-directed, with George Abbott and Bob Fosse doing the heavy lifting. There’s also Peter Pan, perhaps more famous as a television production than a Broadway show, as well as the minor pieces, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, High Button Shoes and Billion Dollar Baby. But if we’re really going for an honourable mention here, that goes to Look Ma, I’m Dancin’!, which offers one of the most charming forgotten scores of the 1940s. How about rediscovering that show for a revival today?

Any thoughts you’d like to share about Robbins’ work? Head on to the comments section and sound off!

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