In 1944 the untested choreographer Jerome Robbins shot to stardom with “Fancy Free,” a cocky little ballet about three sailors on shore leave during World War II. By the end of that year this slangy romp was enlarged into the brashly balletic hit musical “On the Town,” testament to the narrative reach—and emotional truth—of Robbins’s choreography. Broadway triumphs rolled out for the next two decades, among them “The King and I,” “Peter Pan,” “West Side Story,” “Gypsy” and “Fiddler on the Roof.” Such theatrical genius didn’t come cheap. Dreading opening night, Robbins revised and edited relentlessly, sometimes torturously, demanding unheard of time in the studio. Creating 1989’s “Jerome Robbins’ Broadway,” a musical anthology of his greatest numbers, Robbins took a whopping 22 weeks of rehearsal—three times the norm. The Muny in St. Louis—the largest and oldest outdoor musical theater in America—has put on this complicated show with a rehearsal period of just 16 days.
Courageous? Crazy? It’s a big way to kick off the Muny’s 100th anniversary season, and poetically appropriate, too, for as it happens 2018 is also the centennial of Robbins’s birth. “It allows us to have all of those people. Bernstein, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Comden and Green, Sondheim, they’re all in there,” Muny artistic director
told the website Broadway World. The revival has been two years in the planning and is the first since the original show closed in 1990 and its national tour ended in 1991. Although Robbins pulled numbers from 11 of the musicals he choreographed and/or directed, the Muny revival leaves out work from “Gypsy,” which is scheduled for July, and “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” which was performed last season. Minus two musicals, “Jerome Robbins’ Broadway” still adds up to a lot of moving parts.
And it’s still a wow. Directed by
Robbins’s assistant on the original show, this revival honors his vision of dancers who can sing, act and carry a narrative through-line from start to finish. The cast of 59 includes both Broadway veterans and kids just out of school, and Ms Onrubia has whipped them into impressive kinetic coherence—storytelling that finds itself in airborne shapes, concentrated gesture, and Swiss-watch precision (you can’t put over the
-style chase from “High Button Shoes” without perfect two-reeler timing). In fact, Broadway’s latest brood of overpraised choreographic darlings should get down to St. Louis if only to see that you don’t need to throw everything you know into every number. Robbins’s tortured editing had a purpose—wit, honesty, eloquence.
The show begins with “On the Town,” those earnest, randy young sailors on leave, tourists gawking at Big Apple buildings while really longing for love. The men of “New York, New York” were in sync but a little tentative in the air. By the time the company got to “Ya Got Me,” everyone was feeling the Comden-and-Green anarchy, which flowed brilliantly into the leggy, tipsy “Charleston” from their show “Billion Dollar Baby.”
The suite from “West Side Story,” which ends Act 1, is currently alive and well in the New York City Ballet repertory, but right from the Prologue, where the Jets and Sharks muscle over territory, the Muny men owned it, gliding like reconnaissance aircraft—low, high, wary. “Mambo” was on fire, performed faster than I’ve ever seen it—a stunningly persuasive tempo. In the prayer that is “Somewhere,” the Muny took advantage of the beautiful old oak trees that live upstage, lighting them a coppery gold that framed this “place for us,” an imagined paradise beyond the city grit.
The trees spoke as well to the beginning of Act 2, which opens with “The Small House of Uncle Thomas” from “The King and I.” Here they suggested the flora of Siam, Eliza’s escape into the forest and her own hunt for a place where she can breathe. Throughout the production, scenic design is minimally yet deftly structured, strands of set and projections on a cyclorama moving and morphing with aplomb. The “Small House” ballet is the most beautiful of the numbers, dressed in silks of red, pink and saffron, with temple goddess headpieces glittering like gold leaf.
I’ve refrained from singling out performers because that’s not quite in the spirit of “Jerome Robbins’ Broadway.” He loved dancers, loved the studio, loved the process, would have rehearsed forever if he could, which means it wasn’t about impatient stars.
however, as the man who leads us through the show, wins a call-out, especially for his vaudevillian turn, crisp and loving, in the song “I Still Get Jealous” from “High Button Shoes.” As for the cast, they did that thing one hopes for from performing artists: The longer they were onstage, the stronger they became. It doesn’t happen as often as you’d think, this visceral sense of growing power, of effort and isolation left behind, but it’s what Robbins was all about.
Ms. Jacobs writes about culture and fashion for the Journal.