We mostly think of Jerome Robbins as a stage creature. There are all those ballets he choreographed for George Balanchine at the New York City Ballet. He supplied the dance numbers for such Broadway gems as On the Town and The King and I, then both directed and choreographed everything from Peter Pan to Gypsy to Fiddler on the Roof.
But he loved movies too. With the help of Amanda Vaill’s marvelously insightful Somewhere: The Life of Jerome Robbins, I want to focus here on the transition from stage to screen of perhaps his most famous production, West Side Story.
Jerry Robbins was part of the West Side Story team from the very beginning. In fact, the original idea came from him. While studying at the Actors Studio, he advised young Montgomery Clift on how to make the part of Romeo relevant to the modern world. The trick, he felt, was to think about the tight-knit ethnic enclaves of New York City: “What would you do if you were an Irish Catholic kid and fell in love with a Jewish girl? . . . And what if you were in a gang, and her people were too, and there was fighting?”
By the time Jerry and colleagues Arthur Laurents, Leonard Bernstein, and Stephen Sondheim were ready to transform this concept into a Broadway musical, the ethnicities of the central characters had changed. At first, potential backers simply weren’t interested. But West Side Story, both directed and choreographed by Robbins, proved to be a stage triumph. And a movie sale quickly followed.
Hollywood was not entirely receptive to Robbins’ talents. He didn’t lack for screen experience, having staged the dance sequences for the film version of The King and I, including the remarkable “Small House of Uncle Thomas.” But the studio honchos who were producing the cinematic West Side Story were determined to hire a veteran Hollywood director. They found one in Robert Wise, who’d helmed successful action films and (years before) edited the great Citizen Kane. Robbins himself was grudgingly hired as co-director, responsible for the musical sequences while Wise concentrated on the book scenes.
Jerry immediately began experimenting with ways to synthesize music, camerawork, and dramatic action, but his extensive notes on every aspect of the project rankled the powers-that-be. As he wrote to a friend back home, “It’s a hard time out here now, and rather than my teaching them how to make the camera dance it’s possible that I’m being taught the limitations of imagination and lack of daring.”
Despite Jerry’s original preference for black-&-white film noir stylistics, the studio bosses insisted on Technicolor and recognizable stars. Natalie Wood was no problem for Jerry: the two got along famously. (Neither had much use for the actor cast opposite her, Richard Beymer.) And Robbins was at his happiest filming a brilliantly danced Prologue on the streets of New York, in a slum area that would soon be cleared to build Lincoln Center. Afterwards, though, while in the midst of staging the Dance at the Gym, he suddenly found himself dismissed. His firing was blamed on the film being over budget, though this was hardly a convincing excuse.
Ultimately, West Side Story collected ten Oscars, with Wise and Robbins sharing the directorial prize (and ignoring one another in their acceptance speeches). Robbins received a special award for choreography as well. Later the film’s screenwriter, Ernest Lehman, paid tribute: “Jerry Robbins is the man behind the gun. He put the bullets in, he cocked it, he shot it—and everybody else is just smoke and noise.”