“The need for Lenny to work with Jerry,” says Charnin, “was just another side of the coin that was the need Jerry had to work with Lenny.”
“They would both do other things,” says Jamie Bernstein, “but then they would try again together to achieve this higher thing that they were both so obsessed with. They loved to break down the walls between genres, making things more fluid.”
“Obviously, if you break boundaries,” says Harold Prince, the producer of West Side Story, “you want to break further and larger boundaries. Jerry wanted to dig deeper and deeper. And Lenny could deliver. He had a sense of size—no borders, no boundaries.”
“They were two extraordinary balls of energy,” says Guare, “two spinning dynamos occupying the same space. And they each needed success. They had in common a hatred of failure. When their strengths came into alignment it was like the stars aligning. But there was no control over that.”
Their last collaboration to see the stage was a work they had wanted to do since Fancy Free’s premiere. In 1944, flush with the future, they were both drawn backward to a Yiddish classic of 1920—S. Ansky’s play of love, death, and possession, The Dybbuk, or Between Two Worlds. The work was tailor-made for them. It spoke to their shared lineage as Russian Jews. It told the story of soulmates Chanon and Leah, and the mystical link between them. (“When you make your first work with someone,” Robbins would say in an interview before Dybbuk’s premiere, “it makes for a certain bond.”) And the play’s focus on the existential secrets of the Kabbalah had a Promethean subtext, the reaching after cosmic—read artistic—power. But it didn’t happen then. Success carried them away from Ansky and straight to On the Town. Two more Robbins-Bernstein ballets came in 1946 and 1950—Facsimile and Age of Anxiety, both psycho-analytically probing—but they are now lost.
“Dybbuk Dybbuk Dybbuk,” Robbins wrote to Bernstein in 1958. “With this ghost’s effort I know that suddenly something will be on paper that will get us all started.” They finally made a start in 1972, and, when N.Y.C.B. scheduled Dybbuk’s premiere for May 1974, expectations ran high. “It was a big, big deal, Lenny and Jerry working together again,” remembers Jean-Pierre Frohlich, who oversees the Robbins repertory at N.Y.C.B.
Robbins had come to a place of peace about being a Jew. A trip to Masada, in Israel, had moved him profoundly. According to Dan Duell, the artistic director of Ballet Chicago, Robbins “wanted to capture the rarefied atmosphere that was still alive and breathing there. Dybbuk was an attempt to evoke the magical spirit of their heritage.” Robbins planned to dramatize the story, to play to his greatest strength. Bernstein wrote a magnificent score—brooding, gliding, gleamingly nocturnal. But then Robbins backed away from narrative and into abstraction. “It was a very precious subject to Jerry,” says former N.Y.C.B. dancer Bart Cook, “one that he really wanted to do—but was afraid of. You should have seen some of the scenery, gold-covered flames, and the Kabbalah stuff and the symbolism. He just axed it all. It was too exposing.” When Bernstein told People magazine, “The ballet is based on our experience in Jewishness,” Robbins corrected him: “It isn’t.”
“I want to seize a clear and brilliant diamond,” says Chanon in Ansky’s play, “to dissolve it in tears and draw it into my soul!” Robbins was no doubt referring to this line when he said, some years later, that he’d wanted to make “a very hard diamond of a ballet.” Perhaps he couldn’t see it at the time, but that’s exactly what he and Bernstein made—a black diamond, glinting with astral refractions. Patricia McBride, the first Leah, loved dancing Dybbuk. “I felt totally immersed in it and lost,” she says, “lost in the music.” Dybbuk comes back into N.Y.C.B. repertory this spring, a tale of two souls fated and luminously fused. Until the end of their lives, Lenny and Jerry’s respect for each other, their mutual support, never wavered.
Perry Silvey, the longtime technical director of the New York City Ballet, remembers running a rehearsal sometime in the late 80s. It was a quiet ballet, and there was noise above the stage, coming from the galleries where the fly-floor guys and bridge-spot operators work. “As we were rehearsing we keep hearing guys talking,” says Silvey. “I’m out in the house and even the dancers are kind of annoyed. Over the headset I said, ‘Please, guys, keep it down. There’s too much talking going on.’ And this happens a couple of times. Finally I walk all the way up onstage and yell, ‘Quiet on the gallery!’ I look up and there’s Jerry and Lenny, side by side, looking over the rail at me. They were probably up in Jerry’s office—there’s a door from the fourth-floor hallway that goes right into that gallery—and they just sneaked in to look down and see what was happening onstage. They were having a real good time, obviously. And when the two of them, old pros, realize they’ve been in the wrong, the most hilarious thing—they both cover their mouths with their hands and almost giggle, and then slink away like two schoolboys.”
Or like two boy wonders—co-pilots on the same comet.
hortly after Fancy Free’s premiere, Robbins was already pushing the envelope, thinking about a “ballet dance play in one scene, combining the forms of dance, music, & spoken word into one theater form.” It didn’t come to anything at Ballet Theatre, but when Oliver Smith suggested that the situation of Fancy Free might be retooled into a Broadway show, spontaneity and content merged and the result was On the Town. That a whole show could bounce out of a short ballet attests not only to the emotional richness of Fancy Free but to the ready invention of Robbins and Bernstein, now joined by the madcap writing team Betty Comden and Adolph Green.
As Adam Green, Adolph’s son, wrote in these pages, the four agreed that “all the elements of the show would work as an integrated unit, with story, songs, and dancing all growing out of one another.”
It was musical theater cracked open, the plot morphologically cascading, evolving itself scene to scene. Bernstein revealed a gift for lyric simplicity, and his shake-a-leg symphonism, which shot between highbrow dissonance and brash Big Band, had the glitter of mica in Big Apple sidewalks. “The harmonies, the way that Bernstein wrote the city,” says Paul Gemignani, musical director of Jerome Robbins’ Broadway, in 1989, “it sounded like New York in 1944, as opposed to New York in Gershwin’s time.” Bernstein was blown away by Robbins’s acute theatrical instincts. —”incredible, musically.” Yes, Jerry’s instincts were already impressive.
A mere eight months later, on December 28, 1944, On the Town opened on Broadway, directed by that granddaddy of the stage George Abbott. It was a show, the critic Louis Biancolli wrote, “planned, worked out, and delivered in a ballet key.”
“It was audacious,” says the director Harold Prince, who while still in college saw the musical nine times. “I thought, I’ve never seen classical music, classical ballet, and a lighthearted zany show all put together and make sense. I loved it so much, and at the same time, more subconsciously, I was trying to see how those disparate elements came together to make such an incredibly successful evening.”
‘When I talk of opera,” George Abbott wrote to Bernstein a year later, in 1945, “I am talking about a new form which does not now exist: I am talking about something which I expect you to create . . . unhampered by tradition.” Paging West Side Story. The subject for this “new form,” however, came not to Bernstein but to Robbins, in 1947. Helping his lover, the actor Montgomery Clift, figure out how the role of Romeo might be refashioned in the present tense, Robbins thought, Why not create a contemporary Romeo and Juliet? In 1949, a first try by Robbins, Bernstein, and the writer Arthur Laurents, which substituted Catholics and Jews for Capulets and Montagues, went nowhere. But in 1955, with gang violence making headlines, Laurents suggested a shift to rival street gangs. Robbins insisted that the show be cast with young unknowns who could dance as well as sing—because dance is a tribal language, primal and powerful. The fusion of forms would be as snug as a switchblade, and the musical would move as the crow flies, direct and dark. The New York premiere was September 26, 1957: Jets and Sharks; Polish-Irish-Italian Americans vs. Puerto Ricans; Tony and Maria. Robbins was the engine and Bernstein the environment, his score sui generis—a rite of spring inside a Ben Shahn line drawing.
The genesis, impact, and influence of West Side Story has been explained and analyzed in countless histories and memoirs. Its team—Robbins, Bernstein, book by Arthur Laurents, lyrics by the fledgling Stephen Sondheim—is perhaps the most brilliant in Broadway history. Hard to believe now that the suits at Columbia Records, when Bernstein and Sondheim auditioned the score for them, thought it was too advanced, too wordy, too rangy—and no one can sing “Maria.” This masterpiece continues to defy category, though Laurents came closest when he called it “lyric theater.” As Martin Charnin, an original Jet who went on to direct and write his own shows, says today, “You know how there’s Mount Everest and then there are mountains? As far as I’m concerned, there’s West Side Story and then there are musicals.” This was the pinnacle of the Bernstein-Robbins enterprise.
I will never, never work with Jerome Robbins again, as long as I live”—long pause of silence—“for a while.” Gerald Freedman, Robbins’s assistant director on West Side Story, remembers Bernstein saying this over dinner, after the show opened. By 1957, the differences between Bernstein and Robbins, which Irving Penn captured so well in those portraits of ‘47 and ‘48, were far more pronounced. Bernstein had married the sublime Felicia Montealegre Cohn, a Costa Rican–born actress and musician, in 1951; he was now the father of Jamie and Alexander (Nina yet to come); and he had just signed on as music director of the New York Philharmonic. It was a celebrated, expansive, and overstuffed life, extremely social, his time for composing dovetailed in with difficulty. Robbins, meanwhile, was indeed a colossus with a Broadway hit parade to his name, shows including High Button Shoes, The King and I, Pajama Game, Peter Pan, and Bells Are Ringing. (Gypsy was just around the corner.) But he was still uncomfortable in his own skin, hot-tempered with his collaborators, and a slave driver at work, demanding every minute, every second, of time owed him. It didn’t help that in 1953, threatened by the House Un-American Activities Committee with a public outing of his homosexual relationships, Robbins named names. Felicia Bernstein didn’t speak to him after that, or not much, and wouldn’t have him in the apartment. When he went over to work with Lenny he headed directly to the studio. In fact, there were only two people that Lenny deferred to: Felicia and Jerry. Both could make him sweat. Regarding Jerry, Bernstein’s view was simple: We have to cater to genius.
“A genius for me means endlessly inventive,” says Sondheim. “With the accent on the ‘endlessly.’ Jerry had this endless fount of ideas. And, man, you couldn’t wait to go home and write after you got finished talking to Jerry. Nobody matches Jerry in musical theater. Nobody had Jerry’s invention. Nobody.”
“When their strengths came into alignment it was like the stars aligning,” says John Guare.
The problem was that “Jerry worked best when it was all instinct,” says the playwright John Guare. “And the one thing that Jerry did not trust was his instinct.” His infernal second-guessing—an aesthetic integrity that had him tossing out thrilling ideas in search of even better, truer ones—could get maddening, irrational. “Dostoyevsky territory,” Guare calls it. And despite his wit and charm after hours, Robbins at work used confrontation and cruelty to get his way. “Black Jerome” was Bernstein’s nickname. During the dress rehearsal of West Side Story, right under Lenny’s nose, Black Jerome simplified the orchestrations of “Somewhere” without batting an eye.
“Our father was fearless,” says Alexander Bernstein. “But when Jerry was coming over and there was a big meeting, he was scared.” In the company of geniuses, Jerry was primus inter pares, first among equals.
“No matter what the material was,” says Guare, “if Jerry wanted to do it, people would follow him.” And if the material wasn’t right? In 1963, Robbins asked Bernstein to help him make a musical of Thornton Wilder’s apocalyptic The Skin of Our Teeth. They started, but, as often happened, other obligations got in the way—for Lenny, the Philharmonic; for Jerry, Fiddler on the Roof. In 1964 they returned to the Wilder with high hopes; Comden and Green were now on board and New York was waiting. Six months later the project was abandoned, no explanations. Privately, Bernstein called it a “dreadful experience.” The Robbins biographer Amanda Vaill suggests that Robbins may have become just too authoritarian for his On the Town family. Robbins himself wrote, “We did not want to think of a world after a nuclear war.” Adam Green’s understanding from his father was that “Jerry got restless and walked away, and then Lenny did, too.”
Worse was Robbins’s attempt in 1968, revisited in 1986, to turn Brecht’s play The Exception and the Rule into a sort of musical vaudeville, a torturous episode for everyone involved, especially Bernstein. “The material refused to be transformed,” says Guare, who was brought in to write the book. “It was like dealing with a dead whale in the room. Lenny kept saying to Jerry, ‘Why do you need me in this show?’ He was afraid he was just being used to supply incidental music and he wanted to make a statement that would give it importance. Jerry would not give him that opening.” Again, Jerry walked out of the project—in the middle of casting, no less—and Lenny burst into tears.
“Yup,” says Paul Gemignani. “It’s not going to work. There’s no boss in the room.”
Bernstein’s “never, never—for a while” always passed. His letters are filled with his and Jerry’s ideas for collaboration, and Jerry’s journals reflect continuing awe at Lenny: “He hits the piano & an orchestra comes out.”