By Kevin Graff
Often described as an American creative genius, Jerome Robbins was a famous director, choreographer, and producer that helped to shape Broadway into what is is today. Robbins was born in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. At the time, the Lower East Side was known to be a predominately Jewish area and home to the Yiddish Theatre. Even though all of Robbins surroundings were Jewish in influence, Robbins wanted to assimilate into American culture and move away from his Jewish heritage and upbringing. This is exemplified as Robbins changed his last name from Rabinowitz to Robbins. Robbins even saw the action of learning ballet as a way of distancing himself from Jewish Culture. Even though Robbins wanted to assimilate away from Jewish culture he held onto many of its values. Robbins went on to find success in many different musicals, one of the most famous being Fiddler on the Roof. In each of his musicals Robbins used his personality and values stemming from Judaism to shape song, dance, and the overall production.
Before the musicals Robbins worked on even began rehearsal, a lengthy casting process was conducted. Robbins was very specific in his vision of the right actor or actress for each role. In Alisa Solomon’s Wonder of Wonders, she describes the casting process behind Fiddler on the Roof. She discusses how Robbins wanted to understand their Jewish characters and know Jewish traits but at the same time not appear stereotypically Jewish or bring the presence of the Yiddish Theatre to Broadway. Fiddler on the Roof is known for its emphasis on historical accuracy and Robbins wanted this to be seen through the song and dance within the play itself and not viewed as historically accurate due to the way the cast looked. Interestingly enough, he wanted his cast to understand the values and culture of Judaism but to be assimilated, similarly to the way he felt about himself and his own outlook on Judaism.
Robbins was not only meticulous in the casting for Fiddler on the Roof but spent months researching the accuracy behind each scene. In another piece written by Alissa Solomon, Jewish American Performance, she discusses the work conducted by Robbins before the show debuted. Robbins began his work by reading the script of Fiddler on the roof and pointing out its strengths and flaws. Robbins wrote in a note on the script “The wedding scene is going to be wonderful I think” (23). Solomon shows how influential Robbins was on a production by stating “In the original Sholem Aleichem stories on which the musical was based, the actual wedding between Mod the tailor and Tevye’s daughter Tzaytl is just a throwaway line but Robbins would turn it into an elaborate yet dignified production number” (23). Robbins genius took an originally meaningless scene and turned it into one of the most famous scenes in the musical. Without Robbins’ love of song and dance he may have not been able to see the potential for greatness in such a minimal aspect of the original script.
Robbins went a step further to ensure that the wedding scene not only became such a critical and theatrical part of the play but historically accurate. Again Solomon states “Robbins prepared for Fiddler by conducting extensive research into the daily lives, beliefs, rituals, and folkways of Eastern European Jews at the beginning of the 20th century. He expressed an emotional connection to the material” (23). This helped to ensure that the entire nature of the production was true to Jewish history. He then honed in specifically on the wedding scene by experiencing an actual Hasidic wedding. “Beginning at least six months before rehearsals for Fiddler were to start, Robbins conducted what he called “fieldwork”: he visited Hasidic weddings and holiday festivities and brought other company members with him” (26). This clearly shows Robbins attention to detail as he spent months researching and experiencing the culture and events he was going to use in the production of Fiddler on the Roof.
Robbins personality drastically influenced Fiddler on the Roof. As a person, Robbins is meticulous, intelligent, and strict yet at the same time creative and a visionary. He put actors and actresses through multiple rounds of auditions for a single part and looked for a very specific type of actor for each role. He did extensive background research on Jewish culture and history in preparation for the creation of the musical. While this does not typically evoke a sense of art in a person’s mind, Robbins uses what he learned to fuel his creativity and vision as he turned an otherwise “throw away” aspect of the musical into a fun and exciting scene. Without Robbins personality and influence Fiddler on the Roof may not have become what it is today.
While many see Robbins influence on musicals in a positive manner, there are some that criticize his way of directing as well. In Bill Harpe’s piece, Jerome Robbins: The Avant-Garde Diplomat, Harpe criticizes the way Robbins influences the final version of a musical. Harpe focuses on criticizing how Robbins uses too much intellectual influence and does not let himself experience a full freedom in creativity that allows may other producers to have more success in the creation of musicals. He discusses how with such an emphasis on intellect, emotion falls to a secondary importance. “Whatever Robbins’ intentions may be, his “big” moments do not take hold of us emotionally. When Robbins moves us, it is frequently more incidental than basic” (411). He goes on to say “Robbins’ work is at its best when it is not planned, as suspect of the dummy episode. I would go further and say that his work is at its best when he is not thinking” (412). It is clear that Harpe feels that Robbins personality has a negative influence on his productions. Robbins places such an emphasis on intellect and bringing social issues to the forefront of musicals that some of the creativity and emotion is lost. It seems that while Solomon thinks that Robbins’ intellect enhances his vision due to extensive research catalyzing creativity, Harpe feels that Robbins’ intellect limits his imagination.
Harpe moves to discussing how Robbins is unique in his ability to bring a social conscious to his productions while maintaining some personal expression and vision in his dance numbers. He also praises Robbins knowledge of ballet but finishes his chapter by saying how Robbins was not as influential as many think. “Robbins is the hard-working professional choreographer and man of the theatre. He is not avant-garde. He thinks more than Gene Kelly or Fred Astaire, but not yet to much advantage. Perhaps basically? certainly at this moment? he is the middle -brow hero. Let us respect him as such” (419). Its very interesting to see a completely different view on such an influential member of the Broadway community. Molly MQquade seems to have a combined view of Solomon’s and Harpe’s ideas that are displayed in her short piece, Robbinesque?
McQuade talks about how Robbins had a very unique way of conducting himself and creating a musical. She names uses the word Robbinesque to describe his process. Throughout the piece she touches on themes that both Harpe and Solomon touch on. McQuade says “in dances by Robbins, feeling is found in form, not in feeling.” This idea parallels with the ideas put forth by Harpe in that due to Robbins need for precision and attention to detail, emotion is lost. However, McQuade does not completely dismiss Robbins ability to provoke emotion as, like Solomon, she states that the same precision and attention to detail drives creativity, which evokes emotion. She later states the same idea when talking about casting specific dancers. “he destroyed you in order to make you into what he wanted you to be. More affirmatively, a Royal Ballet colleague put it, “he didn’t want you to bring who you thought you were” a very wise idea.” Again McQuade acknowledges the fact that Robbins takes the individual personality away form his dancers and almost replaces it with his own but then finishes the statement with a very wise idea.
It can be seen by analyzing the work of many scholars, regardless of if one thinks Robbins influence on a musical is for the better or worse, it is clear that Robbins shapes the musicals he works on with his own personality. He emphasizes an attention to detail, intelligence, and rigor but at the same time fosters creativity and vision. He uses his heritage in influencing his decisions as well in his quest for creating the best musical possible. Judaism tends to emphasize certain characteristics that Robbins seems to emphasize in his musicals. Judaism emphasizes being thoughtful, and studious but also hopeful in the sense that anything is possible. Robbins displays these traits in his attention to detail, studying of the history and culture behind each musical, and his creative visions to turn what would otherwise be minimal scenes into masterpieces. Robbins has helped to shaped Broadway into what it is today and Judaism has helped to shape Robbins.
Harpe, Bill. Jerome Robbins: The Avant-Garde Diplomat. The Johns Hopkins University Press.
McQuade, Molly. “Robbinesque?”
Solomon, Alisa. Balancing Act: Fiddler’s “Bottle Dance and the Transformation of “Tradition””. The MIT Press.