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Jerome Robbins: The Great Integrator?

June 8, 2013

Countless writers have spilled equally countless gallons of ink on the roles of Oklahoma!, Show Boat, and Stephen Sondheim in the development of the musical play and then the integrated musical, but few have the clear eyes of former New York Times theatre critic Frank Rich to see the extent of the impact visionary choreographer Jerome Robbins had on the contemporary musical.

It’s not the individual show-stopping numbers [of West Side Story], good as they are, that had such a radical and lasting impact on the musical theater, but Mr. Robbins’s ability to set almost the entire evening to dance movement. To take just one example: When, in Act 1, Maria tries on her new dress, she goes into a twirl of delight that sets the whole show moving. Her friends start to spin with her, streamers fall from above, the set changes (without us really registering it), and suddenly we have joined the entire company in the midst of a big number, “The Dance at the Gym.” It’s all happened as fluidly and gracefully as a movie dissolve, with none of the awkward transitional dialogue that usually pockmarked pre-Robbins musicals. Watching the breakthroughs of West Side Story today offers pleasures that weren’t available in 1957: We can now see the genesis of the staging techniques used in such subsequent musicals as A Chorus Line, Sweeney Todd, and Evita. (Frank Rich, “Critic’s Notebook: What Makes a Play Seem Dated?”, New York Times, 6 July 1980)

Robbins wasn’t a genius because of his legendary dance-fight sequence in the show’s Prologue. He’s a genius because he knew how to use the mediums of dance and theatrical staging to both his and our advantage.

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