New Bio Tells the Jerome Robbins Story Somewhere: The Life of Jerome Robbins is a new biography of the American choreographer who left us wanting to dance all night after seeing productions of West Side Story and other musicals.
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New Bio Tells the Jerome Robbins Story

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New Bio Tells the Jerome Robbins Story

New Bio Tells the Jerome Robbins Story

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It's time for a call now to Jesse Kornbluth. Jesse is otherwise known as the Head Butler, and he's the man we turn to when we're in need of cultural advice. This week, he's got "West Side Story" on his mind.

(Soundbite of song, "West Side Story")

ELLIOTT: That music, of course, was written by Leonard Bernstein, but it was ballet choreographer Jerome Robbins who translated street-gang fight into high-kicking dance routine.

(Soundbite of song, "West Side Story")

ELLIOTT: The show debuted on Broadway 50 years ago this year, and Jesse Kornbluth decided to celebrate by reading "Somewhere: The Life of Jerome Robbins."

Hi, Jesse.

Mr. JESSE KORNBLUTH (Cultural Concierge, Hey, Debbie.

ELLIOTT: So the printed page is not the greatest place to experience dance and neither is radio, I suppose. How do you sell this? I take it it's a pretty fat book about Jerome Robbins.

Mr. KORNBLUTH: It's fat enough that I got up at 4 a.m. for about five days to read it. But the fact is, I got up at 4 a.m. because it's a fantastically interesting book about much, much more than dance, because Robbins was about more than dance. And in him, you can see all the turmoil of the talented -really the genius, Jewish, homosexual - in a time when it wasn't safe to be any of those things. He was a leftist. He was a communist at a time when he could have gone to jail. And these things, which were the crises of his life, turned out to inform and infuse his works. So you're really reading a, kind of, psychobiography. You're finding out not so much what he did but why he did it and what drove him to - and this was a man who was successful early on, was successful all his life, and at the same time was haunted by demons the whole time. I mean, a riveting life.

ELLIOTT: Now, we should give the author a plug here. It's Amanda Vaill.

Mr. KORNBLUTH: Amanda Vaill, who has got a real talent for seeing the thing whole. There have been other biographies of Robbins, and they're exactly what you talk about. They are freighted by the difficulty of explaining dance. But here, the challenge is explaining Robbins, because here's Robbins, if I may, toward the end of his life. I mean, and I knew him at the end of his life. He was a crisp guy, you know, in a blue shirt and khakis who was much more pleasant, apparently, than he was during most of his career. But here he is in his early 70s and he takes LSD at the beach.

At first, not much happened. He and the two other men went down to the beach and Jerry became fascinated with the tall, desiccated phragmites, the tufted marsh grasses that grew there. Pulling some of the long stalks out of the ground, he began waving them around in a solemn way, as if he were doing a ritual dance. Then something cataclysmic happened. As he described it to a friend long after:

(Reading) My life was a glass table, and all of a sudden cracks began appearing all over it.

He felt that it, or he, was about to break into a million glassy shards and the prospect terrified him. He fell to his knees, then curled up on the sand in a fetal position, moaning in agony. Somehow his friends got him back to the house, but Jerry remained in torment, quote, "close to suicide, murder and total anarchy," unquote, as he put it, for almost 48 hours.

Now this is an extremely good use of a man's journals, and Amanda Vaill is terrific at incorporating her unique access into what could have been just an account of a difficult and uncompleted life.

ELLIOTT: The name of the book is "Somewhere: The Life of Jerome Robbins" by Amanda Vaill. We should just revisit Jerome Robbins' career. You mentioned early on, he was very successful. He worked on a slew of musicals that we've all heard of, "On The Town," "The King and I," "Bells Are Ringing," "Gypsy."

Mr. KORNBLUTH: And don't forget "Fiddler," which is perhaps the most enduring of these, because it touches such a deep nerve in all people who came from anywhere else. And the phenomenal irony of this, of course, is this was a Jew who changed his name, right, and was in flight from his heritage.

ELLIOTT: And I guess we can't have a conversation about Jerome Robbins without mentioning - you know, he was rather controversial. He named names.

Mr. KORNBLUTH: Well, the really fascinating thing in Amanda Vaill's book is how horrible Ed Sullivan was. I mean, I just thought he was this deracinated variety show host. But in fact, he was like a, kind of, cousin to J. Edgar Hoover. And he was a friend of Joseph McCarthy's and he put it very bluntly to Jerry Robbins:

(Reading) There was a party at your apartment that Lena Horne hosted, and I want the names, or else I will write a column that tells all the world you're a communist and a homosexual.

And that could have put Robbins in jail. So Robbins, you know, finally caved after holding out and, you know, a month later, he was directing Ethel Merman and Mary Martin on television in a show sponsored by Ford. In other words, he got a completely clean bill of health, but at the cost of a lot of friendships. All of this shows that the only thing he could actually commit to fully was his art. He revolutionized American ballet. He really merged popular dance with classical dance.

ELLIOTT: Was it unusual for a choreographer to have such success both in, you know, the Broadway world and the ballet world?

Mr. KORNBLUTH: This is an unprecedented career. There's nothing like it now. No one can cross genres the way Robbins did and do it with the facility that he did. And let's not forget, this man had no education. I mean, he didn't really go to college. He was an autodidact who had an incredible ability to focus. I mean, he taught himself Russian so he could read the literature. This was an amazingly disciplined intellect and creative force who worked amazingly hard, who worked his dancers amazingly hard, who was hell on earth to work with, but always was working in the service of some artistic vision.

And the real question of the book, the really the unanswered question, the unanswerable question is: was it a satisfactory life? At the end of it, was he fulfilled, or was he tormented even at the end by what he didn't have and who he couldn't be?

ELLIOTT: The name of the book is "Somewhere: The Life of Jerome Robbins" by Amanda Vaill. Jesse Kornbluth is our Head Butler, and you can find more of his picks on his Web site, Thanks so much, Jesse.

Mr. KORNBLUTH: Thank you, Debbie.

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