Transcript:

Speaker I remember meeting Jerry Robbins for the first time at an audition process, I was auditioning to be his assistant for the upcoming musical Jerome Robbins Broadway, and it was very professional. He walked into the room. He said hello. We all said hello back. He was there for about 15 minutes and he left. That was the first time I met Jerry Robbins professionally. I actually met him once in a deli in New York just outside the Winter Garden Theatre, and I went up to him and said, Hello, Mr. Robbins. My name is Jerry Mitchell. It's a pleasure to meet you. And he said, it's very nice to meet you, too, and went on his way.

Speaker So what happened in this case? A little closer to what happened in those 15 minutes that enabled him to decide who he wanted to have his assistant, that is between Jerry Robbins and God.

Speaker I don't remember anything other than doing a part of West Side Story for him. And a part a part of Cool actually danced a part of Cool. And I think we also did a part of the prologue, and that was it. And we each said hello, said our names and I got a call the next day. Would you come to a rehearsal studio with me? I'd like to dance with you and I'll pay you one hundred dollars a day. And that was the beginning of our relationship. And I went in and danced with him that day. Bassendean Rubio was there and we worked on some choreography from Fiddler on the Roof and he asked us to come back the next day and that turned into six weeks, which turned into six months, which turned into two years.

Speaker Terrific. So. You became Jerry's assistant, so why don't you just tell me what your role was on Jerome Robbins Broadway and what you did basically? OK, job?

Speaker Well, I, I was asked to join Jerry Robbins as his assistant on Jerome Robbins Broadway. Manny Azenberg was the producer and it was all very much a one step at a time sort of contract deal. Jerry wanted to get to know me, I'm sure, as you would want to know any assistant, and he wanted to make sure that we were the right ones for the job. Myself and Cynthia and Rubia in particular, there were others who came and went, but we sort of stuck it out the long haul.

Speaker Basically, my job was to be his dancing legs, basically to learn all of his original choreography from the people who either were still alive and could do it, or from videotapes that existed or even notes that existed to try and help stir his memory physically so we could recreate the numbers to put into the show or at least to look at the numbers to decide whether or not they were going to go into the show. And that took us a good year and a lot of a lot of archaeology, archaeology to dig up some of the dances. One in particular dance. I remember the Billion Dollar Baby, the maxin at ballet came from a stagehand's, a stage manager's notes. He'd stop you.

Speaker Yeah, you're thinking of high but high button shoes. Yes. High definition. Sorry, sorry, sorry, sir.

Speaker I of there is something going on over here. I'm being distracted so I just make sure there's no.

Speaker How about you just maxin it vallet.

Speaker Yeah, let's just go back a little bit, because I'm going to ask you about that a minute. What was.

Speaker You've worked on lots of musicals now, so what was different about this process than all of the other?

Speaker Musicals you've worked on the process of creating Jerome Robbins Broadway for me was.

Speaker Something that you can't really describe or put a put a price tag on, because I was learning the greatest musical theater choreography, in my opinion, from the man who actually created it. And that's the first carbon copy. You know, I'm not learning the third generation production West Side Story or the third generation Fiddler on the Roof. I was learning the original choreography from the man who created it. And when you learn the original stuff from the original creator, you learn why it's chosen, why it's being done. And that's something that you never learn from anyone else and certainly not in their language.

Speaker OK, tell me just what Jerome Robbins Broadway was for people who didn't see it.

Speaker Jerome Robbins Broadway was a musical that actually represented some of Jerry Robbins greatest work. It was a compilation Broadway musical. If you if you if you will. It was West Side Story, Fiddler on the Roof, The King and I, a billion dollar baby max Senate ballet. I mean, lots of his greatest numbers, all in one terrific evening. And and there was a lot that was left in the wayside, but basically it was a compilation Broadway musical.

Speaker Now, explain to people who wouldn't understand why these all of these things don't still exist. Why couldn't why weren't they on film or something?

Speaker Well, Broadway musicals, live events are not allowed to be videotaped in any way, shape or form for your own private and personal use. So choreographers and directors of Broadway shows can only rely on what is snuck by some friend or what happens to be Berel, as it's called, which is used for publicity purposes. Or if you're lucky enough to be asked to be on a television show at that time for its fiftieth or a Tony Awards or an Academy Awards or some award show where you're asked to do a number, then there's an actual record of it that exists. Many of these Broadway shows came and went, and there was never, ever a person, a real professional record on any kind of archival record. And then Lincoln Center started the archival Broadway, you know, taping.

Speaker OK, so. Tell me exactly how the excuse me, what is going on?

Speaker Sure. OK, is everybody so? I'm sorry, I'm totally distracted. There's nothing.

Speaker Is it me, OK, can you just sit down if you can say.

Speaker OK, um.

Speaker Of course, I completely forgot. Oh, OK, sorry. The reconstruction process, right. So if you can explain how this what was what sorts of materials and people were assembled for, you know, the typical number, how did that work?

Speaker Well, as we reconstructed each ballet or each dance for Jerome Robbins Broadway, we had to go through certain channels.

Speaker When we were doing the Billion Dollar Baby ballet, I had to fly to London to meet with the original Scream Girl and learned the choreography from her because she remembered it. She also had a copy from Ford's fiftieth anniversary. Um, some of the some of the choreography. There were existing people who had recreated the choreography of Fiddler, certainly of King and I and of West Side Story, who came back and taught it to us. And then Jerry was able to get it as close to the original as he could remember.

Speaker And basically the steps were there. It was always what is the reason behind the steps? That was the finishing touch that Jerry could add that no one else could in the instance of the Mack Sennett ballet. What happened was one of the stage managers, as I recall, had notes and he had been through three divorces, but he still had the notes to the ballet.

Speaker So Jerry once presented Cynthia and Ruby and I this this series of notes and said, go make sense of these. And we're looking at it like, what do you mean make sense of it? We don't even know what this means. Go door three, come outdoor for go indoors six, come outdoor eight. Set up a series of chairs and we started holding hands and walking through doors and, you know, spurred his memory that he could remember. But the real capper to that moment was Nanette Fabray had a kinescope in her attic that she had found with somebody in the back of the theater with a hand wound brownie camera at the time that had the first part of the ballet and the last part of the ballet. No sound, of course. And that was unbelievably helpful to us in recreating the ballet, because once he had the first part, in the end part, he was able to remember the rest from the notes. And we created this amazing, amazing maxin at ballet.

Speaker It was just incredible. You said before that you danced with him a little bit and he I'm sure he danced, you know, he got up and moved around.

Speaker Jerry did a lot more than got up and moved around. And even I met him at a very late stage in his life and was quite impressive to see him doing push ups and sit ups every morning in the corner before we'd start rehearsal.

Speaker But could you tell anything about the kind of dancer he was?

Speaker Well, you know, I believe that I believe that the kind of dancer that Jerry was was that he was a great actor when he danced in the theater. That's what matters. I remember him once saying to me, we were talking about a dancer, Suzanne Fletcher, who was in Jerome Robbins Broadway, and she was the Scream girl in in the Billion Dollar Baby ballet. And Susan was wonderful. But Susan wasn't a dancer as much as she was an actress, at least in our book and in the way Jerry saw her. And that's not a bad thing. That's a very, very good thing. He said, you know, this isn't the ballet. This isn't about technique. This is about acting. It's much more exciting to watch an actor dance than it was, is to watch a dancer try to act.

Speaker Show.

Speaker What can you tell me about the way that he worked in rehearsal with the dancers?

Speaker I always felt in rehearsal Jerry was incredibly clear with the dancers and his passion for getting it right and his desire to to get it right often led to frustrating moments. But those frustrating moments were really his impatience with himself, almost more so than it ever was with a dancer. I did see times when he got completely frustrated with the person doing it and would make a change. But hey, that's the way it works. You've got to get it right. That was always ultimately the goal to get it right.

Speaker How did that frustration manifest itself?

Speaker Sometimes he'd freak out and scream and yell. Often it was often his frustration. In rehearsal, Jerry manifested his frustration in rehearsals, at least in the rehearsals with me.

Speaker On himself before he'd ever do it on a dancer and, you know, I met him again very late in his life, so I saw a different Jerry perhaps than a lot of people saw. We're much all much wilder and stronger and more flippant when we're young. And as we age, we mellow a bit, but we also become much more clear about how to get to the finished product.

Speaker I don't know how you would know about how you age, but. Well, that's an honest. There is a story that I read about, um, which I think was attributed to you in which Jerry was demonstrating somebody drinking poison. Oh, yeah. Can you tell me, you know what I'm talking. Oh, I do. Can you tell me that story? Well, uh.

Speaker Let's see, this is this is a real story that taught me the importance of commitment and I was rehearsing The Dreams come True ballet. And Jerry, I was playing Ramon, a Ramon Navarro character, a silent film actor who comes into this girl's apartment as she's reading Photoplay magazine and has this dialogue with her in dance. And she forces me to drink the poison and I drink it and I have to die. And it's all in silent film.

Speaker And I was doing the steps and I drank the poison and I died. And he was. No, no, no, no. That nobody's going to believe you when you do that. You're not committed to it. And he said, watch me. And I had brought my dog to rehearsal that day. And Jerry loved animals. And I my golden retriever was tied up under the table. And, you know, I had done the scene in my golden retriever. I just sat there and watched me. Well, when Jerry drank the poison and died, my golden retriever started to whimper, literally started to cry. And I thought he even convinced my dog. So there was a real commitment. And it taught me at a very young age that it's about commitment, 100 percent. Yeah, my dog did, my dog started, my dog actually started whimpering and he said, is he OK? Is he OK? Thought, Damn, he even got my dog's attention. That was that was some.

Speaker I'm going to need a few numbers from the show, right, and ask you if you could talk about them specifically relating to what you remember was important to Jerry when he worked on them. OK, New York, New York from Allentown.

Speaker And if you could name the number of New York, New York from the town had to be bursting with energy. And the question of, oh, my God, what if where am I the surprise, the element of never seeing it before.

Speaker The Charleston number from Billion Dollar Baby, the Charleston was absolute madness, madness from Billion Dollar Baby. It was about it was about committing to drunken frivolity and totally out of control, even when you're in control.

Speaker Um, comedy tonight from form comedy tonight was surprisingly about honesty, it really was it was about playing the honesty in the in the in order to get the comedy had to be totally honest. You couldn't send it up. It would be a hat on a hat. So it was about being honest.

Speaker What else can you tell me about Gerry working with that?

Speaker No, I think I think one of the funny things about working on comedy tonight was watching Jerry enjoy it. He was very turned on by the proteins and the sort of cartoonish, comical kind of life they created. It was very much a part of something that was in him.

Speaker Do you did you get to know him well enough that you could talk about what that thing was?

Speaker It wasn't. You know, it's not when you're when you're working with someone and you're close to them and you get to witness traits that are specific to those people. Jerry had an amazing ability to pull comedy out of physical movement. He was he was a master at that. And if I've learned anything from him, it's to search for the comedy, to search for the human comedy in the physical movement. And sometimes I succeed and sometimes I fail. But at least he opened my eyes to the possibility of it.

Speaker Can you give me an example where you saw him do that?

Speaker Um.

Speaker Well, certainly I saw his comedy, I saw his comic genius all over Billion Dollar Baby all over the Maxin IT ballet and all over for him in the in the Ballis and Billion Dollar Baby in Maxin at Ballay in particular, it was all based on acting. What is the character want and how is the character going to get it. And being truthful to that, to that leads to the comical moment when two paths crossed that shouldn't.

Speaker How about the small house of Uncle Tom?

Speaker I was involved with it, I was in in Jerome Robbins Broadway, it was it was in the beginning when we were creating it, we had to learn everything. Now I'm six foot four. I'm not going to look very good on my hands and knees rubbing the sand and doing small house of Uncle Thomas. And, you know, I'm not really little Eva, but I was a good Simon Legree. And actually Cynthia on Rubia really took in, took, you know.

Speaker Took care of that number, but I learned the entire number and it was really it was really interesting to see how far he took a certain style of choreography, being a young Jewish man and went into that world and created that ballet. So specific, so clear, such good storytelling was truly amazing to watch that. So I was very happy to learn it and learn it firsthand from him.

Speaker What was important to him in Gebek in Gimmick?

Speaker Well, I think in Gammick with Faith Prince again, Debbie Shapiro, Greevey or Gravett Now and and Suzanne Fletcher, it was the personality of the ladies, but also the truth, you know, not sending it up, playing it for real. And and that was really that was really important.

Speaker It's a real scene. It's a it's a real it's a real scene where three ladies are teaching a young girl who has no knowledge of burlesque. One of the amazing things about the choreography in the staging of that number is he leaves Louise on stage to actually watch the number and the girls perform it for Louise as opposed to perform it for the audience. And, you know, I've seen many people make that mistake, put Louise offstage or not put her on stage. Louise has to be there. She's learning how to be a burlesque queen from these ladies.

Speaker Other than Sun by the sea, which you talked about, the sun by the sea was just I mean, where could I have learned something that specific, that clear and that magical? It was just incredible storytelling. And, you know, to do a silent film in a ballet live on stage, you know, that was just an amazing thing to watch. But it was really about detail. I remember I think I remember Jerry taking a pair of scissors to the baby crook costume in a dress rehearsal because it wasn't as natty as he wanted it to look. And the costume designer was just sitting there going, I think she'd been through it before with him. So it wasn't a big deal.

Speaker OK, tradition. Tradition.

Speaker Fiddler was obviously something that was very, very important to Jerry. It was a musical that had to do with his own heritage. I don't really I can't get into it, but I certainly sensed it in the way he taught it and the way he worked with Jason Alexander on developing Tavia. And and the truth in that the comedy and tradition and the comedy in Fiddler was what was surprising to me. Incredibly heartfelt story, serious story. But yet this man has conversations with God and there's so much humor in that. And it was incredible to watch that sort of develop as a young director, watching how the the movement was secondary. It really was secondary. It was the story that was being told through the movement and the pride in that tradition, having the hands in the air in the walk, simple moves, but really, really specific. The bottle dance, the wedding dance, the passion of that tradition and how that dance was created and upheld. And we there were no there was no Velcro on the head. There was the real the real challenge of keeping that bottle on your hat. And it could fall and did but that the audience sensed that. So that made it very real. And the dancers were working every night to keep that bottle in their head.

Speaker How did you do you ever did it work with them to learn how to do that?

Speaker There was a and in Fiddler in the wedding dance, there was a well, we learned the steps from Sammy Bass and then we practiced and we practiced and we practiced until we got it right. And there was a a step that's called the ecstasy, which is after the hat comes off and it's this loss of abandonment. And I remember having to teach the dancers to stop dancing. And act the feelings of ecstasy as they were doing the step, and that was always very important. How are you acting? What are you feeling when you're doing this step much more important than where your foot was?

Speaker You teach them to keep the balls on their heads?

Speaker Well, it was just practice, literally. It was it was one of those things you had to practice. You had the brim of the hat is is buckled in, so the bottle stays in the front of it. But it's about how you hold your head when you're dancing. You can't it's all very slow and meticulous and you can't pop your head and you can't do anything. You have to practice, practice, practice.

Speaker It is really extraordinary.

Speaker But it's amazing when there's no Velcro because, you know, you at the audience knows that they're really doing it.

Speaker Well, the audience really doesn't know until then, till it falls off.

Speaker Yeah, but you've seen companies of Fiddler where they actually bend over with it and pull it off with the Velcro.

Speaker And it's not the same thing you can tell the minute they start cheering the dance at the gym. West Side Story.

Speaker Well, West Side Story was probably the most amazing experience to have for me personally with Jerry for many reasons. I was in high school when I did my first national tour of West Side Story. I was grabbed out of high school and I went on a national tour of West Side Story. And then I did a production of West Side Story at a summer theater. And then I did a production of West Side Story that I choreographed at a dinner theater. And then I did another production of West Side Story where I was in it, and the associate to the choreographer and I had learned all the original choreography in some watered down version along the way. So here I was working on Jerome Robbins Broadway, thinking I knew the steps. And it was quite a different thing to actually do the steps with the true meaning behind the steps, why the steps were being created and done, and West Side learning west side from Jerry himself and the meaning behind it was truly an amazing experience for me personally. I've always held that show. It was one of the first shows that I saw where I thought the dance was indispensable to the storytelling and how it was integrated with Bernstein's score and the and the and the, you know, the script by Arthur. I mean, it was truly one of those amazing musicals where there where it was seamless for me. Having had that experience to learn that the reason behind every decision with Jerry was.

Speaker Can you give me an example, you mean?

Speaker Well, you know, when when the guys are standing in the very beginning and the prologue starts. But but but after that and they're moving, it's about the heat.

Speaker It's it's it's it's restrained because it's a hot day and there isn't a lot of movement. It's very cautious. And they're on their turf and they're just checking it out. And this one passes it to that one and that one passes it to this one. And then they breathe, they start to breathe together as they do the next section. And that breathing is the sailing section that takes them into the struggling section that that says we own this turf. And then Bernardo enters and everything changes. And it's nailing that. It's claiming the turf. I mean, the steps really are dialogue. They really are dialogue.

Speaker Oh, so you're talking about the opening. What about, um, Cooper? Did you work on.

Speaker Cause I did work on Cool. You know, I'd learn cool from Grover Dale as part of the audition and. You know, again, I'm 64 and, you know, I don't dance like somebody who's five eight, I dance like somebody who's six four. And I think that was interesting to Jerry. And I wasn't a ballet dancer. I had a lot of ballet technique and training, but I wasn't a ballet dancer. I wasn't about my my dancing was purely emotional based. It was not technique based. And I think that was exciting for Jerry in musical theater.

Speaker Um.

Speaker Well, speaking specifically was a story actually you just talking about. I was going to ask you next, which is that the movement looks kind of jazzy to people, but you can't do it without valid technique.

Speaker Explain how you can do it once. You can do the movement in West Side Story once without ballet technique. But if you want to do it eight times a week, you need a very fine tuned, tuned instrument that can repeat it over and over and not get hurt. Ballet, whether it's used in the actual choreography of a Broadway show or not, isn't there just for you to point your toe. It's actually there for you to discipline your body so your body can sustain a run. Broadway isn't about being there three times a week, four times a week, six times a week. Broadway is about being there eight times a week. Eight times a week, 52 weeks out of the year. You know, that's the truth, there are no off days because it doesn't pay. You get a vacation and you get a day off, but you're being paid to be there eight times a week. For myself as a dancer, it's what I always wanted to do. So I didn't do this unless I had a major injury. And I can count those two times on my fingers. But the truth of the matter is, is the discipline that's required to maintain a Broadway run is lacking, sorely lacking in a lot of dancers today. So West Side Story may appear to be jazz influenced or jazzy in its choreography, but the choreography is really all ballet based. Jerry wasn't a jazz dancer. He wasn't a tap dancer. He was a ballet dancer. He was a ballet master. And all of the choreography is really through basic ballet, discipline, chassé, pirouette, Glisan, you know, Jeté, it's all in there. What's interesting about it, and one of the things that I've learned from him as a choreographer is, you know, you don't do a double pirouette and it turned out posture unless you're a ballet dancer in a Broadway show. So he took the pirouette and he dragged the toe on the floor to imply this is a kid with tennis shoes on who's dragging his foot in the sand or in the ballet, for instance, running through and scuffing your feet. And he often used running on the beach as a as a metaphor in the scherzo and, you know, finding space for the first time, the imagery of finding an open field or an open beach. Those were images that didn't exist in the world, in New York City, where these kids were being, where they were on their turf wars. So although it was all ballet based, the steps were ballet based, there was a jazzy spin to them or a contemporary spin that was very today when it was created.

Speaker You talked a little bit before. You talk a little bit before about Jerry's use of humor, which is sort of on a.

Speaker Level by himself, right?

Speaker There's no question, you know, often people say that comedians aren't funny when you meet them in person. And I for for a long time, I never really knew what that meant. But in a strange way, it certainly applies to Jerry Robbins, because Jerry wasn't a funny guy. He wasn't somebody who, you know, you went up to in high. Yuck, yuck, yuck, yuck, yuck. But, boy, he knew how to get the humor out of the physical movement. He knew how to he knew how to set up the punch line physically. And that was apparent in everything he did as a choreographer.

Speaker Give me what are your sort of favorite three examples?

Speaker Well, certainly, certainly the proteins by far in the proteins in a funny thing happened the way the form we're working on this thing. And then up comes a little curtain and there's three people and there's six legs. Then there are three legs. Then there are two legs. And then there's one leg that does a complete 360. And you think, well, how did that happen? Well, he's got a fake leg back there, but you don't know it because the other two guys are holding him up. And, you know, it's just it's just the what if possibility. If you have six legs, what are the possibilities of three, four, two when you can't really see what's going on behind that curtain? And there was so much joy in figuring that out.

Speaker Delight, real, real delight and humor in in the Billion Dollar Baby, the Charleston.

Speaker When the woman comes out and she's drunk and she screams the fringe dress girl, it's that scream is curdling and it's just hilarious. I remember watching him laugh from his belly at the at the joy of seeing a drunken woman in a French dress come out and go wild. And it's just it's hilarious, but only in that context, in that setup and the music built to that moment. And then all hell broke loose. It's like the sounding of the bell, the sounding of an alarm, that moment in the ballet. And and then everybody is drunk and they land flat on the floor. And then there's a hiccup and then there's a whoopee. And, you know, these are very funny interjections, but. You know, he dreamt it up, he thought it up, people of innocence often ask me as a choreographer, how do you dream something up? I don't. I just do it. It just comes out of me. And whatever comes out of him was usually pretty fucking fabulous. Excuse my French.

Speaker Um, he had a very short theatrical sense, pacing and timing. What if you could talk about that? Because I would you agree that was.

Speaker Yeah, yeah. There's no question he knew how to put together a show. He knew when the show was long and he knew when the show was short. I remember a very, very specific moment. We were working on Jerome Robbins Broadway and he said to me, I have to get all the locals out. And I said, What? What do you mean? And he said, the lulls, the moments when three seconds pass by and nothing's happening. He said, if you got ten of them, you've saved 30 seconds. And I thought to myself, wow, three seconds. Ten times is 30 seconds and 30 seconds in an act can make the difference. But that's how specific it is. And he knew that.

Speaker And he knew where they were.

Speaker Oh, he he knew where they are most of the time. Sometimes he didn't. He would he actually asked opinions on that often, you know, or running water. He I remember him once asking my opinion on the running order and I was shocked. And, you know, why do you ask my opinion? I thought you're the person who knows. But he actually did ask once, and I found it incredibly refreshing that he would ask, but he didn't know. He knew. And if he didn't know, one of the other great things that Jerry did was he would do it every possible way and often would go back to his first choice. But it wasn't until he had exhausted all the other possibilities.

Speaker And how did people feel about that, um.

Speaker I believe that Jerry demanded everyone to be there 100 percent all the time, and he demanded that because he demanded it of himself and I don't think anyone really can in any situation. I don't care what it is you do for a living. If the person who's in charge is giving it 110 percent, how can you give less? It's only when people expect you to do more than they do that I think you can really make a stink about it. And I don't think you could ever do that with Jerry.

Speaker Good. So as a young Broadway choreographer, you. Yes.

Speaker Tell me, what do you think that some of the some of the most important things I've learned from Jerry were certainly truth being true to the character as a choreographer? Steps are just like the written dialogue. They must fit the character. When he did, the dreams come True ballet, which never ended up in Jerome Robbins Broadway. I remember having a conversation with him. We were allowed to videotape everything that we were rehearsing. The videotapes were kept in a safe and Charlie Blackwell, the production stage manager, had the combination to that safe when the show was actually up and running on Broadway. Some of those tapes were then going to go to the Lincoln Center Archive. And Jerry and I were in the office, the office that I had trying to decide which tapes to send in which not. And we were pulling them out and reading them. And he said, oh, don't send that, don't send that. And we got to the dreams come true ballet. And he said, no, destroy it. And I said, Why? I said, this is amazing. I said, I know it's not in the show, but most young choreographers aren't asked to choreograph a pantomime acting ballet. This could be very helpful. And certainly I've learned a great deal from it. The commitment story about drinking the wine. And he said, no, no, no. I said, please, please send it. So he ended up sending it. And I think I talked him into saving that cut to my Choreographing the Full Monty for Broadway. The end of the first act is a song called Michael Jordan's Ball. And these guys are not dancers and they have to learn to move by pretending to play a pickup game of basketball. So my choreography, my steps for these guys had to be true to their character. And when I finished choreographing the number, which came out of me literally like pouring a glass of water, it was that fast. And it usually is as if the story is right. Once it was done, I thought to myself, I thought, damn, I wish Jerry could see this because I couldn't have done that ballet if I hadn't met him.

Speaker Um, so I guess what you're saying is, um, what's more important than the steps is the story.

Speaker A story always comes first in a Broadway show. The story comes first. Steps are a dime a dozen. And you know what? They 30 seconds of steps is like watching five minutes on stage unless there's a story behind it and then they zoom by.

Speaker Now, I understand you, we're going to get off Broadway for a second, I understand you worked on the revival of Gypsy, right? I did work on the revival Gypsy and that had Jerry Springer. But you added some of your. Oh, I did.

Speaker OK, and there's not really so much dancing with Jerry's and Gypsy, but I think what there is is pretty ingenious how you use dance moves.

Speaker When when when I was asked to get involved with Gypsy, the Bernadette Peters revival directed by Sam Mendes, one of the things that I said to Sam, I said, you know, there are things of Jerry's that are brilliant and I don't want to I want to use those. But there are other things that I didn't know. Again, I had learned the farm boy stuff from Jerry first hand. And, you know, so I was I was capable and willing to recreate that. But I had no idea about Louise. And in her transformation in her her becoming Gypsy Rose Lee and that strip routine and how I might handle that, I'd also had a great deal of experience doing my own strip show recently, which is a charity for Broadway Cares, Equity Fights AIDS. So I wanted to explore that. I also thought that today's audiences couldn't really relate to something that was too old fashioned, and I was dealing with a new set designer in a new costume designer. So I wanted to honor their collaboration and how we might come up with something truly original. So most of the Lui's second act stuff was all mine and some of the stuff in the farm boys and certainly the Tulsa number was Jerry's with embellishments for the actor who was doing it. One of the other great lessons I learned from Jerry's and I and I think he would he would certainly support me in this is that when you're creating choreography on an actor, you must take into consideration who's doing the choreography, because not every actor can do this step exactly the way you may have imagined it. You have to use their talents in creating it. And I certainly did that with the Tulsa number. And I also did that with Louise. No, the kids were different. They were kids, but I did the moo cow. I created my own thing. I had the cow jump rope, which was a very vaudeville sort of thing. And, you know, so I had a little leeway with the show. And certainly Sam had his own ideas about how he wanted to do it. So I, as a choreographer, had to honor those things. But one of the most important things for me and one of the reasons I wanted to do it was because I wanted to teach the young kids who were playing the kids who Jerry was and what he was. And, you know, it always is interesting to me how fleeting it all is when you meet a young dancer and you say, do you know who Jerry Robbins is?

Speaker Most of them, I hope, will say yes, but you'd be surprised how many don't, and that's always heartbreaking to me. So anything I can do to help perpetuate that legend and all that he's given to us, I'm always there for speaking about his empathy for.

Speaker Yeah. It was kind of ingenious in the sense that, no, he really didn't have except maybe for Tulsa. He really didn't have any dancers.

Speaker No, no. Everyone. Well, I mean, the funny thing, the thing that I really didn't realize until I got into the show actually started studying the script and looking at all the things was because I had learned I had learned the the dainty June section, the farm boys and the Broadway section, which also didn't end up in Jerome Robbins Broadway. But I'd learned it. And that's fine on its own.

Speaker But what's brilliant is the little kids do the routine, the older kids do the routine, and then the toreador try to do the same routine. And you realize again, it's the story. Mama Rose had six steps and they were the same six steps and everybody did the same six steps. The costumes changed, the lights changed. Even the gender of the person doing them changed, but his steps remained the same. And that's pretty fucking hilarious. That's pretty darn hilarious. Sorry.

Speaker The way I think you use the device the jury came up with to the passage, the passage of time in Gypsy is a priceless, priceless moment. And I said to Sam, I said, we're never going to be do better than that. So get the strobe lights out and I'm going to be doing trenches and will we'll use that. Now, I didn't know the original choreography, so I watched the video at Lincoln Center and you couldn't tell because the strobe was going on. So I but I got the feel of it. And with Arthur's help, I was able to recreate it pretty close to what it originally was. But it's priceless. The only person who's even come close to that in anything that I've ever seen is caught.

Speaker Which was a beautiful ballet with strobe lighting.

Speaker I think it's called a lobster scope, isn't it? Yeah, yes, um. Let's talk a little bit about the number with Tulsa, because what's amazing. Well, you tell me what's amazing to you.

Speaker And that's one of the things that I didn't even know about in the Tulsa Ballay in the original creation, because I had I couldn't see it on any tape. Is that as he's performing the number, Louise? Sees herself in the number with him and at the very, very end before she actually joins in with him while he says I lift her. Louise actually stands up as if she's being lifted. She's been sitting through the entire number and again and she stands up again and a third time. And Louise has three simple movements.

Speaker And you realize, again, it isn't about the steps. It's about the story. It's about this woman longing to be with this guy, Tulsa, and watching her watch him and then he runs away with her sister.

Speaker Well, what's so great is that Jerry really made a duet for two people, except only one of them.

Speaker Yeah, until the very, very end. But you see her yearning to be a part of it. And it's pretty it's pretty unbelievable.

Speaker Did you talk to you take your time? Did you ever talk to you about.

Speaker A stare, because there's obviously staring Florence in that piece and in that no, no, see, we worked on that number, but it never ended up being in the show. We worked on that, the number for Jerome Robbins Broadway, but it was quickly abandoned. I think Jack Noseworthy and Robert LaForce were taught it, maybe a few other guys, but it was quickly abandoned. I don't know for what reasons. I don't know why, but Jerry thought no room for that.

Speaker Okay. Um, what influence do you think Jerry's work has had on the Broadway choreographers who followed him? Well, you know.

Speaker Gerri's work on Broadway is some of the greatest work that's ever existed on Broadway and maybe even the greatest work body of work that's ever existed on Broadway. Certainly there are others who have had a great influence on Broadway, but he may be the single most greatest choreographer and certainly greatest director, choreographer, whoever this artform has ever seen. The influence is, you know, I never try to be, but I try to remember why he's so great in everything that I do. I was working this today. I was working on the national tour of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, and I was giving a very specific piece of choreography to Tom Hewett. And I was mentioning Jerry Robbins. And because the detail reminded me of something he did in a Billion Dollar Baby. And as I explained why it needed to be on a specific count, I was trying to explain to the actors that if it's not on the count, it won't be funny. It needs to match the music and needs to match the timing. It's all about timing. And that is one thing that I learned from him that is so in the storytelling. It's all about timing. I mean, it's.

Speaker It's amazing. Is there anything that you would like to say about Jerry that I would ask you?

Speaker Well, you know, one of the things I would like to say about Jerry Robbins is that, you know, I met him at a very, very late time in his life. And I certainly heard all the rumors about his temper and his and his meanness. And, you know, and, you know, you go into a situation like that and you think, oh, God, what am I getting myself into? I found as as I stepped away from it. And I after that, certainly long after my process of working with Jerry Robbins, I feel that it's misinterpreted. Certainly for me, the time that I spent with him, which again was later in his life, wasn't about being mean.

Speaker It was about the frustration of creation. And when you're creating something, how frustrating it can become when you can't get it out. A director and a choreographer has to get the images inside of his head onto a stage, and everyone does it in a different way. And it can be very frustrating at times. And you have to be very specific. And another great choreographer and director that I worked with was Michael Bennett, and I worked with Michael before. I worked with Jerry Robbins. But still, this was the mid 80s. And I remember a conversation that Michael Bennett and I were having and he said human rights have crept into the theater. At the time. I didn't know what he meant, but what he meant was the collaboration process has changed in the old days. It was OK to be a tyrant and a dictator and it's not accepted now. It's it is about collaboration. It's about finding a way to lead everyone in one direction without really smacking people upside the head along the way. And, you know, that really is the balancing act now in today's theater. And that's what I'm faced with. And I'm happy to be faced with that because actually I love collaborating. And if there's something I've learned from Jack O'Brien, who's my often collaborator on many of the musicals that I've done, is that sometimes the best idea in the room might come from the usher.

Speaker So you have to remain open to the open to know what if? And sometimes that can be. Incredibly refreshing.

Jerry Mitchell
Interview Date:
2006-07-17
Runtime:
0:50:21
Keywords:
None
American Archive of Public Broadcasting GUID:
cpb-aacip-504-k649p2ww9r, cpb-aacip-504-kw57d2qz2r
MLA CITATIONS:
"Jerry Mitchell, Jerome Robbins: Something to Dance About." American Masters Digital Archive (WNET). 17 Jul. 2006, https://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/archive/interviews/1006
APA CITATIONS:
(2006, July 17). Jerry Mitchell, Jerome Robbins: Something to Dance About. [Video]. American Masters Digital Archive (WNET). https://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/archive/interviews/1006
CHICAGO CITATIONS:
"Jerry Mitchell, Jerome Robbins: Something to Dance About." American Masters Digital Archive (WNET). July 17, 2006. Accessed January 25, 2022 https://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/archive/interviews/1006

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