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Fancy Free: Jerome Robbins on Broadway

Let the show (and the dancing) go on! — By Paola Dicelli

One of the most important choreographers of the 20th century, Jerome Robbins set himself apart with a style that combined classical and folklore, jazz and musical theatre. Gaining fame on Broadway at an early age, he would draw inspiration from that experience for his early ballets. Fancy Free, which is now entering the Paris Opera Ballet’s repertoire, is a perfect example. This first work, hailed by critics and audiences alike, also marked Robbins’ initial collaboration with composer Leonard Bernstein, ushering in an artistic relationship that would ultimately lead to Hollywood… 

When Jerome Robbins created Fancy Free, he was a mere twenty-five-year-old studying at the American Ballet Theatre (currently the New York City Ballet). A few years earlier, in 1944, he met Leonard Bernstein who at the time was still a young and unknown composer. The two men quickly became friends, developing a common appreciation for jazz and Broadway musicals. Back then, they had but one idea in mind: to produce a show. Long before the legendary West Side Story or its cinematographic adaptation by Robert Wise, Robbins and Bernstein wanted to create a work firmly anchored in its times.

Fancy Free avec Peter Martins et Mikhaïl Barychnikov, Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, Paris, 1979.
Fancy Free avec Peter Martins et Mikhaïl Barychnikov, Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, Paris, 1979. © Colette Masson / Roger Viollet

During the Second World War, in the summer of 1944, three American sailors on 24-hour shore leave enjoy a drink and wander the streets of New York in search of female company. It was a simple pitch to show off Jerome Robbins’ choreography and Fancy Free, a quintessential narrative ballet was born. All the nascent elements of his style were already at work in the piece: dance emerging from a walk (as in the opening scene of West Side Story), the technique of fusing ballet with modern jazz and, last but not least, broken rhythms working in synergy with the music of Leonard Bernstein.

West Side Story, film de Robert Wise et Jerome Robbins, sur une musique de Leonard Bernstein, 1961.
West Side Story, film de Robert Wise et Jerome Robbins, sur une musique de Leonard Bernstein, 1961. © AKG images

The ballet’s premiere performance at the Metropolitan Opera on April 19, 1944 was such a hit that it received 22 curtain calls. As a result of its huge success, the work inspired the musical On the Town, which ran for 462 performances on Broadway. Adapted by Robbins himself, the work retained several elements from his original choreography, however, he transformed it into a style that was pure “Broadway”. Whereas in Fancy Free, the sound of Billy Holliday’s voice in the bar fades out when the sailors arrive—as the latter launch into a co-ordinated pas de trois lasting almost five minutes, with Bernstein’s lively music translating their joy at being on leave—in On the Town, the choreography lends itself to the original score. The different steps simply express what the sailors are recounting in the song “New York, New York”, composed by Adolph Green and Leonard Bernstein.
The outline was again different in Stanley Donen’s 1950 screen adaptation. Although the script itself barely changes, Gene Kelly, who was also the co-director, reworked the choreography of On the Town to make dance the focal point of the film and pay greater tribute to Fancy Free. As such, Kelly’s various steps clearly evoke the style of Jerome Robbins (who had been side-lined from the film by the producer). As for Bernstein, the film’s score only included six of his compositions (three songs, and two pieces for the ballet). Even so, the two artists as original creators of Fancy Free were not overly concerned. They already had another project in mind: a version of Romeo and Juliet set in modern times. 

On the town, film de Gene Kelly et Stanley Donen, avec Frank Sinatra, Gene Kelly, Jules Munshin, Betty Garrett, Ann Miller et Vera Ellen, 1944 - Collection Christophel.
On the town, film de Gene Kelly et Stanley Donen, avec Frank Sinatra, Gene Kelly, Jules Munshin, Betty Garrett, Ann Miller et Vera Ellen, 1944 - Collection Christophel. © Metro Goldwyn-Mayer

In 1957, with the help of a young lyricist by the name of Stephen Sondheim and with a libretto by Arthur Laurents, the Bernstein/Robbins duo premiered West Side Story at Broadway’s Winter Garden Theatre. Once again, New York served as the inspirational backdrop for an ill-fated story of love between two protagonists from rival gangs divided by their ethnic origins. Success was immediate. The songs and the choreography became all but idolised. In 1961, director Robert Wise was eager to adapt the musical to the big screen. This time, Robbins took control, co-directed the film and oversaw all the dance scenes in accordance with his own style. The spirit of Fancy Free is omnipresent in several sequences, most notably, the opening passage in the basketball court, but also the dance scene (which echoes the dance sequence with the three sailors and their conquests). The film won ten Oscars, including Oscar for Best Director.
Until the early 1970s, many of the musicals he choreographed for Broadway were adapted for the cinema (including Fiddler on the Roof, which in 1971 became the second and last feature he himself would direct). After that, the choreographer moved away from musicals. His ballets, among them In the Night (1970), The Goldberg Variations (1971) and Other Dances (1980), would express a more classical, less narrative language. However, thanks to works like Fancy Free and West Side Story, Jerome Robbins is still considered “the king of Broadway” to this day. 

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