Phil and Jerry
The highly contrasting personalities of Jerome Robbins (pictured) and Philip Rose come alive in two new books.
"Here was this very young, very beautiful black woman standing alone in the doorway who suddenly looked ten feet tall," writes Philip Rose, elder statesman of Broadway, recalling Lorraine Hansberry as she arrived at Sardi's on the night of March 11, 1959. The curtain had just come down on the premiere of A Raisin in the Sun, which Hansberry wrote and Rose produced. In the restaurant, heads swiveled as the first African-American woman to have a play produced on Broadway entered the opening night party. Watching the 29-year-old playwright transformed into a public figure before his eyes, Rose suddenly realized "that this event I was so deeply a part of was much more than what would perhaps be a successful play."
Rose's informal memoir You Can't Do That on Broadway (Limelight Editions, 303 pages, $35.00) is an exuberant chronicle of this and other milestones in the recent history of New York theater. Some of his stories are funny; many are touching; all are gripping and well paced. At 80, Rose is proud that critic John Simon has labeled him a "manifest liberal," but pride isn't the most noticeable quality of this memoir; the author's narrative voice is self-effacing, earnest, supremely respectful of other people's talent and, where the theater is concerned, impassioned.
Rose has been responsible for lots of red-letter events in the American theater. After A Raisin in the Sun, he brought another noteworthy African-American playwright to public attention with Purlie Victorious, Ossie Davis' satire on racial stereotypes. In Broadway's first instance of inspired color-blind casting, Rose hired Diana Sands and Alan Alda to play opposite each other in Bill Manhoff's sex comedy, The Owl and the Pussycat. Much later, Rose registered a genteel protest against American foreign policy as co-librettist of Shenandoah, the successful antiwar musical for which he won a Tony Award.
Raised on Manhattan's Lower East Side, Rose--who is white--appears always to have been immune to the dogmas of Jim Crow America. After getting to know Hansberry at a Borscht Belt resort where they worked together, he urged her to try her hand at a play about a black family. She responded with A Raisin in the Sun. In that play, which won the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award and ran for 530 performances, a Southside Chicago matriarch (originally played by Claudia McNeill) strives to transplant her family to a white suburb, while her adult son (played by Sidney Poitier) struggles to assert dignity and manhood in a racist society.
Rose was in his mid-thirties, working in the recording industry, when he read Hansberry's script and asked, almost as a reflex, for the rights to produce it. As a first-time theater producer, he didn't set out to storm the barricades of Broadway convention; yet his refusal to be daunted by the overwhelming odds against a black family drama succeeding in that era's white-dominated commercial theater is nothing short of heroic. Rose gave A Raisin in the Sun a legendary production; his memories of Hansberry and the play's backstage intrigues are the most vivid part of You Can't Do That on Broadway.
Witnessing the excited welcome that Hansberry received at Sardi's on opening night of A Raisin in the Sun, Rose was convinced the playgoers "recognized that they were looking at the face of change, a face of strength and dignity that was truly black and beautiful, and that some things and some feelings might never be the same." Though not a distinguished prose stylist, Rose is an effective raconteur able to conjure for his readers how it feels to participate in a creative project that actually effects constructive social change. Reading You Can't Do That on Broadway, theater lovers are likely to find themselves momentarily disarmed of all critical faculties and transported to a state of bliss.
Rose's friendship with Hansberry didn't last. Prior to her early death, the two became estranged for reasons that are not entirely clear--a melancholy conclusion to a sweet, productive (and platonic) love story.
While Hansberry and Rose were challenging racism, Jerome Robbins--one year younger than Rose--was occupied with America's long Red Scare and its aftermath. Born, like Rose, on the Lower East Side, Jerome Wilson Rabinowitz was consumed with passion for the arts. He drove himself and others with the perfectionist zeal that was his hallmark. Robbins broke new ground in ballet with Fancy Free and left his stamp on musical theater with West Side Story, Gypsy, and Fiddler on the Roof. Among his many coups de théâtre: "The Mack Sennett Ballet" of High Button Shoes; Maria Karnilova and the other "strippers" showing off their gimmicks ('cause you gotta have one) in Gypsy; and that breathtaking moment when two disparate cultures unite as King of Siam (Yul Brynner) twirls Mrs. Anna (Gertrude Lawrence, Deborah Kerr, or one of Brynner's other co-stars) around the floor to the strains of "Shall We Dance?" in The King and I.
Greg Lawrence, author of Dance with Demons: The Life of Jerome Robbins (Putnam, 622 pages, $32.95), has collaborated on three books with ballerina Gelsey Kirkland, a protégé of Robbins' mentor and colleague, George Balanchine. Consequently, Lawrence was ideally situated to reach the people who know what the secretive Robbins tried to hide. Lawrence has done an admirable job portraying New York and Hollywood in the last century and explicating the world of left-wing politics in which the choreographer circulated during his youth. Unfortunately, by the time Lawrence embarked on this book, many of those who might have offered the most gimlet-eyed perspectives on Robbins--blacklisted actors Zero Mostel and Jack Gilford, dancer/choreographer Nora Kaye (who was once engaged to Robbins), composer Leonard Bernstein, and director George Abbott, for instance--had died. Dance with Demons is nonetheless an impressive feat of research, offering both intelligent critical assessments of Robbins' work and spicy revelations, such as a long-term, long hushed-up love affair with Montgomery Clift.
As the title of Lawrence's book suggests, Robbins had a decidedly dark side; when he was working as choreographer or stage director, his tyrannical attitude could inspire intense resentment. In one famous incident, the beaten-down cast of a West Side Story revival watched impassively and with satisfaction as Robbins, wrapped up in giving ungentle direction, stepped backwards into the orchestra pit. In 1953, when scrutiny from the House Un-American Activities Committee threatened to expose not only Robbins' left-wing past but also his homosexuality, Robbins demonstrated cold-blooded careerism by "naming names"--betraying old acquaintances--to the Committee in order to avoid losing face in the then-intolerant world of movies and television. Arthur Laurents, Robbins' collaborator on West Side Story and Gypsy, assessed Robbins' appearance before HUAC in this way: "You're not evil because you informed; you informed because you're evil."