by Mo Brady
As the first days of spring brought yet another cold front to Manhattan, work had already begun on one of the country’s most esteemed summer theatre institutions. Collaborating in a rehearsal room high above the streets of Midtown, six esteemed choreographers have taken on a monumental task that was never thought possible until now: staging a revival of the Tony Award-winning best musical Jerome Robbins’ Broadway.
“When Jerome Robbins’ Broadway was conceived, it wasn’t put into any formal format for it to be recreated,” says one of the choreographers, Dan Knechtges. Unlike the staging for Robbins’ masterpieces, including Fiddler on the Roof and West Side Story, the show was not formally notated in a way for the production to be recreated by other companies.
When The Muny in St. Louis decided to produce the show as part of its 100th season in 2018, the theatre also took on the formidable task of putting up a show that hadn’t been staged since the national tour launched in 1990.
“It is a massive undertaking and very exciting to make happen,” says Ralph Perkins, another member of the production’s legion of choreographers. “It is rare that you get to work on a piece like this, since it has never been revived. It is literally a team effort to make this happen.”
For this first revival of Jerome Robbins’ Broadway, The Muny has assembled a team of the theatre’s veteran choreographers to stage the production. Perkins’ credits at The Muny range from South Pacific to Hello, Dolly!, while Knechtges’ include Seussical and Hairspray.
Performed as a revue, Jerome Robbins’ Broadway features dance suites from On The Town, Billion Dollar Baby, West Side Story, The King and I, Peter Pan, High Button Shoes, Call Me Madam and Fiddler on the Roof.
Robbins’ work on Broadway garnered him five Tony Awards over five decades as a director, choreographer and producer. “You can't deny that Robbins is one the greatest musical choreographers ever, and that his work has influenced so many,” says Perkins.
In less than two months, the choreography team will begin teaching the show’s staging to a cast of 49 dancers. To prepare for that comprehensive rehearsal schedule, the choreographers are learning the staging through a process known as ‘pre-production’ rehearsals.
“Part of what is happening in the pre-production process is making sure all of the information is given to the various choreographers,” says Knechtges. “Most of this information is coming from the brain and memory of Cynthia [Onrubia] which is incredible.”
A Broadway legend in her own right, Cynthia Onrubia worked as Jerome Robbins’ assistant on the original production, in addition to supervising movement to the original Broadway production of Cats and the last two Broadway revivals of Cabaret. For The Muny’s production of Jerome Robbins’ Broadway, Onrubia will serve as director.
Knechtges has reveled in the opportunity to learn the intricacies of Robbins’ staging from Onrubia: “She is incredible and her attention to detail has taught me so much. I’m amazed at the fact that she is the repository for all of this choreography. She is an institution.”
Beyond their experiences at The Muny, each of the choreographers assembled to restage the production have their own style. Knechtges is a Tony Award nominated director and choreographer, staging the Broadway productions of Xanadu, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee and more. Perkins has staged productions at numerous regional powerhouses and is a professor at the Hartt School at the University of Hartford in Connecticut.
For each of these esteemed choreographers, working on this production has been a unique learning experience. “I wanted the chance to learn and be inside the choreography in a way that you don’t get to be when creating your own work,” says Knechtges. “I wanted to go back and put on a different hat than I’ve had to put on, and recreate the master’s work. Recreating something as wonderful as Jerome Robbins’ choreography, gives me the opportunity to hear the reasons why these steps were created.”
Perkins, who has reset Robbins’ choreography multiple productions of The King and I and Fiddler on the Roof, has been learning how the staging in Jerome Robbins’ Broadway varies slightly from what is typically staged. Over two days, Perkins and Onrubia went over every moment of the "The Small House of Uncle Thomas" ballet from The King and I: “When the show was put together, Mr. Robbins made some edits and changes to the original ballet that I knew. So I had to be brought up to snuff on the version in Jerome Robbins’ Broadway.”
“Robbins’ work is dramaturgically brilliant,” notes Perkins. “Everything in his work, from the staging to the steps has a clear focus and meaning, whether it is abstracted or supporting a precise moment in the story.”
Knechtges is responsible for learning and restaging “Charleston” from the 1945 Broadway musical Billion Dollar Baby: “I’m constantly impressed at how simple it is and yet how complicated it is at the same time. I love how Robbins can tell a story within a short amount of time. The characters are all defined through movement.”
Jerome Robbins’ Broadway opens The Muny’s historic centennial season June 11 - 17.