West Side Potato

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The obituarists called Jerome Robbins "a perfectionist" -- and you know what that means. His dancers hated him; he once fell backward off a stage while demonstrating a number because when he got to the edge, no one said anything. But he was a hell of a song-and-dance man, the guy who got the musical back to Hollywood in the 1950s after MGM's Roaring Thirties ended, the guy who told Mary Martin how to fly.

The great drawback of Broadway is that its moments are fleeting; they float up to the rafters and disappear with the crowd. Hollywood's advantage, of course, is its immortality. In a hundred years, the plays and ballets of Jerome Robbins will be wisps of memory. But West Side Story (1961) will live forever. The moviemakers had taken Robbins's "Fancy Free" and etched it as On The Town in 1949; "West Side Story" he decided to do himself. Or nearly so; Robbins was teamed with Robert Wise as codirectors. They hated each other (when the duo received the Best Director Oscar jointly that year, neither acknowledged the other in his speech), but the child was beautiful. Russ Tamblyn's a dervish, Natalie Wood's a dream, and that finger-snapping? Gang war -- or Shakespeare, for that matter -- doesn't get any prettier.

When Jerome Robbins choreographed, he'd generally wing it -- try something and see if it worked. "West Side Story" worked like no musical has before or since. And thanks to that silver screen, and its pageboy the VCR, we get to refresh our memories again and again. And it's a lot cheaper than a night in Manhattan.