In 1939 a musical called The Straw Hat Revue opened at Manhattan's Ambassador Theater. The show, which cost $8,000 to put on Broadway, featured such future stars as Danny Kaye, Imogene Coca, Alfred Drake and a young dancer named Jerome Robbins. This week -- 50 years later and four blocks south, at the Imperial Theater -- Broadway welcomes another revue, Jerome Robbins' Broadway, with another cast of young hopefuls. But everything else about this show is bigger, riskier and very late '80s. For one thing, its co-sponsor is a Japanese liquor firm. For another, it carries an all-time-high ticket price of $55. And the cost of its opening is $8 million, a thousand times that of The Straw Hat Revue.
These days, that's show biz. But Jerome Robbins' Broadway is no ordinary show. It is an unprecedented monument, a living museum that one of Broadway's great names has erected to himself. The master shaman, now 70, presents dances from nine of the glorious musicals he directed or choreographed between 1944 and 1964. The sailors from On the Town again saunter through wartime New York, New York. The royal courtesans of The King and I restage Uncle Tom's Cabin, Siamese-style. West Side Story's Sharks and Jets strut toward one more epochal + rumble. The shtetl Jews from Fiddler on the Roof hold true to tradition.
With this new show, Robbins is both appealing to Broadway tradition and bucking it. He is a man going up against his own legend -- as the premier American-born dancemaker, whose works for the ballet and Broadway suavely merged high art with pop culture. Robbins has always been a spellbinding storyteller; the narrative clarity of each movement instantly draws viewers into the roiling emotional life of his characters. In his comic ballets, visual gags fly past like precision pies in a Keystone caper. This show proves he is back where he belongs, on a street that belongs to him: Jerome Robbins' Broadway. He has prepared meticulously for this moment: nine months of research, 75 days of rehearsal and seven weeks of preview performances. "I wasn't just putting shows on the way they were," he says of this elephantine gestation. "I was redoing them all, putting as much energy and direction into them as I originally did." The show will need 16 months of sold-out houses to break even, and its backers are audibly apprehensive. "Robbins has an economic interest too," says co-producer Bernard Jacobs, president of the Shubert Organization, "but artists are very peculiar. Finally, we are all in his hands." They are also in the hands of the '80s Broadway babies, raised on body mikes, synthesizers and musicals with no dance numbers. Will they care about a showman who hasn't staged a new show in 25 years?