Jerome Robbins, 1918-1998

In 1989, as Faith Prince was making her debut on the Great White Way in Jerome Robbins’ Broadway, she would notice one particular man in the audience every two weeks or so. ”You could see this glow-in-the-dark figure in the fifth row,” she recalls. It made her a little nervous, but her performances were better on those occasions, she said. That’s because the glow in the fifth row came from the impeccably trimmed all-white beard of the show’s creator, Jerome Robbins. A gifted choreographer and director, whose half century of work in theater and ballet fed each other to change the face of the American musical, creating works where dance propelled the story, Robbins died July 29 at his home in Manhattan after suffering a stroke. He was 79.

Of the five-time Tony award winner’s most popular works — The King and I, Peter Pan, Gypsy, and Fiddler on the Roof — he is perhaps best known for West Side Story, which he conceived, directed, and choreographed. With music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, and book by Arthur Laurents, this retelling of Romeo and Juliet became a groundbreaking example in 1961 of how stage musicals could work on film. The balletic rumble between the Jets and Sharks, the fiery dance-hall mambo, the dreamy cha-cha between Natalie Wood and Richard Beymer, all maintained Robbins’ indelible touch of mixing the classic with the vernacular. The film won 10 Oscars, and Robbins took home 2 — a special award for choreography and one for directing with Robert Wise, the only time codirectors have won.

The victory was sweet, since Robbins had been asked to leave the production before filming was completed; according to Wise, United Artists heads blamed the exacting choreographer for wreaking havoc on the film’s budget and schedule. ”He was kind of a slave driver,” says Wise, 84. ”He worked those kids out. Some of them would say, ‘I’ll never work with that SOB again.’ But they’d come back.”

Throughout his career, though, Robbins’ deeper passion was ballet. Fancy Free, a whimsical story about three WWII sailors in Manhattan on 24-hour leave, evolved into his first musical, On the Town. He created most of his more than 50 works (including The Cage and Dances at a Gathering) at the New York City Ballet and served under George Balanchine as associate artistic director.

Some in the arts, however, may remember him more for the time in May 1953 when Robbins was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee. He admitted to having belonged to the American Communist Party’s Theatrical Transient Group between 1943 and 1947, and named eight colleagues as members.

For the rest of his life, Robbins’ decision to cooperate would remain the one blemish on an astonishing career that began back in Weehawken, N.J., where he was raised by Russian immigrant parents. ”I used to come to New York and audition for shows,” Robbins once said, ”and not get them, and go back to Jersey and look back from the Palisades and say, ‘Well, I’ll be back tomorrow.”’