I’ve only skimmed the surface of the massive volume which is full of both serious and gossipy correspondence between the musical genius and such friends as Stephen Sondheim, Betty Comden and Aaron Copland.
One of the most potent letters is from producer and music superviser Saul Chaplin while he was in the midst of making the 1961 movie version of “West Side Story.”
The co-directing credit on the film — split between Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins, who staged the Broadway production — was very unusual then and remained unusual until the rise of the brother-directing teams of recent Hollywood history.
Robbins was basically replaced in the middle of shooting because he put the already expensive film behind schedule. Some of his Broadway pals rallied to Robbins’ defense, but when Bernstein wrote to Chaplin to find out what was going on, he received an exhaustive (and until now confidential) account of the problems Robbins caused.
“He (Robbins) has, conveniently, omitted a significant amount of information in his usual vaguely dishonest manner,” Chaplin wrote.
“Isn’t it interesting that he didn’t think it important to mention various large mistakes in the numbers he shot? Isn’t it curious that he didn’t mention that the Jets are out of sync during a section of ‘The Jet Song’; or that there’s half a bar of music missing during the fugue of ‘Cool’; or how I pleaded with him to just ‘try’ the faster version of ‘Cool’ and how he refused; or how several sections of ‘America’ and ‘I Feel Pretty’ wouldn’t cut together except through Bob Wise’s ingenuity…?”
“…The reason for this diatribe is quite simple: the fact that Jerry is going to derogate all of us concerns me not at all; the fact that many people will believe what he tells them, since it’s fashionable to regard us all out here as sun-loving, bungling, no-talents, also doesn’t concern me. What you believe, however, concerns me deeply. I can only reiterate that never in my experience has so much money and care been expended in the making of a movie.”
“…Jerry is, of course, wildly talented. He is also wildly destructive of people and relationships. For me, one doesn’t compensate for the other. He is easily the most reprehensible person I have ever known. And so, when the golden day dawns when I will, at last, be freed from ‘West Side Story,’ I will make it a life’s work never again to mention his name or think of him. That, indeed, will be a time for wild celebration.”
Although his talent was never disputed, Robbins wasn’t a personally well-liked figure on Broadway either. His enemies liked to tell the story of the on-stage “Fiddler on the Roof” rehearsal where Robbins kept backing up while issuing orders and none of the dancers said a word as he tumbled into the orchestra pit.