At the end of the first act of "Jerome Robbins' Broadway," after a series of youthfully exuberant, comic numbers, the cast fairly explodes in dances from "West Side Story." Every muscle stretched to its utmost, the skin seemingly defying the limits normally imposed by the bones, their young bodies yearn upward, barely restrained by gravity.
Broadway used to take this sort of artistry for granted. At a time when what passes for musical theater is mainly about computerized scenic effects, this look backward is enormously exhilarating.
Robbins' Broadway career, from "On the Town" in 1944 to "Fiddler on the Roof" in 1964, spanned the heyday of the American musical theater. Though Agnes de Mille had already demonstrated how choreography could deepen the storytelling, no one did more than Robbins to make dance express the subterranean emotions of a show.
This is clearest in "West Side Story," where Robbins brought an unparalleled ferocity and eroticism to the musical theater. But you can also see it in "Fiddler," where Robbins' dances had an authentically Jewish fervor and intensity only hinted at in what was essentially a poignant comedy.
In this retrospective the serious numbers alternate with reminders that musical theater used to be considered entertainment rather than Art. There is a Charleston from the 1945 "Billion Dollar Baby" that is a splendid combination of outrageous cartoon and inventive steps. There is a dazzling piece of Keystone Kops comedy in "On a Sunday by the Sea" from "High Button Shoes."
One of the high points of the evening is an Irving Berlin song, "Mr. Monotony," dropped from two shows, which Debbie Shapiro sings elegantly, and which Luis Perez, Jane Lanier and Robert La Fosse dance stunningly. Robbins tells a simple, funny story straightforwardly, sensuously and wittily. Interludes like the wistful "I'm Flying" from "Peter Pan," a hilarious "Comedy Tonight" from "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" and "You Gotta Have a Gimmick" from "Gypsy" give the show wonderful variety.
The evening pays tribute to an ego that is apparently as huge as the talent behind it, but what was great about the period it covers is that Broadway was genuinely a community. From the tone of the show you would never know musical theater was about collaboration. You wonder while you watch the enchanting "The Small House of Uncle Thomas" from "The King and I" if the idea was Robbins' or that of the librettist, Oscar Hammerstein. Moreover, Robbins' ideas over the years were executed by some of Broadway's best designers, who underlined his moods as effectively as he did the composers' and lyricists'.
There are odd things (an overture that sounds like the intro to a TV special, a number from "On the Town" that seems ordinary), but the overall impression is of unbounded creativity.
Though none of the cast effaces the memory of the originals, they are a tremendous ensemble. (It is unbearable to think how little use Broadway makes of such talent nowadays.) The dancers sustain an extraordinary level throughout the evening. Some, like La Fosse and Perez, have a balletic grace that complements the raw angularity of the steps. I was particularly impressed by Scott Wise, a traditional Broadway dancer of unusual power. As the narrator and in several comic roles, Jason Alexander is extremely ingratiating.
I can't be entirely objective about "Jerome Robbins' Broadway." As certain numbers began I choked back tears remembering the first time I heard the cast albums, the first time I saw the shows. Robbins' Broadway is inseparable from the Broadway, the New York I imagined growing up in Milwaukee. I want this show to run and run and run to remind me that the greatness I imagined back then was indeed a reality.
Fly a few flags! Broadway as it should be, the kind of Broadway you give your regards and your heart to, a Broadway immodestly but accurately called "Jerome Robbins' Broadway," last night rocketed into town at the Imperial Theater.
It took it 25 years to reach here. What took it so long is what made it so good. It is a reminder of times past in the terms of today, evoking the zip of immediacy rather than the clouds of nostalgia.
For this is magnificent - a musical of musicals that is all dancing, all music, and all feeling, revealing Robbins again as Broadway's once and future king.
For 20 years Robbins labored in Broadway's vineyard. During those 20 years he rewrote the book on viniculture; then he went back to the world of ballet from whence he had so spectacularly come.
From "On the Town" in 1944 to "Fiddler on the Roof" in 1964, Robbins left a legend. A quarter of a century later this incredible, rip-roaring show turns that legend into a legacy.
The concept behind "Jerome Robbins' Broadway" is ridiculously simple, and at first seemed ridiculously doomed. It was to make - quite literally - an anthology of the dance numbers from those celebrated shows that had made Broadway rich and Robbins famous.
Of course what is easily overlooked is that all those dance numbers have music, many of them have singing, and, without exception, they were high spots of the musicals which they graced.
Also it should not escape attention that those same musicals were among Broadway's finest, not solely on the basis of the Robbins choreography and direction.
Robbins was never in the business of making silk purses out of sows' ears. He was in the business of taking silk purses and embroidering them with pearls and encrusting them with diamonds.
Still this new show still had two obstacles to clear before it could have the kind of smashing success it is about to enjoy.
The first was fundamentally that of construction: how can you tie together the bits and pieces of a varied career into an artistic entity? Imagine the chances of an evening consisting of, say, Verdi opera highlights, or touching, tasty and comic scenes from Shakespeare.
It could be done - indeed it often has been done - but while the results may be fun, they are rarely art at the highest level. They almost inevitably lack the imprint of a coherent artistic statement.
Robbins has somehow, however, managed to rework his material, and by changing very little, adding a commentator and commentary - the protean Jason Alexander - framing the show at the beginning and end with that very first musical "On the Town," and selecting and pacing the numbers with the impresario instinct of a Diaghilev or a Ziegfeld, the choreographer/director has come up with something completely old yet totally new.
As they say in "Fiddler" - "Mazeltov! Mazeltov!"
The method is adroit, but for it to succeed as it does, Robbins had to give it the freshness of novelty, the surprise of the new.
The secret was the casting. He took 61 virtually unknown performers (even the two or three household names are only known in extraordinarily select households) and made them into a team of superstars approaching the work as if it were damp with the dew of creation on it.
No cast has ever looked less jaded. The suggestion of revival - which hung over the show like a sword of Damocles from the first hint of its genesis - has been rejected as frivolous, and that word "classic" made timeless.
No one has ever used dancing in the musical theater like this. This collection of genius - ranging from the sidewalk lyricism of "West Side Story," the clownish invention of "Forum," the affectionate reverence of "Fiddler," the Oriental pastiche of "The Small House of Uncle Thomas" from "The King and I," to the farcical wit of the Mack Sennett ballet from "High-Button Shoes" - reveals essentially non-verbal theater at its most poetic.
Everyone who came after Robbins - Bob Fosse, Michael Bennett, all of the others - were imitators as much as disciples, and the prime subliminal lesson of "Jerome Robbins' Broadway" is that only originals are priceless.
The show has the most remarkable score - in its special eclectic fashion - of any Broadway musical, composed by an unwitting but gorgeous consensus of larks, Richard Rodgers, Leonard Bernstein, Jule Styne, Jerry Bock, Stephen Sondheim and Irving Berlin.
And that's only a beginning. Wonderful lyrics abound, designs range from Tony Walton's chic Roman for "Forum" to Boris Aronson's fake Chagall for "Fiddler," some terrific costume designs, lighting for all reasons by Jennifer Tipton.
Also special thanks are due for the orchestrations of Sid Ramin and William D. Brohn, and Robin Wagner and Joseph G. Aulisi who have respectively "orchestrated" the scenery and costumes.
Everywhere you look in the show at any time you will find one, two, three, sometimes a whole stageful of knockout performances. The cast is the star. Or, at least, co-star with Robbins.
If I mention Jason Alexander first, and particularly, it is because, as the commentator and linkman, he has the heaviest burden (even having to follow Zero Mostel not once but twice) and carries it with consummate grace.
The other two given star billing, the elegant Robert La Fosse and a dynamic Charlotte d'Amboise, really have no more to do than the three remarkable male Proteans, Scott Wise, Joey McKneely and Michael Kubala, and their female counterparts, Faith Prince, Debbie Shapiro, Susann Fletcher and Alexia Hess, who again are all superlative, all of them scudding along that razor-edge of high definition performance.
It would be useless to claim that "Jerome Robbins' Broadway" offers us new hope for the Broadway musical - scarcely that. It tends, on the contrary, to remind what we have missed, and perhaps suggest to us where we went wrong.
But believe me, while it is making those potent, and in retrospect perhaps painful, suggestions, I promise you a hell of a good time. Broadway doesn't come any better - and it never did.
For any child who ever fell in love with the Broadway musical, there was always that incredible moment of looking up to see the bright marquees of Times Square for the first time. I had always assumed it was an unrepeatable thrill until I saw the show that Jerome Robbins officially unveiled at the Imperial Theater last night.
In ''Jerome Robbins's Broadway,'' the American musical theater's greatest director and choreographer doesn't merely bring back the thunderous excitement of songs and dances from classic musicals like ''West Side Story'' and ''Peter Pan'' and ''Gypsy.'' For an encore, he pulls off the miracle of re-creating that ecstatic baptism, that first glimpse of Broadway lights, of every Broadway theatergoer's youth.
The moment occurs as Mr. Robbins's show ends. The three World War II sailors of ''On the Town,'' winding down from their dizzy 24-hour pass through the pleasures of New York, New York, come upon a dazzling, crowded skyscape of twinkling signs heralding the smash musicals Mr. Robbins staged between 1944 and his withdrawal from Broadway in 1964. Some of the theaters (the Adelphi, the New Century) are gone now; some of the shows are forgotten. But the awe that seizes those innocent young sailors of 1944 overwhelms the jaded Broadway audience of 1989, too - and not because of the simple scenic effect. While ''Jerome Robbins's Broadway'' may celebrate a vanished musical theater, it does so with such youthful exuberance that nostalgia finally gives way to a giddy, perhaps not even foolish, dream that a new generation of Broadway babies may yet be born.
Most certainly a new generation is visible on the Imperial's stage. For this 15-number anthology, Mr. Robbins has recruited 62 remarkable performers: most from the Broadway ranks, a few from ballet, and all too young to have seen their predecessors in these roles. They perform with a skill, sexiness and zest that sometimes eclipses the originals, throwing off the cobwebs and camp that almost always attend Broadway revivals.
When the sailors Robert La Fosse, Scott Wise and Michael Kubala go girl-chasing in their helluva town - and the girls include beauties like Mary Ellen Stuart and Alexia Hess - one doesn't think of every other cast to play ''On the Town'' (or its ballet precursor, ''Fancy Free''). One instead feels the charge of fresh talent cockily strutting its stuff. What comes through is not an imitation of the original production but presumably an equivalent to the electricity with which the upstart creative team of Mr. Robbins, Leonard Bernstein, Betty Comden and Adolph Green first took Broadway by storm.
''Jerome Robbins's Broadway'' even succeeds in reclaiming legendary star roles for its young company. Jason Alexander, the evening's delightful narrator, accomplishes the seemingly impossible: he banishes the memory of Zero Mostel from the role of Pseudolus in ''A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.'' Charlotte d'Amboise brings her own insouciant pixiness to ''Peter Pan.'' Debbie Shapiro, the production's lead singer, at once recalls and reinvents the jazzy comic vocal attack once owned by Nancy Walker.
As Mr. Robbins demonstrates that young performers can hold their own with Broadway's past, so he proves that his way of doing musicals has gone into hiding but not out of style. Audiences inured to the hydraulic scenic gizmos, formless acrobatics, deafening amplification and emotional vacuity of this decade's Broadway spectaculars will find Mr. Robbins's musical theater a revelation. Many of the numbers in ''Jerome Robbins's Broadway'' are performed before simple or blank backdrops, and most of them prompt laughter or tears. While the show is undeniably lavish - the sumptuous costume reproductions are of museum-exhibition quality - it is the extravagance of taste, not money, that generates the joy.
That taste belongs to the arena of theater, not to the serious dance world to which Mr. Robbins turned permanently after ''Fiddler on the Roof.'' Nowhere is this more apparent than in the 25-minute suite of dances from ''West Side Story'' that rocks the audience at the conclusion of the first act. It is not the steps of the dances - least of all the classic lifts of the ''Somewhere'' ballet - that get to us so much as Mr. Robbins's ability to propel a story, mood and characters over music and space. The self-destructiveness of the warring Jets and Sharks is all the more poignant because the gangs' violent movements evolve out of the benign, timeless playground antics of urban teen-agers. A born showman's brilliant theatrical lighting effect, even more than the choreography and lush Bernstein melody, boosts the ''Somewhere'' fantasy to a heavenly paradise.
''Hold my hand, and I'll take you there,'' goes a Stephen Sondheim lyric in that song. In ''Tradition'' (from ''Fiddler'') and ''I'm Flying'' (from ''Peter Pan''), as in the ''Somewhere'' ballet, characters take hands, often forming a circle as they do so, to suggest an idealized sense of family that will eventually be ripped apart. Yet the touching - some might say sentimental - side of Mr. Robbins is always balanced by a hearty affection for the knockabout show-biz traditions of unalloyed burlesque.
''Comedy Tonight'' (the incomparable opening number of ''Forum''), the ''Charleston'' from ''Billion Dollar Baby'' and the Keystone Kops ballet from ''High Button Shoes'' are riotous, self-contained, swinging-door farces rendered entirely as nonstop dance. On a smaller scale, but no less witty, are Mr. Robbins's evocations of the lost vaudeville worlds of the soft-shoe (Mr. Alexander and Faith Prince's duet to ''I Still Get Jealous'' from ''High Button Shoes'') and the striptease (''You Gotta Have a Gimmick'' from ''Gypsy''). It's only when Mr. Robbins's choreography reaches self-consciously from the theater into hifalutin dance that it seems more arty than artistic. ''The Small House of Uncle Thomas'' ballet from ''The King and I'' and ''Mr. Monotony,'' a jazz ballet cut from two Irving Berlin musicals during their out-of-town tryouts, look like period curiosities now - though they are so beautifully performed that it's hardly torture to wait them out.
A more inherent limitation of ''Jerome Robbins's Broadway'' is its anthology form. However wonderful Mr. Robbins's show stoppers were, his most influential legacy to the musical theater was his gradual blurring of the halts between musical numbers and scenes. The last Robbins musicals were steamrollers in which script, movement, scenery, song and dance all surged forward at once to create a seamless dramatic adventure.
In ''Jerome Robbins's Broadway,'' that gift for relentless theatrical flow comes through in the ''West Side Story'' suite and ''Comedy Tonight,'' as well as in ''I'm Flying'' at that moment when the Darling house pulls away so Peter Pan and his recruits can soar above London to Never Land. But the constant movement that was ''Gypsy'' - perhaps the quintessentially cinematic Robbins production - cannot be captured here, and, for some reason, the ''Fiddler'' suite in Act II is precise in its self-contained dances (the comic nightmare, the wedding bottle-dance) but warped in overall shape. The communal fight that breaks out in the middle of ''Tradition'' and the pogrom that flows out of the wedding dance have both been eliminated - which is tantamount to removing the rumbles from ''West Side Story.'' The sanitization leaves ''Fiddler'' looking more conventional and saccharine than it was when it first played the Imperial.
At no other time does ''Jerome Robbins's Broadway,'' to my knowledge, violate the spirit of the original works. So faithful is the production to Broadway's past that it becomes a one-evening tour of an entire era, highlighting not just composing giants like Jule Styne but also such bright asterisks to Broadway music as Moose Charlap. With the exception of a synthetic overture, the sound of the pit band, conducted by Paul Gemignani and orchestrated by Sid Ramin and William D. Brohn, is exhilaratingly authentic, down to the contributions made by the dance arrangers Betty Walberg and Trude Rittman.
Through the lyrics and snippets of dialogue, one rediscovers an era's wiseguy Broadway comic style, which united writers as disparate as Arthur Laurents and Sammy Cahn. Thanks to the extraordinary efforts of the overall designers Robin Wagner (scenery), Joseph G. Aulisi (costumes) and Jennifer Tipton (lighting), ''Jerome Robbins's Broadway'' also offers what will probably remain a once-in-a-lifetime survey of Broadway theater design, from early Tony Walton to middle Jo Mielziner and late Boris Aronson. The dominant designer is Oliver Smith, whose glorious palette can encompass New Yorks as antithetical as those of ''On the Town'' and ''West Side Story,'' and whose collaborations with the costume designers Irene Sharaff, Miles White and Alvin Colt have no present-day match in technicolor Fauvist verve.
If ''Jerome Robbins's Broadway'' is history, it is history that pulses and reverberates. The ''West Side Story'' suite alone harks back to Agnes de Mille's Broadway dream ballets even while anticipating the gyrating phalanxes of Michael Bennett's ''Company'' and ''A Chorus Line.'' No doubt Mr. Robbins's anthology won't mean the same thing to theatergoers who didn't grow up with his shows, but it may well attract new converts to traditions whose hold on the musical theater are as shaky as that fiddler on the roof. After seeing ''Jerome Robbins's Broadway'' at Thursday's press preview, I hurried back to the Saturday matinee with two young boys roughly the same age I was when I saw my first Robbins musical, ''Peter Pan.'' Long after Peter told them ''to think lovely, wonderful thoughts,'' they were still flying.