At BroadwayCon some weeks ago, I had the privilege of
doing a live interview with David Winters.
The name won’t mean much to you unless you’re a true
WEST SIDE STORY buff. Nevertheless, you’ll find that that
septuagenarian Winters has been A Man for All Seasons.
His astonishing life is well-detailed in his new book TOUGH
GUYS DO DANCE.
We’re lucky Winters is here. As an infant, he fell into a fire
and burned 90% of his body. This happened in his native
England during World War II. Although Winters was fewer
than two years old, he has memories of the Blitz.
His family eventually emigrated to America. The ship voyage
had significant influence. “We were in first-class, which
bored me,” he said. “I’d sneak down to third-class where the
Irish people were singing and dancing. They were having so
much fun, I wanted to sing and dance, too.”
Once in America, seeing Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly films
further inspired him to dance. “I preferred Kelly,” he stated.
“It seemed Fred was always in a tux and Kelly always had his
sleeves rolled up. I could relate to that more.”
(Yes, one might imagine Kelly as a WEST SIDE STORY Jet,
but not Astaire.)
Winters started shining shoes to pay for dance lessons. They
paid off, for at fifteen, he made his Broadway debut in the
1954 production of ON YOUR TOES. He was Young Phil Dolan
III before giving way to the adult Bobby Van.
“A musical theater historian told me that I’m the first person
to ever tap-dance on a cast album,” he said.
At seventeen, he auditioned for Bob Fosse, who was to
choreograph NEW GIRL IN TOWN.
“I knew that every role was for someone older. But I wanted
to audition for him so he could see what I could do and
would remember me for future projects. And he told me that
he really liked my dancing.”
So did he ever work with Fosse?
Oh, well. Winters settled for a small role in SHINBONE
ALLEY, the 1957 musical about a cat’s love affair with a
(Yes, you read that right.)
It never got an official original cast album, but it does live as
a recording based on its source material: archy and
mehitabel. On the album, Eddie Bracken plays archy and
Carol Channing mehitabel.
(The reason their names aren’t capitalized is because archy,
the cockroach who’s typing the story, can’t navigate the shift
key that creates upper-case letters.)
Bracken reprised his role in SHINBONE as the catlike Eartha
Kitt portrayed mehitabel. The book was co-written by Joe
Darion, who’d later pen lyrics to MAN OF LA MANCHA, as well
as Mel Brooks.
“Mel really impressed me on opening night,” said Winters.
“While everyone else was having fun, I saw him furiously
rewriting to make the show better.”
It was all for naught. After all, how could a musical about a
cat possibly succeed?
Still, SHINBONE ALLEY turned out to be important for
Winters. During the six-week run, he received a call: “This is
Jerome Robbins’ secretary. He saw you in the show and
wants you to audition for him.”
As Winters hung up on her, he wondered who could be
playing this joke on him.
No, it WAS Jerome Robbins’ secretary, as Winters came to
believe after she’d called back. “I felt like I auditioned 700
times before I got the part of Baby John.”
As he was leaving the theater with his good news, he
overheard the show’s brass say that Chita Rivera would be
Anita. “She was in SHINBONE ALLEY, too,” he said. “So she
learned from me she’d had the job before they could even
Rivera wasn’t merely Kitt’s understudy, so imagine her
excitement in getting the best part thus far in her career.
And that famous story that after a WEST SIDE STORY
rehearsal, Robbins got on stage, put his cast in a line,
berated most everyone while walking backwards and – as he
approached the orchestra pit and didn’t realize it was there –
he fell in.
“No,” said Winters. “He almost fell in. He felt his heel catch
the lip of the stage and narrowly avoided the fall. True, no
one tried to stop him, because we had a love-hate
relationship with him.”
Winters recalled that Robbins then went to the first person
in line and slowly walked all the way to the last, just staring
long and hard at everyone at what they’d almost made him
Robbins had his revenge the day two dancers arrived late for
rehearsal. He put them alone on stage doing moves where
they had to slide across the floor – and that floor was one in
which splinters were sticking out.
Said Winters, “We heard their agony each time a splinter
No wonder that Winters quotes ballet soloist Mel Tomlinson:
“If I go to hell, I will not be afraid of the devil, because I
have worked with Jerome Robbins.”
Winters won’t forget WEST SIDE STORY’s Washington
opening. During the rumble, an audience member was so
unnerved that he had a heart attack.
“At intermission, we peeked through the curtain and saw
him being taken out on a stretcher,” Winters remembered.
And when the curtain came down on Act Two, no one
applauded. Said Winters. “We thought we were a flop.”
But seconds later, a single person clapped, then another,
then two more and then the entire house erupted in
“Just like in the movies,” Winters said with a smile.
So everyone became optimistic – until opening night when
influential critic Walter Kerr certainly didn’t call it the best
damn musical he’d seen in years.
Luckily, other critics disagreed, and Winters stayed with the
show until Robbins chose him in 1959 to be Yonkers, a
Dainty June’s Farmboy.
“On Saturday nights,” Winters recalled, “Ethel Merman
would do the show faster and finish fifteen minutes earlier
so she could get home sooner to Connecticut.”
You can’t hear much of Winters on the cast albums of his
Robbins’ adventures, but he has four solos as
Rumpelstiltskin, the lead in the 1962 off-Broadway musical
Winters had become friendly with British pop songwriter
Lionel Bart who was penning a musical that was to debut in
England: OLIVER! Soon Winters was offered The Artful
“But Robbins wanted me for the WEST SIDE STORY film,” he
recalled. “My mother told me to take that.”
Mother knows best! This time, he played A-Rab in a cast that
enjoyed playing around. “We went into Natalie Wood’s
dressing room, sprayed ourselves with ketchup and
pretended to be dead. When the assistant director came to
get her, he opened the door and freaked out.”
Speaking of death: “Natalie told me that she had a
premonition that she would drown,” he said morosely. “I’m
sorry to say that she did.”
Winters also reports that after Robbins was fired from the
film, “Inspiration left all of us,” he mourned. “I can tell the
difference when I see ‘The Dance at the Gym.’ Our hearts
weren’t as much in it.”
There’s so much more in TOUGH GUYS DO DANCE. Winters
headed a rock group where Paul Simon was one of his back-
up singers. When choreographing the ‘60s TV series
HULLABALLOO, he liked the way ten females danced, but
could only hire nine, so he cut Goldie Hawn, who had the last
laugh-in. Of his male dancers, he chose one he didn’t think
was much good: “Michael Bennett,” he said with a you-can’t-
His mantra? “No matter what I may accomplish in my life, I
will always be a dancer.”