With Jolson Sings Again, Legendary Arthur Laurents Goes Back to the Blacklist

With Jolson Sings Again, Legendary Arthur Laurents Goes Back to the Blacklist Jolson Sings Again" hawked the newsboys along Hollywood Boulevard. "Jolson Sings Again," they repeated over and over holding up the bold headline that was destined to change lives and careers in the 1950s.
Left to right: Director David Saint with Jolson playwright Arthur Laurents.
Left to right: Director David Saint with Jolson playwright Arthur Laurents.

Jolson Sings Again" hawked the newsboys along Hollywood Boulevard. "Jolson Sings Again," they repeated over and over holding up the bold headline that was destined to change lives and careers in the 1950s.

"It's not a musical and it's not about Al Jolson," says playwright Arthur Laurents talking over the phone about his new play, Jolson Sings Again, which plays at New Jersey's George Street Theatre Mar. 3-28. The title, however, is meant to remind us of Jolson's film portrayer Larry Parks. Parks, who appeared in both "The Jolson Story," and "Jolson Sings Again," would find himself singing a different kind of tune when called upon as the first witness to testify before Senator Joseph McCarthy's House Un-American Activities Committee. Laurents -- who is among the theatre professionals subsequently blacklisted by Hollywood -- has written a play about that bleak period. "Parks thought by testifying to the committee, it would save his career. He begged the committee in public not to name names, and that turned the public off," says Laurents, who, unlike Parks, is a survivor of the mid-century witch-hunt that short circuited, and sometimes ruined, careers.

Laurents wrote Jolson Sings Again in 1992. However, it wasn't until 1995 that the play was given "a cheap," (according to Laurents), pre Broadway tryout at the Seattle Rep. "It was an unfortunate production. Only a month before rehearsals were to begin, the producers suddenly pulled out. And so did the stars," says Laurents who is still smarting from memories of the experience. The play did go on but with some hasty miscasting in three of the four roles.

Laurents says he is still astonished by how difficult and how long the process of getting a play on is. He says he is pleased with the way things are going for this greatly revised version at the George Street Playhouse, under the direction of David Saint.

The physical production is notable. In addition to boasting award-winning designers Howell Binkley (lights), Jim Youmans (setting) and David Van Tieghem (composer/sound), the costumes are by Tony- and Oscar-winning designer Theoni V. Aldredge. (Her career is being celebrated in a five decades retrospective of costume sketches in the theatre's gallery during the play's run, Feb. 27-Mar. 28. Interestingly, Saint did not see the Seattle production but became the director of choice while directing another Laurents play, My Good Name at the Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor this past summer. After My Good Name was workshopped at Seattle Rep, it would later amaze four people from the company who had seen it there and then again at the Bay Street Theatre, this time under Saint's direction. "What a great re-write you did on the play," they said. "I hadn't touched it, yet it was a totally different play," says Laurents, who acknowledges Saints' insightful direction. "He gave the play what it needed. "I sit though rehearsals of Jolson Sings Again and am also amazed. David's direction and the cast are responsible for the enormous difference. It's so different and so much more of what I wanted than the production in Seattle. I've also changed my attitude somewhat about that era," he says, leading me to wonder how things that Laurents used to see as black and white are now shaded with gray.

Although Jolson Sings Again has been extensively re-written, Laurents says he thinks "rewriting and cutting is part of the job." He adds, however, that, when other people do the rewriting and cutting, it can hurt. "They cut stuff out of my screenplay (based on his novel) for `The Way We Were,' which had a portion devoted to the McCarthy era. I hadn't said all I wanted to say. In Jolson Sings Again, the people betray each other on many different levels and it damages lives. And that was the larger point that I wanted to bring out more in the play."

Although Laurents says he was never a member of "the party," he was blacklisted because he was associated with a lot of left-wing causes. "They took my passport away, and it took me three months to get it back," he recalls. Laurents would spend extended time in Paris. Did Laurents ever worked under a pseudonym during that time? "No," he laughs, but I had one -- Jack Ash -- just in case." Laurents would return to Hollywood after the witch-hunt was over in 1955. Of course the agents were compelled to ask Laurents to write a statement stating that he was "not now, nor have ever been etc." They told him it didn't matter what he was swearing to. So Laurents would finish the statement with "a member of the shoe-shine boys union." He said, "As long as they had your name on a piece of paper, they took it. I'm sure no one ever read it."

Few playwriting careers have risen to distinction as frequently as that of Laurents, who has received honors and awards from the National Institute of Arts and Letters, Writers Guild of America, Antoinette Perry (Tonys), Golden Globe, Drama Desk and National Board of Review. At 81 years old, the Brooklyn native with a BA from Cornell ("a crap degree," he adds), Laurents continues to be an advocate of social and political issues about which he feels passionately. Only last May, he (along with long-time friend and collaborator Stephen Sondheim) rose up and spoke in support of a controversial New York theatre district zoning plan that would permit theatres to sell air rights.

Beginning with Home of the Brave (1945), a hard-edged play (and film) about racial prejudice in the armed forces, Laurents was in the vanguard in dramatizing with sensitivity and skill such controversial topics as homosexuality (Hitchcock's 1949 film "Rope"), mental illness (the 1948 film "The Snake Pit") and women's and civil rights reform (the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical Hallelujah Baby). When I asked Laurents why he was not given screenplay credit for "The Snake Pit," he answered "I got screwed. It's a typical Hollywood story that I've included in my memoirs." Even if Laurents' distinguished books for the landmark musicals Gypsy (1959) and West Side Story (1957) had not placed him among the giants of American theatrical literature, his tenderly romantic plays, The Time of the Cuckoo (film version was called "Summertime"), and Invitation to a March, let alone the genuinely cuckoo musical Anyone Can Whistle, would endear him forever to theatre lovers.

Laurents informs me that Lincoln Center will produce The Time of the Cuckoo with Deborah Monk next fall. After more than a half century of writing on a wide variety of subjects for both stage and screen, Laurents continues to be haunted by the effects McCarthyism had on private lives. He is equally troubled by the sexual McCarthyism he observes in the current Bill and Monica scandal. Laurents is outspoken about Linda Tripp and her remark, "I am you." "Is she kidding?" Laurents retorts with disgust in his voice. But Laurents sees Tripp as following in a long line of infamous whistle blowers -- in particular the testimony of director Elia Kazan before the House Un-American Activities Committee. A bit of irony will take place when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences honor Kazan with a Lifetime Achievement Award during the run of Jolson Sings Again.

"He's (Kazan) already won Oscars for his films, why give him a special award? I don't think you can separate a man from his work. I think giving him that award is an insult to all the people who were damaged," says Laurents. Although Laurents says there are references to Kazan in Jolson Sings Again, the informant in his play differs greatly. "The character in my play needs no justification for informing and explains why." Laurents explains how all four characters in the play are amalgams of many people he knew and stuff he went through himself. "It's very personal. But the politics is really just a springboard. It is really about personal betrayal." Looking back, Laurents will admit that he is not entirely innocent. "I did two shows with my friend, choreographer Jerome Robbins, and he was not entirely clean. Finally the friendship wasn't what it had been. I also think informing does something to the informer."

Conceding that Jolson Sings Again may indeed be cathartic for him, Laurents says that it's theme is motivated by strong feelings. "I like to write about passionate things," says Laurents. Just as he had in a portion of his novel and screenplay for "The Way We Were" (1973), Laurents has found passion and a catharsis in revisiting one of his and America's darkest times. In Jolson Sings Again, Robert Petkoff plays a young idealistic writer who travels to Hollywood, where he has been commissioned to write his first screenplay. At the same time, Larry Parks' testimony before the House Un-American Activities is sending shock waves through the Hollywood community. Here, a small group of friends that includes a famous director, played by Armand Schultz, and a Jewish married couple, played by Betsy Aidem and Jonathan Hadary, have received subpoenas. They agonize when they see how their idealistic values will be compromised and their dreams for their future irrevocably changed.

Besides his home in New York City, Laurents shares the Hamptons area beach home (which he built with the money he made from The Time of the Cuckoo) with the same man for forty years. Laurents says that "we stay young by skiing every winter." In that case, while one wishes Jolson Sings Again luck at George Street, best not to say "break a leg" to the outspoken activist playwright.

-- by Simon Saltzman
(Special to PBOL by permission of the author, US 1 Newspaper, Princeton; and This Month ON STAGE magazine)