A Life in the Theatre: Arthur Laurents

By Mervyn Rothstein
May 15, 2008

Meet acclaimed writer and director Arthur Laurents, a 2008 Tony Award nominee for direction of his masterpiece, Gypsy.

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"Working in the theatre is, to me, living," says Arthur Laurents.

And at age 90, Laurents is still very much an active presence in the art form that for more than 60 years has been an essential part of his existence. Right now on Broadway, for the third time, he is directing Gypsy — this version, at the St. James Theatre, stars Patti LuPone.

"This production came along at probably the worst time," Laurents says. "Tom Hatcher, with whom I shared a life for 52 years, died. But he had urged me to do this Gypsy, with Patti. So I did it for him. And when I got to the rehearsal hall, I came back to life."

How do you sum up the incredible stage — and screen — career of Arthur Laurents? He wrote his first Broadway play — Home of the Brave, about a Jewish GI in World War II — in 1945, a mere 63 years ago. His career as a screenwriter began not long after. His stage credits, to mention but a few, include the play The Time of the Cuckoo; the librettos for West Side Story and Gypsy; directing the original production of La Cage aux Folles; and directing revivals of Gypsy with Angela Lansbury, Tyne Daly and now LuPone. He has won two Tony Awards: in 1968 for the book of Hallelujah, Baby! and in 1984 for La Cage.

In the movies, his screenplays include "The Way We Were," "The Turning Point" and Alfred Hitchcock's "Rope."

Laurents was born and raised in Brooklyn (he attended Erasmus Hall High School, which has also given us Barbra Streisand, Barbara Stanwyck, Neil Diamond and Mae West). "I got involved in the theatre because near my house there was a stock company, and my cousins and I would go every Saturday. My parents also took me to the theatre. And I went alone to Broadway plays when I was 12. I remember seeing Grand Hotel. And I knew it was a piece of junk." (Laurents has long been known for his willingness to express his opinions.)

After attending Cornell University he began writing radio plays. He served in the Army for five years, before and during World War II. "The Army created a unit for me to write a show propagandizing the home front. It must have been pretty good, because all the good actors wanted to be in it. I drank too much. I was stationed in New York. During the war, New York was all about sex and booze. I don't think anybody thought of anything else."

He went to many parties. "And an actor named Martin Gabel said to me, 'You'll never write a play unless you stay home.' So I stayed home. And I wrote Home of the Brave. When you're young you don't know anything. You think you know everything. That play came too easily. Even then, though, I knew the play was going to be a succès d'estime. Which means it gets acclaim and it flops. But once that started, it just seemed to me it's where I belonged."

He then went to the West Coast, he says, and "got involved in writing films for money. I fell in love in Hollywood. I lived with a sort of movie star — Farley Granger. I was also caught in the witch hunt." He was blacklisted in the McCarthy era for his political beliefs and went to Paris for about a year and a half before returning to New York and his first love, theatre.

In the mid-1950s, he was contacted by Jerome Robbins and Leonard Bernstein about writing the libretto for a musical they were working on. It was a modern-day version of Romeo and Juliet — Robbins had originally called it East Side Story and envisioned it involving Jews and Catholics. Laurents and Bernstein revised the ethnicities to Polish-American and Puerto Rican, redirected the geography — and changed musical history.

"I had met Jerry Robbins during the war, and we became friendly. We had started writing a musical called Look Ma, I'm Dancing, but I told Jerry I couldn't write it. He became very angry, but we stayed friendly. He always believed in my talent, and he came to me for West Side Story."

In 1959, after West Side Story, came Gypsy, which many theatre aficionados call the best musical ever written. Laurents has long said that Gypsy is his favorite and that he thinks it wonderful to have written a piece considered a classic. "I always was proud of it," he once told The New York Times. "But Gypsy grew to be a classic. It wasn't one of those things that was hailed as such in the beginning." (Indeed, it didn't win the Tony, losing out to both The Sound of Music and Fiorello!, which tied for Best Musical.)

And he has also said that styles have changed, and that Ethel Merman, the original star, would not achieve the success now that she did back then. "I suppose it's heresy," he told the Times, "but I don't think Merman would have gotten away with it today. The voice is a glorious trumpet, but it's like, 'Now I'm doing my ballad. Now I'm doing my comedy number. Now I'm doing my 2–4; I'll do a little feeling here, but not too much.'"

In 1962, Laurents directed a Broadway musical called I Can Get It for You Wholesale, with a cast that included a 19-year-old newcomer named Barbra Streisand in a featured role, Miss Marmelstein, that skyrocketed her career. Did Laurents know then that she would become such a huge star? "Barbra told you then that her career would be like it turned out to be," he says. "She was 19. And she knew she was going to be a movie star — not a Broadway star. You know what she looked like then — she knew what she looked like then. But she was determined. And she succeeded in making millions of people think she looked like a movie star — so she became a movie star."

And then, in the '80s, came La Cage. "It was one of the happiest times I've had in the theatre. To do a major Broadway musical back then where one man sings a love song to another man — one of the reasons I did it was to show that you could do a musical about gay people with dignity, and it could be a success. And to my surprise, it was."

The new production of Gypsy, which was first done at City Center last summer, is different from all others, he says. "We've been totally re-examining, rediscovering, exploring the show. It's exciting to do that. You take the same material and really look at it, and you can come up with a very different show. Because what's the point of doing another revival? To do the same thing over and over again is boring. You don't just revive. You look for new life. You look for the emotional reality of everything. And we've found so much."

One of the things they've found, he says, is that "it's about love. It's about the need for recognition, the need for love. Rose's kids are not good, and they fall down and make mistakes. And you see how much Rose cares about her daughter June, who then walks out on her. And there you get the emotional line of the show — she's continually abandoned, and she never understands why, even at the final curtain."

Laurents will be 91 in July, but he has no plans to retire. "Since Tom died, my values have changed. I don't have ambition. I don't do anything I really don't want to do. I want to do something in theatre only if it really excites me."

And what really excites him? "I'm doing a revival of West Side Story that is going to open on Broadway in early 2009 — and it will be unlike any production ever done. It will be radically different — and I'm not going to tell you how. You'll have to go see it."