Arthur Laurents, Legendary Librettist, Playwright, Screenwriter and Director, Dies at 93
By Robert Simonson
Arthur Laurents, the irascible, enduring Man of the Theatre who wrote plays and screenplays and enjoyed a significant career as a director — but who made his lasting mark as the librettist to two landmark musicals, West Side Story and Gypsy — died May 5 at his Manhattan home after a short illness, his agent Jonathan Lomma confirmed. He was 93 years old, and died peacefully in his sleep.
In recent weeks, Mr. Laurents had finished work on a new play, and had concluded negotiations with a major studio for a new feature film version of Gypsy.
Mr. Laurents was fairly well established as a playwright — having scored critical plaudits with his 1945 Broadway debut, Home of the Brave, and a popular success with the 1952 Shirley Booth vehicle The Time of the Cuckoo — when he was asked, in quick succession, by Jerome Robbins to provide the librettos to two early efforts by Stephen Sondheim, who was then only recognized as a lyricist.
West Side Story placed him in collaboration not only with Sondheim, but Leonard Bernstein, on a show that would become a benchmark in mature musical theatre expression, not to mention a pinnacle in musical and choreographic achievement. It was Robbins who first approached Bernstein and Mr. Laurents about doing a modern musical version of Romeo and Juliet. Mr. Laurents and Bernstein, inspired by accounts of race riots in Los Angeles, later hatched the idea of making the story be about to rival youth gangs, one white, one Puerto Rican, in the New York City slums. Receiving nearly equal praise to Bernstein and Robbins' contributions was Mr. Laurents' tightly constructed, realistic, yet romantic text about the motivations and personal trials of two warring youth gangs — an unusual state of affairs in the musical theatre, where librettos were typically either discounted or ridiculed by critics. Though the West Side Story tale is essentially street melodrama, the details in Mr. Laurents libretto fleshed out the characters in crafty, subtle, economical ways. For example, you learn a great deal about virginal Maria in one sentence by Mr. Laurents: She's frustrated that she's made to wear a white dress, a color fit for "babies."
Gypsy bowed on Broadway only two years later, teaming Mr. Laurents again with Sondheim and Robbins, as well as composer Jule Styne and star Ethel Merman. According to Mr. Laurents, Robbins insisted he write the book to a musical adaptation of stripper Gypsy Rose Lee's autobiography. After mulling the property for a while, the writer decided the show should focus not on Lee but on her mother. With a dry eye, the writer tracked the gradual rise and steep, steady fall of Mama Rose, a voracious stage mother whose two daughters are sacrificed to her undying ambition. Many musical historians consider the trenchant libretto the best ever written, the often shattering dramatic scenes easily the equal of the soaring songs.
As most of his collaborators passed away, Mr. Laurents gradually assumed the role of protector of the two properties, guarding them jealously, and, more often than not, choosing to direct major Broadway revivals himself rather than trust another director to interpret them. While entering his ninth decade, he staged a lauded 2008 Broadway production of Gypsy, starring Patti LuPone, and a less-praised Broadway return of West Side Story the following year, in which the Sharks spoke and sang their native Spanish for the first time. The inconsistent use of Spanish in the text frustrated some critics.
The former was in many ways Mr. Laurents attempt to erase the memory of a 2003 Broadway revival of Gypsy directed by Sam Mendes. The bookwriter was brutally outspoken about his dislike of Mendes' approach to the show. In his 2009 memoir "Mainly on Directing," he criticized Mendes for not having musical theatre "in his bones." "'Surprised' was not the word for my reaction to what Sam Mendes did. 'Surprised' is a happy word."
The comments were not unusual for Mr. Laurents. Perhaps more than anyone in the American theatre outside of George S. Kaufman, Arthur Laurents was as famous, or infamous, for what he said as what he did. He said playwright John Guare "had a talent for networking, and the knife," and that Katharine Hepburn had "no sense of humor." After Jerome Robbins named names before HUAC, and mused that it would be years before he knew whether he'd done the right thing, Laurents retorted, "I can tell you right now, you were a shit." He stated that "Most directors are frustrated writers." Mr. Laurents once joked that every barb uttered in the theatre was attributed to him, because people naturally expected him to say audacious things.
Along the way, his outspokenness would cost him several friends — including, at times, his collaborators. Mr. Laurents defended himself by saying, "What other people call mean, I call telling the truth unguardedly."
Following Gypsy, Mr. Laurents' theatre life was dominated by musical work. Two subsequent pairings with Sondheim — Anyone Can Whistle, which he also directed; and Do I Hear a Waltz?, which was based on his own play The Time of the Cuckoo — failed on Broadway in 1964 and 1965. His direction of Harold Rome's I Can Get It for You Wholesale, however, resulted in a hit, and 1967's Hallelujah, Baby!, which found him with Jule Styne again, ran a year and won him a Tony Award, his first.
His most significant directing credit came in the 1980s with Jerry Herman's gay-oriented farcical musical La Cage aux Folles. The show ran for four years, won Mr. Laurents his second Tony, and won a Tony Award for Best Musical. But his directing career came to a virtual halt in 1991 when he staged the monumental flop Nick & Nora.
All through these years, he continued to write plays, though most of them were produced at regional theatres. Among his works were Jolson Sings Again, Big Potato, Two Lives, Claudio Lazlo, Attacks on the Heart and My Good Name. Many of them premiered at the George Street Theatre in New Jersey, where he found a patron in artistic director David Saint. His plots often zeroed in on matters of human hypocrisy and betrayal — subjects Mr. Laurents felt strongly about in real life. Though he was regularly produced, none of his plays secured him a standing as a dramatist that would equal that which he enjoyed as a librettist.
"Arthur Laurents is a playwright with attributes of sensibility, wit, observation and sound craftsmanship," wrote Harold Clurman, who had directed The Time of the Cuckoo and of whom Mr. Laurents had been openly critical. "Two things, I believe, sometimes impede him. He wants to give his plays a certain 'philosophic' stature and he wants to be a highly successful showman."
Addressing the writer's unrelenting earnestness, the New York Times' Ben Brantley called him, in 1995, "the theatre's hipper, more sophisticated answer, if you will, to Stanley Kramer."
He was born Arthur Levine on July 14, 1918, and raised in Brooklyn. (He admitted to changing his name only very late in life.) His father, the son of Orthodox Jews, was a lawyer, and his mother, also Jewish, but raised Atheist, was, in her son's words, an energetic blonde "with very good legs." Mrs. Laurents crusaded against intolerance, and instilled in her son an urge to fight all forms of bigotry.
He began writing when he was 10, and was encouraged by an English professor at Cornell. After graduating he took an evening class in radio writing at New York University. His instructor, a CBS Radio director/producer, submitted his script "Now Playing Tomorrow" to the network. It was produced with Shirley Booth in the lead. He was soon hired to write scripts for various radio shows.
During World War II, he was drafted into the U.S. Army. He was assigned to a base located in a former film studio in Astoria, Queens, where he wrote training films. Later, he was reassigned to write plays for Armed Service Force Presents, a radio show that dramatized the contributions of all branches of the armed forces.
Tiring of radio work, he wrote Home of the Brave over the course of nine consecutive nights. The play, about anti-Semitism in the military, was informed by his passion for justice and disgust for falseness. It was not a hit, running only 69 performances, but it established him as a playwright. He was soon lured to Hollywood, where director Anatolia Litvak asked him to rewrite the script for "The Snake Pit" submitted by Frank Partos and Millen Brand. He did, but never received credit, because Partos and Brand claimed the resulting shooting script was mainly theirs — a deception Laurents could not disprove because he had destroyed all his notes. Alfred Hitchcock heard of his work, tough, and hired him to Americanize for the screen the British play Rope, about two Leopold & Loeb-like killers. On the set, he met actor Farley Granger, with whom he began a lengthy love affair. Two of his best known film scripts, for "The Way They Were" and "The Turning Point," would come in the 1970s.
"The Way We Were" was set during the days of the McCarthy Communist witch hunts and the blacklist — always a sensitive topic for Mr. Laurents, who never forgave those who chose to "name names" before Congress. Mr. Laurents himself was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee after a casual remark made by Russel Crouse cast suspicion on him. He testified and, since his career was mainly in the theatre, the incident initially had no impact on his career. Only later, when the State Department refused to renew his passport, did he find out he had been blacklisted. He cleared his name by submitting a long letter explaining his political beliefs in such convoluted and idiosyncratic detail that that the government concluded he couldn't possibly belong to any political groups, subversive or not.
In contrast to his professional life, Mr. Laurents' personal life was relatively pacific, dominated by a long relationship with Tom Hatcher, an aspiring actor he met in a men's clothing store in Beverly Hills. The couple remained together for 52 years until Hatcher's death on Oct. 26, 2006. Mr. Laurents' play Two Lives was written about their relationship.
In 2010, in what may end up being one of Mr. Laurents' most enduring contributions to the theatre, he established an award for emerging playwrights, to be funded through the Laurents-Hatcher Foundation. The first recipient was named only weeks ago: Jeff Talbott, an unproduced New York City playwright, was the inaugural recipient for his play The Submission. The Laurents-Hatcher Award comes with a $50,000 prize for the writer and $100,000 for a producing organization. The Submission will be presented by Off-Broadway's MCC Theater in the fall.
The award, to be given annually if a play of merit can be found, is one of the most generous in the sphere of playwriting and is the first major playwriting distinction to be named after a gay couple.
Agent Jonathan Lomma said, "Of all his accomplishments the one he was most proud of was his relationship with Tom Hatcher. They lived together in total happiness for 52 years and I hope they're together again. In a business that values youth and the current trend Arthur Laurents remained relevant until he was 93 years old. He was a good and honorable man and we'll miss him."
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