Wrote 'West Side Story,' 'Gypsy'
Tony Award-winning writer-director Arthur Laurents, whose breadth and talent encompassed everything from “West Side Story” and “Gypsy” to “The Way We Were,” died in New York City on Thursday from complications of pneumonia. He was 93.
Both in theater and in films, Laurents showed a sensitivity and a sense of showmanship in his work as a playwright, screenwriter and director. In his later years he concentrated mostly on directing, nursing revivals of “West Side Story” and “Gypsy” — for which he had written the libretti — and the original Broadway production of the musical “La Cage aux Folles.”
Though Laurents never received the public acclaim of some of his contemporaries, his output was usually greater and of greater longevity. The variety of his work included the psychological drama “Home of the Brave,” the gang warfare and doomed romance of “West Side Story” and the flashy drag comedy of “La Cages aux Folles.”
He was born in Flatbush, Brooklyn, and was admittedly stagestruck from a young age. He attended Cornell U., receiving his B.A. in English in 1937. Laurents penned his first radio drama, “Now Playing Tomorrow,” during a writing course at NYU. The instructor sold the piece to CBS, a move Laurents credited for launching his career. Before WWII he wrote radio plays for popular series such as “Hollywood Playhouse,” “Dr. Christian” and “The Thin Man.”
Though originally assigned to a paratroop unit in WWII, Laurents eventually wound up making training films and radio scripts for “The Man Behind the Gun,” “Army Service,” “Forces Present” and “Assignment Home.” One of his scripts for these military training series, “The Face,” was named one of the best one-act plays of 1945-46.
Research for this series resulted in his first serious drama, “Home of the Brave,” about the scars of battle and anti-Semitism. Laurents once said of the show, “I could never have written that play had I not been in the Army.” Though it played only 69 performances on Broadway in 1945, it was recognized as part of the post-war realism movement. It was adapted for the bigscreen in 1949 with a script by Carl Foreman, the theme changed from anti-Semitism to racism.
His second play, “Heartsong,” in 1947, also closed early.
Laurents then headed for Hollywood in search of some quick money. He found it by writing the script for Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rope” and the 1948 psychological drama “The Snake Pit.” He also wrote one of Max Ophuls’ Hollywood films, “Caught,” in 1949 and an adaptation of the play “Anna Lucasta.”
His return venture on Broadway, 1950’s “The Bird Cage,” expired after three weeks. But his next play, the bittersweet comedy “The Time of the Cuckoo,” starring Shirley Booth, was a hit, winning him praise as “a mature artist” from Brooks Atkinson in the New York Times. “Cuckoo” would later become the Katharine Hepburn movie “Summertime” and, in the 1960s, the Broadway musical “Do I Hear A Waltz?,” with music by Richard Rodgers and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, who had collaborated with Laurents on “West Side” and “Gypsy.”
Laurents continued to commute between coasts, adapting the play “Anastasia” for the 1956 film that won Ingrid Bergman her second Oscar. His next play “A Clearing in the Woods” opened in 1957 and was later adapted for television. He also scripted “Bonjour Tristesse,” based on Francoise Sagan’s novel, for Otto Preminger in 1958.
All were successful but paled against his libretto for Leonard Bernstein and Sondheim’s musical “West Side Story,” one of the landmarks of American musical theater. So too was his next musical libretto, “Gypsy,” which opened in 1959 and won him a Tony nomination and Drama Desk Award when he directed Angela Lansbury in a 1974 revival.
Both shows benefitted from razzle-dazzle scores and from the direction of Jerome Robbins. But it is a testament to Laurents’ talents that both shows hold up 50 years after their birth. Nothing dates a musical faster than its book, and many shows that were once considered ground-breaking are now quaint relics of their times. But Laurents’ work was always marked by sharp observation and wit, as well as raw emotion. Many musical aficionados consider “Gypsy” the best book ever written for an American musical and the show’s great songs wouldn’t retain their power without the strong mother-daughter tensions that are at the core of the piece.
Laurents had begun directing with the 1960 play “Invitation to a March” starring Celeste Holm and Jane Fonda. It was well reviewed but quickly closed. He had better luck with David Merrick’s musical “I Can Get it For You Wholesale,” which introduced the musical theater to Barbra Streisand. His next musical, Sondheim’s “Anyone Can Whistle” in 1964, was innovative but too far ahead of its time for the regular musical audience.
In 1967 he won a Tony for his libretto of “Hallelujah Baby” starring Leslie Uggams. Irreverent toward people and awards, Laurents once joked about the award, “That show was a mistake!” In 1984, Laurents won again, this time for directing “La Cage aux Folles.”
Critics were divided on his 1973 Off Broadway comedy of manners “The Enclave,” preferring Laurents’ direction to his writing.
That same year he wrote “The Way We Were,” a Hollywood story he later admitted had autobiographical roots. The romantic drama starred Streisand and Robert Redford and was a major hit for both thesps. Laurents received an Oscar nomination in 1978 for his original screenplay “The Turning Point,” which was a showcase for actresses Shirley MacLaine and Anne Bancroft.
In 1979 he directed an original one-woman show for Phyllis Newman (Mrs. Adolph Green) called “The Madwoman of Central Park,” immediately followed by another “West Side Story” revival. Then in 1983 he directed the Tony-winning Broadway tuner “La Cages aux Folles.” Several years later, in 1990, he shepherded Tyne Daly to a Tony on Broadway in yet another revival of “Gypsy.”
In 1991, Laurents directed a stage adaptation of his book “Nick and Nora,” which lasted only a week. He returned in 2008 to direct another “Gypsy” revival, for which stars Patti LuPone, Laura Benanti and Boyd Gaines all were awarded Tonys.
Laurents capped his Broadway career with a final revival of “West Side Story” in 2009. This time it was bilingual, with Spanish translations to some dialogue and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda. While preparing the show, he noted, “The musical theater and cultural conventions of 1957 made it next to impossible for the characters to have authenticity.” Some felt the experiment was only partly successful.
A playwright at heart, Laurents only flirted with TV writing, racking up just a handful of credits that included overseeing the 1993 CBS adaptation of “Gypsy” with Bette Midler.
Laurents, famous for his brutal and public reprimands, drew a mixture of fear, contempt and admiration from his contemporaries, many of whom found themselves lacerated in his memoirs “Original Story By Arthur Laurents: A Memoir of Broadway and Hollywood” in 2000 and “Mainly on Directing: Gypsy, West Side Story, and Other Musicals” in 2009. A lucky few, however, saw huge career boosts from his stages, including Streisand in “I Can Get It for You Wholesale” and Angela Lansbury in “Anyone Can Whistle.”
Dry and sharply observant, his memoirs epitomize the insights into humanity which branded Laurents’ work. “Plays are emotion,” he once wrote. “The single best lesson I have ever been given.” Characterized by Laurents’ outspoken tendency to dish dirt and dole out harsh criticism, and his willingness to make enemies, both books received positive reviews.
Despite his achievements, he once admitted, “I never thought I was good enough, by my own standards, and I still don’t.'”
In 2010, Laurents established the Laurents/Hatcher Foundation Award, a $150,000 prize for the production of a socially relevant play and its winning playwright.
In February of this year, Streisand said she was to star in a new film version of “Gypsy,” but the project still seems in limbo.
Laurents’ partner of 52 years, actor Tom Hatc
her, died in 2006.
(Carson Vaughan contributed to this report.)