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An appreciation: Arthur Laurents, prickly Broadway pioneer

The man who wrote 'West Side Story' and 'Gypsy' was not just a great theater artist; he was also a great theatrical character.

May 07, 2011|By Charles McNulty, Los Angeles Times Theater Critic
  • Arthur Laurents
Arthur Laurents (Ari Mintz / For The Times )

As Stephen Sondheim is the first to point out, it's the book writers of musicals who always get it in the neck. If they're not ignored entirely (as in "Sondheim's 'Sweeney Todd'" ), then they're usually held responsible for the work's shortcomings by critics, who tend to be more comfortable criticizing the story than the score.

Arthur Laurents, who died Thursday as an exceptionally young nonagenarian, was one musical theater writer who was impossible to overlook. Dismiss him — and how could you dismiss the man who wrote the books for "West Side Story" and "Gypsy"? — and you'd have your head handed to you, no matter if you were a lowly reviewer or a formidable diva.

Feisty, irascible, sharp-tongued and fearless, he had a reputation in the theater as someone who was always spoiling for a fight. Age hadn't mellowed him. Even in his late 80s and early 90s, when he was busy directing revivals of his classics on Broadway, he was still settling scores with a few choice quips.

As the news of his death spread Thursday evening, theater people were trading stories about the "holy terror" that was Laurents. Harvey Fierstein reminded his Twitter following of a joke he made on the occasion of Laurents' 85th birthday that his legendary colleague (who won a Tony for directing "La Cage aux Folles," for which Fierstein wrote the book) was "living proof that the good die young." At the intermission of "War Horse" at Lincoln Center, friends were speculating whether Barbra Streisand would at last get to star in a new film version of "Gypsy" now that Laurents was no longer around to block it from happening.

This might sound like sacrilege, but the truth is these comments were made by people who revere Laurents and wouldn't dream of questioning his hallowed place in the Broadway firmament. But Laurents was not just a great theater artist — he was also a great theatrical character. His bitchiness enlivened the Rialto, his feuds fed the tabloid columnists and his gossip kept the after-show drinks crowd at Sardi's, Joe Allen and Angus McIndoe tittering over a second martini. He didn't just kiss and tell in his memoir "Original Story By"; he indicted anyone who discriminated against him as a gay man or double-crossed him in showbiz.

Obituaries and appreciations will rightly note that he revolutionized the dramatic possibilities of the American musical through his work in two 20th century landmarks. After "West Side Story" and "Gypsy," Broadway shows that sang, danced and clowned around realized that they could take themselves seriously. Literary substance — complex characters, multilayered dialogue, subtext, irony, even ambiguity — wasn't verboten. This may sound hyperbolic, but those who have had the experience can back me up: Playing the infamous stage mother in "Gypsy" is as demanding — emotionally, physically and mentally — as playing any comparably hefty role in Shakespeare, Brecht or O'Neill.

If Laurents sometimes seemed to have a chip on his shoulder, it wasn't purely personal. Like many theater luminaries, his ego was as big as it was fragile. But he was defending something greater than himself — the status of writers.

Laurents, a native New Yorker and Cornell graduate, started off as a playwright and broke into Hollywood after some early minor success in the theater. The film business was glamorous, but screenwriters were second-class citizens. His apprentice years on the West Coast included working on Alfred Hitchcock's "Rope" (a formative brush with greatness), but Laurents had to fight for credits and had a devil of a time navigating in an industry that didn't care a whit about his integrity as a dramatist.

Eventually, Laurents would strike it big with "The Way We Were" and receive an Oscar nomination for his screenplay for "The Turning Point," but he was too much a playwright to ever feel truly at home in movie-land and too ferociously honest with himself to pretend otherwise.

Yet he was a writer who found his inspiration not isolated at his desk but in the company of other artists. The more collaborative the effort, the more his genius emerged. His most successful play, "The Time of the Cuckoo" — which was adapted into the film "Summertime" with Katharine Hepburn and the musical "Do I Hear a Waltz?" — still has some life in it, but the work he did with Sondheim, Jule Styne, Leonard Bernstein and Jerome Robbins will never die.

What distinguished him as a director wasn't the fluency or visual flair of his productions but his appreciation of musicals as dramatic works. He defiantly cast Tyne Daly as the lead in his 1989 Broadway revival of "Gypsy," confident that the part needed an actor with gritty authenticity, not just a performer with pipes. He was right. It may not have been the best-sung version, but it was one of the most searing.

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