Arthur Laurents, whose fabled Broadway career as a writer and director began with two short lived productions but who eventually wrote the book for such monumental successes as Gypsy and West Side Story died May 5th of complications from pneumonia. He was ninety-three.
Laurents, born Arthur Levine on July 17, 1917, was a Brooklyn born son of a lawyer and a schoolteacher who made his Broadway debut shortly after being discharged from his World War II service with Home of the Brave, a drama about anti-Semitism in the army. It ran for a disappointingly brief run of sixty-nine performances in 1945 and 1946, although Stanley Kubrick remade it into a movie in 1949, substituting African-American protagonists for Jewish ones.
Laurents endured a brief period blacklisted as a suspected communist in 1952, apparently because the Daily Worker published a review of Home of the Brave. Laurents wrote a lengthy letter describing his political beliefs, which the State Department described as “idiosyncratic”, and the blacklist was lifted.
He did not make it back to the Great White Way until 1950, when his second play, The Bird Cage, had an even shorter run. But he stuck to it, and, in 1952, he had a hit with his third effort, The Time of the Cuckoo, featuring Geraldine Brooks and Shirley Booth. (Laurents later adapted the script for his 1965 musical, Do I Hear a Waltz?.) This success paved the way for Laurents’ most notable writing accomplishments: West Side Story, Gypsy, and La Cage Aux Folles.
In addition to being a superb script writer, Laurents was a celebrated stage director, with ten Broadway productions to his credit. In 1962, he cast a little known 19 year old performer to play Miss Marmelstein in I Can Get It For You Wholesale, and launched the career of Barbra Streisand. In 2008, Laurents directed the Broadway revival of Gypsy starring Patty LuPone. At the time of his death he was in negotiations for a film version of Gypsy with Streisand picked to play stage mother Rose.
In 2009, at the age of 91, Laurents rewrote and directed West Side Story, having some of the Sharks speak in Spanish. Reviewing its pre-Broadway run at the National Theatre, DCTS’ Gary McMillan called it “a good-as-gold Golden Anniversary production.”
Laurents’ career as a screenwriter was not as distinguished as his stage career was. In 1949, director Anatole
Litvak engaged Laurents to rewrite the script for “The Snake Pit” which had been originally submitted by Frank Partos and Millen Brand. Laurents was subsequently involved in a fierce dispute with Partos and Brand as to who was responsible for the bulk of the final script; the Writers Guild of America awarded credit to Partos and Brand. However, many years later, Brand admitted that he and Partos had copied pages originally written by Laurents and passed them off as their own work.
Laurents also wrote the scripts for half-a-dozen other movies, the most well-known of which was “The Way We Were”, co-starring Barbra Streisand and Robert Redford.
In 2001, Laurents stopped long enough to record his memoirs, “Original Story By: A Memoir of Broadway and Hollywood” and, in 2009, as his revival of West Side Story was making its to Broadway, his last book “Mainly on Directing” was released, an outspoken, unstinting look at past productions of West Side Story, and especially of Gypsy.
Laurents lived most of his adult life in long term gay relationships, first with Farley Granger and finally with actor Tom Hatcher from 1954 until Hatcher’s death in 2006.
In what Playbill describes as one of Laurent’s “most enduring contributions to theatre” Laurents established the Laurents-Hatcher Award, a yearly honor bestowed on an unproduced full-length play of social relevance in 2010. The Award carries with it a $50,000 prize for the winner and $100,000 for a producing company.
Jeff Talbott, an as-yet unproduced New York City playwright, received the first Award in February, 2011 for The Submission. Off-Broadway’s MCC Theater is scheduled to produce the play next Fall. When contacted by DC Theatre Scene, Talbott wrote “Arthur changed my life. That a man of his legendary status would create an opportunity to champion a new voice is amazing certainly, but it was his personal belief in the piece, his unabashed support and enthusiasm for it that was the true gift. I am deeply saddened by his absence.”