Despite the trailblazing Jerome Robbins production, lyrics by the young Stephen Sondheim and a stunningly dramatic score by Leonard Bernstein, it had a respectable but by no means record-breaking run. The score includes the now classic "Tonight", "Maria", "America" and "Somewhere", but in terms of hits outside the show, "it was a total washout, to such an extent that the producers gave us the rights. I was the first author to get a piece of a show album because they recognised my contribution, but reckoned it was worth nothing." Then the movie came out. With a dubbed Natalie Wood as Maria and 10 Oscars, the cast album sat at the top of the charts for years, which more than paid the rent.
After studying at Cornell, he was fired from his first job, selling towels at Bloomingdales. "I piled them high and slept behind them, but they caught me," he says.
He wound up writing for radio which meant that when the war came, the army created a job for him writing radio propaganda. "New York in wartime, you couldn't believe it. The whole city reeked of sex and alcohol and everyone had as much as they wanted of both." He also wrote a play about a black soldier suffering racism called Home of the Brave which was staged after the war. The play was successful enough to be filmed four years later. By that time he had adapted Rope for Hitchcock, a film whose homosexual undercurrents do not seem to match the director's usual obsessions. "He adored perversity," Laurents says of the director, "and he thought being gay was perverse. I'm very dubious about all these stories about him and Tippi Hedren. I knew him very well and thought him utterly asexual."
Their discussions about this fictionalisation of the Leopold and Loeb murder case never included homosexuality: "The closest we came was that he originally wanted Cary Grant and Montgomery Clift, who both turned it down. And he said, `Well, they can't afford to because of their lives'."
Much of the homoerotic tension in the picture stems from the chilly performance by Farley Granger. "I was living with him at the time," observes Laurents. "Hitch knew it and that gave him a perverse delight." Hitchcock's favourites became part of the family. "I was very young and I'd go round to dinner and there would be Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman and I'd think `Oh my God, these are the folks? What am I doing here?'" Bergman later played the title role in his movie Anastasia, while his other screen hits include Bonjour, Tristesse and The Way We Were, the latter drawing on his experience of being blacklisted in the McCarthy era. "This creature, Swifty Lazar [the legendary agent], said to me, `You're blacklisted.'" Paramount told him he had asked for too much money. In fact, that was simply a ruse: he had not even talked money. "I was never in the party," Laurents continues, "but I was very involved in left-wing things. So I said to a friend who was the story editor at Paramount, `Great, now we can expose the whole outrageous blacklist business.' And he said, `I'm not going to risk my ass. You'll never get me to testify to this.'"
The blacklist meant no work. "It may sound odd, but it really was a very exciting time. Suddenly, it was black and white: the good guys and the bad guys. It was that clear." Later, writing about the experience in his play Jolson Sings Again, he realised that there were grey areas. After all, he himself worked with Robbins on West Side Story (and again on Gypsy) knowing that he was an informer. "So how guiltless am I? I did a picture with Elia Kazan too and believe me, they behaved like informers. It isn't that informers are evil; I think evil people become informers. That may sound very judgemental, but I mean it to be. There are exceptions - the people who had to because, finally, they had to get the bread on the table. But people like Kazan did it to get a movie career. There was no blacklist in theatre, they could have worked there."
Ironically, even as late as 1973, when he wrote about it in The Way We Were, the studios were still nervous. The picture was a hit but they cut his climax where the political story and the love story met. "The central marriage had been rocky. The scene as written opened with Robert Redford coming home saying, `The studio is going to fire me because I have a subversive wife.' The implication was: if Streisand's character chooses to inform she won't be subversive and Redford will still have a job.' And Streisand says "Well, willy-nilly, circumstances make up your mind for you. We get a divorce.' But they cut the line about the subversive wife." Thus the split appears to be not about politics but Redford's philandering which ripped the heart out of the picture.
He blames the director Sydney Pollack and producer Ray Stark. "They were ignorant. The only one who was fighting with me was Streisand. Men, in general, don't understand love."
There was similar trouble on the equally successful The Turning Point (1977). Set in the ballet world, it had a strong secondary gay story, but Laurents felt safe because, this time, he was the co-producer. "But the gay stuff began disappearing and I assumed it was the studio. Finally I confronted Herb and he said, `Oh, nobody's gay in the ballet anymore.' So I said, `Look, this is Arthur you're talking to. We've known each other for 20 years.'" At which point he learned that for a writer, being a co- producer is no insurance when your producing partner is the director. "If you're a writer, they kiss your ass to get you to do it and once you're there, they throw you out on your ass."
He quit movies altogether and returned to theatre where he had given 19-year-old Barbra Streisand her first job in the musical I Can Get It For You Wholesale. He wrote a pioneering gay play, The Enclave, and won the Tony award for directing La Cage aux Folles, but his nightmare flop Nick and Nora (based on The Thin Man) made him abandon writing musicals. He is only back on West Side Story because he promised the dying Jerry Robbins he would oversee it.
"Trevor Nunn wanted to re-do it and I was thrilled. I worked very hard on Jerry but he wouldn't shift, so we're doing his historic production for the last time." He laughs, with undisguised glee. "Even so, I've ridden roughshod over it. I don't want to sound pretentious, but you don't want to see The Cherry Orchard the way Stanislavski did it. You want to see a new look at it."
`West Side Story' is at the Prince Edward Theatre, London (0171-447 5400) from tonight