Arthur Laurents: Playwright and screenwriter who wrote the books for 'West Side Story' and 'Gypsy'
Monday 16 May 2011
The playwright and screenwriter Arthur Laurents wrote the books for two true classics of musical theatre, West Side Story (1957) and Gypsy (1959), and directed the hit musical La Cage aux Folles (1983).
His plays included the powerful anti-semitism drama, The Home of the Brave (1945) and The Time of the Cuckoo (1952), which on screen became David Lean's Summertime. His screenplays include Hitchcock's Rope (1948), and The Way We Were (1973).
West Side Story and Gypsy would figure in most historians' top 10 stage musicals – indeed, Gypsy is often cited as having the best book of any show. West Side Story had a score by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim (making his Broadway debut), while Sondheim also provided lyrics for Gypsy, to Jule Styne's music. Both benefited from the superb choreography and staging of Jerome Robbins, but Laurents' contributions cannot be over-estimated. His teaming with Bernstein, Robbins and Sondheim was not placid. Robbins was a theatrical genius but arguably the most disliked of Broadway personalities, and Laurents was to call him "a monster", but the musicals on which they collaborated, West Side Story and Gypsy, have proved their durability.
As conceived by Robbins and Bernstein, West Side Story was to transpose Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet to a tale of warring Catholics and Jews in New York (with the title East Side Story), but Laurents persuaded them that it would have more originality if based on the experience of Puerto Ricans in the city. It was also his idea to begin the show with a wordless dance sequence demonstrating the conflict and rivalry between the two street gangs, the Sharks and the Jets. Broadway had never seen a show like it when it opened in 1957. I was fortunate to be at the first night in London in 1958, when the show opened at Her Majesty's Theatre, and it was one of the most electrifying evenings I have ever experienced – it seemed as if the applause, cheers and stamping would never stop.
Gypsy began life as a memoir by the stripper Gypsy Rose Lee about her early life as a child performer in vaudeville, driven by a fiercely ambitious mother. Robbins had envisioned "a panorama of vaudeville and burlesque", but Laurents thought the show should be built around the mother, Rose, and her single-minded pursuit of fame for her daughters, June and Louise. With Ethel Merman set for the part of Rose, Styne and Sondheim wrote a rich, melodious score, the songs perfectly integrated with Laurents' witty, perceptive and economical script.
Merman, who had a reputation for firing performers who stole the limelight, displayed her generosity for the good of the show in allowing two major show-stoppers by other members of the cast – "All I Need Is The Girl", in which one of the chorus boys envisions the song-and-dance act with which he hopes to headline, and "You Gotta Have a Gimmick", the hilarious advice three strippers give to Louise. Rose herself has one of the great tour-de-force numbers at the show's climax, "Rose's Turn", in which all her bitterness and frustrations erupt. When the show was staged in London in 1974 with Angela Lansbury starring, Laurents devised a chilling piece of new staging in which, having finished the number to rapturous applause from the audience, Rose continues bowing after the applause dies out as if lost in a hallucination. In 1962 Mervyn LeRoy directed a film version that was fairly faithful to the original, with Rosalind Russell energetically conveying all of Rose's electricity, vulgarity and humour (though most of her singing was dubbed by Lisa Kirk).
Gypsy has had four major Broadway revivals, starring Lansbury, Tyne Daly, Bernadette Peters and Patti Lupone, and earlier this year Barbra Streisand announced that she would be starring in a new film version, but Sondheim was allegedly not happy with the idea, and Laurents, at first in favour, agreed. West Side Story has also been revived several times, most recently in 2009 in a production for which Laurents controversially had the Puerto Ricans speaking in Spanish.
The son of a lawyer, Laurents was born Arthur Levine in Brooklyn in 1918, and educated at Cornell University where, as a summary of his autobiography put it, he "learned to write plays, learned he was homosexual, and learned what his politics would be as he organised support of the Spanish Civil War and protests against campus witch hunts." Those undergraduate days were to be the inspiration for his novel and screenplay, The Way We Were.
He became a prolific radio writer, and when he was drafted into the army he wrote training and propaganda films. Near the end of the war he produced a radio series, Assignment: Home, conceived to prepare soldiers for a return to civilian life. The highly praised plays included The Knife, which dealt with racism in the services, the theme of Laurents' first play to be produced on Broadway, Home of the Brave.
When offered a writer's contract by MGM, he moved to Hollywood, where he met the actor Farley Granger, who was to become his lover. Following an uncredited rewrite of the script for the powerful story of insanity, The Snake Pit (1948), Laurents then did a fine job adapting Patrick Hamilton's play, Rope, for Alfred Hitchcock. Based on the Leopold and Loeb case in which two college boys killed another simply to demonstrate their superior intellect, it gave Laurents the task of fashioning a script that would satisfy the strict censorship of the time, since the youths (one of them played by Granger) were lovers. Laurents later stated that the script was so discreet that he was unsure whether James Stewart ever realised the character he was playing was supposed to be gay.
Laurents and Hitchcock became good friends, but when Laurents refused to adapt the book Hitchcock had bought as his next project, Under Capricorn, telling the director that he disliked it and thought it wrong for Ingrid Bergman, who was set to star, it ended their friendship. Laurents instead collaborated with Philip Yordan on a screen adaptation of Yordan's play, Anna Lucasta (1949) starring Paulette Goddard, then wrote the screenplay for Max Ophuls' Caught (1949), James Mason's first Hollywood film, in which Robert Ryan played a character on Howard Hughes.
In the 1950s, Laurents foundhimself briefly blacklisted by the House Un-American Activities Committee, but he was able to clear himself, proud of the fact that he never informedon anybody. He wrote the screenplay for Anastasia (1956), which won Ingrid Bergman an Oscar, and wrote aneffective screen adaptation of Françoise Sagan's Bonjour, Tristesse (1958), which Otto Preminger made into a memorable film.
Laurents' next two plays, A Clearing in the Woods (1957), and Invitation to the March (1960), starring Shelley Winters, were both failures. He had made his debut as a director with the latter, and in 1962 he directed his first musical, Harold Rome's I Can Get It For You Wholesale. It is remembered now as the show which introduced Barbra Streisand to Broadway and made her a star. The musical, which featured Laurents' former lover, dancer Harold Lang, had a modest run, with Streisand stopping the show every night with her comedy number, Miss Marmelstein.
In 1964 Laurents wrote the first Broadway musical with both words and music by Sondheim, Anyone Can Whistle, which had a brief run. Though Lee Remick and Angela Lansbury were lauded for their performances, Laurents' book was panned as pretentious and naïve in its attempts to be symbolic. In 1967 Laurents wrote the book for the musical, Hallelujah, Baby, written for Lena Horne, who wisely turned it down. In 1959 Gypsy had amazingly failed to win one Tony Award, but Hallelujah, Baby, a turgid musical with a mediocre score by Jule Styne, Betty Comden and Adolph Green, won Laurents a Tony, an indication that such trophies should not be regarded too seriously. In 1983 he won a second Tony for his direction of the Jerry Herman-Harvey Fierstein musical, La Cage aux Folles.
In 1973 he had his biggest film hit with The Way We Were, starring Streisand with Robert Redford. He also wrote The Turning Point (1977), set in the world of ballet, with bravura performances by Anne Bancroft and Shirley McLaine. In 2000 he wrote his opinionated, outspoken and immensely readable memoir, Original Story. After his long relationship with Farley Granger ended, he lived with the aspiring actor Tom Hatcher for 52 years until Hatcher's death in 2006.
Arthur Levine (Arthur Laurents), playwright and screenwriter: born Brooklyn, New York 14 July 1914; died New York City 5 May 2011.
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