Friday, May 6, 2011

Theater appreciation: The volatile Arthur Laurents

Arthur Laurents (1917-2011).

By Hap Erstein

When two-time Tony Award-winning writer-director Arthur Laurents died on Thursday, the theater and film world lost one of its great creative talents. And one of its most difficult.

He died at his home in New York at 93, after a short illness. There will undoubtedly be an outpouring of praise for Laurents, particularly for his two most acclaimed musicals, West Side Story and Gypsy, for which he wrote the books, and for such screenplays as The Way We Were and The Turning Point. His place in show business history is secure, despite the stories of his quick temper and mean disposition which will surely soon surface.

I only met Laurents once, interviewing him in his Greenwich Village house in 1985, just prior to a major revival of West Side Story and a national tour of La Cage aux Folles -- which he directed -- arriving in Washington, D.C., where I wrote for The Washington Times. (No Moonies jokes, pleases.)

I was writing a fluffy preview feature, but that did not prevent Laurents from being sour and combative in his responses to me. He was not actively involved in the West Side Story revival, so he had no qualms about saying “It would be interesting to have a new take on” Jerome Robbins’ choreography, which was being carefully reproduced and duplicated.

During the run of the show in Washington, an interview with Robbins in The Washington Post fired back at Laurents, with the original director-choreographer suggesting that it was Laurents’ script that needed “a new take.”

It always amused me that I helped foment a feud between these two theater icons, or at least offered a vehicle for them to bicker publicly.

The only other time I spoke with Laurents was after my unenthusiastic review of Tyne Daly in a production of Gypsy that ran in 1989. Laurents called me up to berate me for my opinion, a habit of his, I was later told.

Whether or not his volatile personal style drew out the best in the casts he directed is certainly debatable, but Laurents’ writing skill is not.

Gypsy’s book is widely considered the finest script for a musical ever, for its economy, dramatic structure and vividly drawn characters. And of course West Side Story is Laurents’ audacious rewrite of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet set against the mean streets of New York, revived yet again in 2009 with a bilingual twist.

He debuted on Broadway in 1945 with the play Home of the Brave, about anti-Semitism in the military, later filmed by Stanley Kramer. More successful was the romantic comedy The Time of the Cuckoo, about a spinster in search of love in Venice, which became the Katharine Hepburn film Summertime and then the short-lived musical Do I Hear A Waltz?, written by Laurents with his West Side Story colleague Stephen Sondheim and composer Richard Rodgers.

In 2000, Laurents wrote his autobiography, Original Story By: A Memoir of Broadway and Hollywood, a real volatile page-turner that candidly discussed his homosexuality, the Hollywood blacklist he found himself on and the legendary figures he worked with in his more than six decades in show business.

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