May 6 (Bloomberg) -- Arthur Laurents, the New York-born laureate storyteller who penned the scripts for “West Side Story” and “Gypsy,” two of the most successful and influential musicals in theater history, has died. He was 93.
Laurents died from complications of pneumonia, the New York Times said, citing Scott Rudin, a producer of the most recent Broadway revival of “Gypsy.” He lived in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village and in Quogue, Long Island.
In a wide-ranging show-business career that spanned seven decades, Laurents collaborated with the giants of Hollywood and Broadway, including Leonard Bernstein, Jerome Robbins, Elia Kazan, Jule Styne, Richard Rodgers and Stephen Sondheim. He wrote the novel and screenplay for “The Way We Were” (1973) and the screenplays for “Anastasia” (1956) and “The Turning Point” (1977). His other musicals included “Anyone Can Whistle” and “Do I Hear a Waltz?”
His plays included “The Time of the Cuckoo,” which was turned into the movie “Summertime” starring Katharine Hepburn. He staged the Broadway premiere of the musical adaptation of “La Cage aux Folles” and three hit revivals of “Gypsy.”
Along with his productions, Laurents was known for a volatile personality and a blunt outspokenness that made him one of Broadway’s most colorful figures and cost him friendships with many collaborators.
“West Side Story” reimagined the feuding clans of William Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” as two gangs on the streets of Manhattan’s Upper West Side, the Puerto Rican Sharks and the Caucasian Jets.
Economy of Words
The show, which debuted in 1957, was innovative for its focus on music and dance, which required an economy of language in the book by Laurents. It was he who suggested that Bernstein focus entirely on the music and bring in Sondheim for the lyrics. Robbins, who came up with the original idea for the show, directed and choreographed.
Laurents wrote in “Mainly on Directing,” his 2009 memoir, that “West Side Story” proved that “any subject -- murder, attempted rape, bigotry -- could be the subject of a popular musical.” After 732 performances on Broadway, it was turned into a film in 1961. Laurents directed a revival in London in 1998.
In 2006, at 88, Laurents took up the challenge of revising his own masterpiece. In his revival, which opened on Broadway in March 2009, the Sharks spoke and sang in Spanish, raising the tension between the gangs.
“Next to the original production, this one, over half a century later, will prove by far the best revival any of us will get in our lifetime,” John Simon wrote in his review for Bloomberg News.
Laurents said he and Robbins, one of Broadway’s most combustible yet successful duos, began “West Side Story” as best friends and finished barely on speaking terms. Still, Robbins, as director, reached out to Laurents to write the book for “Gypsy.” It opened in 1959 with Ethel Merman in the lead role as the strong-willed stage mother of the striptease dancer Gypsy Rose Lee.
The production ran 702 performances and became a 1962 movie. Of its four Broadway revivals, Laurents staged three, with Angela Lansbury, Tyne Daly and Patti LuPone starring.
“‘Gypsy’ grew to be a classic,” Laurents said in a 1990 interview with the New York Times. “It wasn’t one of those things that was hailed as such in the beginning.”
Laurents was born Arthur Levine on July 14, 1917, in New York. His father, Irving, was a lawyer. His mother, Ada, was a teacher who became a full-time homemaker to raise Laurents and his younger sister, Edith.
His parents raised him to be “intolerant of anything I considered bigotry,” Laurents wrote in “Original Story By,” his 2001 memoir. His own Jewish education ended with his bar mitzvah, after which he turned against organized religion.
Brooklyn to Manhattan
Growing up in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn, he attended plays at a nearby stock theater, then Broadway plays and opera in Manhattan.
Laurents graduated from Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, in 1937. He began writing for radio, selling his first play, “Now Playing Tomorrow,” to CBS.
“From being limited to one of the six senses -- hearing -- I learned how to establish character through words and how to propel action through dialogue,” he later wrote.
Drafted by the U.S. Army, Laurents spent World War II on the home front, writing scripts for the Office of War Information.
In 1944, he wrote his first play, “Home of the Brave,” about a Jewish soldier traumatized by his experience in a South Pacific jungle. It opened on Broadway in 1945 and was turned into a film in 1949. His second Broadway play was “The Bird Cage” (1950).
Laurents moved to Hollywood to be a screenwriter for Metro- Goldwyn-Mayer, working on “The Snake Pit” and Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rope.”
Blacklisted by Studios
He moved to Europe for a time during the McCarthy era, learning later he had been blacklisted by Hollywood studios. The U.S. State Department temporarily revoked his passport for allegedly subversive activities.
Back in the U.S., he had his first Broadway hit with “The Time of the Cuckoo” (1952-1953).
The idea for “West Side Story” began with Robbins. In 1949, he asked Laurents to draft a script, and Leonard Bernstein the music, for a story of conflict between Jews and Italian Catholics on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. It took five years, and a rethinking of Manhattan demographics and geography, for the project to gel.
After the success of “West Side Story,” Laurents said he turned down three requests to write the book for “Gypsy,” which was based loosely on Gypsy Rose Lee’s 1957 memoir.
He came around, he later wrote, when he realized that the musical didn’t have to be about a striptease queen but about her mother -- “a larger-than-life mother, a mythic mesmerizing mother, a monster of a mother sweetly named Rose.”
In his directing debut, in “I Can Get It for You Wholesale” (1962), Laurents cast a little-known 19-year-old, Barbra Streisand, launching her career.
His “Hallelujah, Baby!” about a talented black woman (played by Leslie Uggams) facing racial obstacles on the road to stardom, won the 1968 Tony Award for best musical.
“The Way We Were,” Laurents’s first original movie script, was based on his experience in Hollywood during the McCarthy era. Streisand and Robert Redford played college sweethearts whose marriage is undermined by their religious and political differences.
Clash With Pollack
To Laurents, Streisand’s portrayal of a Jewish communist was the movie’s center. The director, Sydney Pollack, insisted on equal footing for Redford, and he and Laurents clashed throughout the filming. Laurents returned to the topic of Hollywood blacklisting with “Jolson Sings Again,” a play introduced by the Seattle Repertory Theatre in 1995.
Laurents also drew upon his homosexuality for some of his best-known works. (His partner of 52 years, Tom Hatcher, died in 2006.) He included a relationship between two men, a dancer and his company’s ballet master, in “The Turning Point,” only to see it all but deleted by the director, Herbert Ross. The movie was nominated for 11 Academy Awards, including Laurents for best screenplay, winning none.
Directing “La Cage aux Folles” on Broadway was “one of the happiest times I’ve had in the theater,” he told Playbill in 2008. The show, about a gay couple who meet their son’s in- laws-to-be, ran 1,761 performances from 1983 through 1987 and won Laurents a Tony for direction.
--With assistance from Jeremy Gerard in New York. Editors: David Henry, Peter Vercoe
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