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Arthur Laurents, Playwright and Director on Broadway, Dies at 93


Arthur Laurents, the playwright, screenwriter and director who wrote and ultimately transformed two of Broadway’s landmark shows, “Gypsy” and “West Side Story,” and created one of Hollywood’s most well-known romances, “The Way We Were,” died on Thursday at his home in Manhattan. He was 93.

The cause was complications of pneumonia, said Scott Rudin, a producer of the most recent Broadway revival of “Gypsy.”

Mr. Laurents once described writers as “the chosen people” and said he was happiest when sitting alone and putting his “daydreams and fantasies down on paper.”

He did so in various genres. His film credits include Hitchcock’s “Rope”; “Anastasia,” with Ingrid Bergman; and “The Turning Point,” with Anne Bancroft and Shirley MacLaine. His screenplay for “The Way We Were,” with Robert Redford and Barbra Streisand, was adapted from his novel by the same name.

But the stage was his first love, and he wrote for it for 65 years, turning out comedies and romances as well as serious dramas that often explored questions of ethics, social pressures and personal integrity. Early on, he once said, he realized that “plays are emotion,” not simply words strung together, and it became his guiding principle.

A milestone was “West Side Story,” the 1957 musical for which Mr. Laurents’s book gave a contemporary spin to the tale of Romeo and Juliet. The Montagues and the Capulets, the families of the doomed young lovers, were now represented by the Jets and the Sharks, warring street gangs in Manhattan.

It was a plot device that had been discussed several years earlier by Mr. Laurents, the director and choreographer Jerome Robbins and the composer Leonard Bernstein. Initially, Bernstein was to have written both the music and lyrics, but he eventually accepted Mr. Laurents’s suggestion that a co-lyricist could ease the burden of composition. Mr. Laurents then brought in a talented newcomer named Stephen Sondheim, who eventually wrote all the lyrics for what became his Broadway debut.

“What we really did stylistically with ‘West Side Story’ was take every musical theater technique as far as it could be taken,” Mr. Laurents wrote in a 2009 memoir. “Scene, song and dance were integrated seamlessly; we did it all better than anyone ever had before.” Two years later, with “Gypsy,” Mr. Laurents helped create what is regarded as one of Broadway’s best musicals.

With music by Jule Styne and lyrics by Mr. Sondheim, “Gypsy” is the story of the striptease artist Gypsy Rose Lee as seen through the eyes of her domineering mother, Rose. The show, directed by Robbins and starring Ethel Merman as Rose, was a hit. (Mr. Laurents did not write the screenplay for the less-successful 1962 film version with Rosalind Russell.)

Mr. Laurents directed a 1974 revival of “Gypsy” in London and on Broadway with Angela Lansbury in the lead, then staged it again on Broadway in 1989 with Tyne Daly as Rose. Bernadette Peters starred in the 2003 Broadway revival, directed by Sam Mendes.

Four years later he agreed to direct a limited-run revival of “Gypsy” as part of the Encores! summer concert series at City Center. This time, Patti LuPone played Momma Rose. He decided that the production would be a tribute to his longtime partner, Tom Hatcher, who had urged him to direct it before he died in 2006. Mr. Laurents was determined, as he put it, to make it “an Event.”

In his 2009 memoir, “Mainly on Directing: ‘Gypsy,’ ‘West Side Story’ and Other Musicals,” Mr. Laurents recalled making “discovery after discovery about every character” as he planned the revival.

The City Center production was a triumph for both Mr. Laurents and Ms. LuPone, and in March 2008 a full-fledged staging of “Gypsy” opened to rave reviews on Broadway. The show received seven Tony Award nominations, including one for Mr. Laurents, who was on the verge of his 91st birthday. The winners included Ms. LuPone, as best leading actress in a musical.

Still another version of “Gypsy” was being proposed in January, when Mr. Laurents, continuing to work into his 90s, met with Mr. Sondheim and Ms. Streisand about a new film adaptation, with Ms. Streisand as Rose.

Mr. Laurents also credited Mr. Hatcher with providing the spark that led to the hit revival of “West Side Story” in 2009. Mr. Hatcher had seen a production of it in Bogotá, Colombia, and suggested that a Broadway revival could benefit from having the Sharks, its members of Puerto Rican heritage, speak Spanish.

“And there it was,” Mr. Laurents wrote, “the reason for a new production. It excited me and now I wanted to direct it.” (A few months after the opening, some of the Spanish lyrics were changed back to English.)

As he saw it, the challenge was “erasing the ’50s without violating what made ‘West Side Story’ the classic it has become.” For one thing, he was determined to find the right cast — performers who could act as well as they could dance and sing. The much-anticipated revival opened in March 2009 to largely enthusiastic reviews.

A compact, elegant man, Mr. Laurents could be as convivial as a raconteur and as equally blunt. In a single interview in 2004 he dismissed a Sondheim-Burt Shevelove musical adaptation of Aristophanes’ “Frogs” and said Nathan Lane had “made it worse” in a Lincoln Center production; that Jerome Robbins was “a monster”; that David Hare’s play “Stuff Happens” was “a paste job”; and that Robert Anderson’s “Tea and Sympathy” was “a fraud.”

Mr. Laurents collected his share of brickbats as well. At various times critics deemed his work predictable, preachy or sentimental.

He made his Broadway debut in 1945 with “Home of the Brave,” a play about a young Jewish soldier traumatized by witnessing the death of his best friend during a combat mission on an island in the Pacific during World War II. When the play, a look at anti-Semitism in the military, was adapted for the screen by Carl Foreman in 1949, the central character became a black G. I., but the theme of destructive prejudice was unchanged.

The late 1940s found Mr. Laurents in Hollywood, trying his luck as a screenwriter. His first effort, “Rope” (1948), had its origins in a play called “Rope’s End,“ by Patrick Hamilton, which had first been adapted by Hume Cronyn. Mr. Laurents’s version became the framework for Alfred Hitchcock’s 1948 film about two thrill-seeking friends (Farley Granger and John Dall) who decide to commit a murder. Mr. Laurents went on to collaborate with Philip Yordan on the screen adaptation of Yordan’s play “Anna Lucasta” (1949). The film starred Paulette Goddard as the black-sheep daughter of a conniving family.

After that, Mr. Laurents came back to New York and resumed writing for the theater. In “The Bird Cage“ (1950), he portrayed the dark goings-on at an outwardly glamorous night club. The club owner, played by Melvyn Douglas, is cruel and unscrupulous, even in his dealings with his wife (Maureen Stapleton), and ultimately brings down his world in ruins. The play was dismissed as an unconvincing melodrama.

He found his footing again with “The Time of the Cuckoo“ (1952), a comedy-drama in which an unmarried American woman (Shirley Booth) who is open to romance journeys to Venice. A hit with theatergoers, the play was adapted for the screen under the title “Summertime” as a vehicle for Katharine Hepburn in 1955. In 1965 Mr. Laurents reworked the play into the book for the modestly successful musical “Do I Hear a Waltz?,” which had music by Richard Rodgers and lyrics by Mr. Sondheim.

Mr. Laurents didn’t begin writing seriously until he had finished college, but he admitted to becoming stage-struck while still a boy, saying he had loved being taken to the theater, especially to musicals. Born on July 14, 1917, he grew up in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn. His father was a lawyer, his mother a teacher.

He attended Erasmus High School and then went to Cornell University, where, he recalled, he spent most of one school year reading plays. Back in New York, he enrolled in an evening writing class at New York University and sold his first radio play to CBS for $30 and heard it broadcast. The two leading female roles were played by an aspiring actress named Shirley Booth. His career was barely under way when he was drafted into the Army in 1941, but he spent the war years far from combat, first assigned to writing training films, then radio propaganda shows.

He had also long since cast off whatever remaining doubts he had about his homosexuality and soon lost count of the sexual experiences he had while in the Army. In “Original Story By,” a memoir published in 2000, he was frank about his gay encounters, referring to his partners as “those unremembered hundreds.” Tom Hatcher, a former actor and real estate developer, would be his companion for 52 years.

Mr. Laurents managed to keep one foot in theater and the other in films, although his Hollywood career was suspended in the late 1940s when he was accused of Communist sympathies and blacklisted for several years. Though he was not a member of the Communist Party, he was active in civil rights causes and had joined a Marxist study group. The anti-Communist publication Red Channels labeled him a subversive.

His first screenplay after his return was for “Anastasia” (1956), in which Ingrid Bergman gave an Academy Award-winning performance as the woman who was thought by some to be the sole survivor of Russia’s imperial family. Mr. Laurents also adapted Françoise Sagan’s novel “Bonjour Tristesse” for a 1958 film with a cast including Deborah Kerr, David Niven and Jean Seberg.

One of Mr. Laurents’s less successful Broadway offerings was “A Clearing in the Woods“ (1957), with Kim Stanley as a neurotic woman haunted by her past.

In 1960 he added directing to his theater credits when he staged his comedic fairy tale “Invitation to a March” on Broadway, with a cast that included Celeste Holm, Eileen Heckart and Jane Fonda. He went on to direct the musical “I Can Get It for You Wholesale” (1962), which marked the Broadway debut of Barbra Streisand, as a garment district secretary, then wrote the book for and directed “Anyone Can Whistle” (1964), which had a score by Mr. Sondheim and starred Angela Lansbury as the mayor of a moribund town.

Mr. Laurents won the first of his three Tony Awards in 1967 for “Hallelujah, Baby!,” named best musical of the year. With a book by Mr. Laurents, music by Jule Styne and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, the show followed the rising fortunes of a young black couple (Leslie Uggams and Robert Hooks) in the first half of the 20th century.

With the 1972 publication of his first novel, “The Way We Were,“ Mr. Laurents laid the foundation for one of his best-remembered screenplays. His 1973 film adaptation starred Ms. Streisand as a Jewish political activist and Mr. Redford as the smoothly ambitious screenwriter she marries. A plot element was the entanglement of Ms. Streisand’s character in the Hollywood red scare, for which Mr. Laurents drew on his own experience.

His last Hollywood venture was “The Turning Point” (1977), a drama set in the world of dance. Directed by Herbert Ross, the film portrayed two former ballerinas (Ms. MacLaine and Ms. Bancroft) who have taken different paths in choosing between family and career. It also featured Mikhail Baryshnikov as a dancer who has an affair with Ms. MacLaine’s daughter (Leslie Browne), a budding ballet star. “The Turning Point” was nominated for 11 Oscars, including one for Mr. Laurents’s screenplay, though it did not win any.

He returned to Broadway in 1983 as the director of “La Cage aux Folles,” which had music and lyrics by Jerry Herman and a book by Harvey Fierstein about a gay couple (George Hearn and Gene Barry) who preside over and entertain at a St. Tropez nightclub where the main attraction is a drag revue. Mr. Laurents won a Tony for his staging. Mr. Laurents also wrote and directed the musical “Nick and Nora,” in 1991. That show, with music by Charles Strouse and lyrics by Richard Maltby Jr., was based on Dashiell Hammett’s “Thin Man” characters, the polished investigators Nick and Nora Charles, and starred Barry Bostwick and Joanna Gleason. It lasted for only nine regular performances, and Mr. Laurents later summed it up as the “biggest and most public flop of my career.”

His output during the next decade, none of it on Broadway, included “The Radical Mystique” (1995), in which complacent liberals are shaken into reality by revolutionary goings-on; and “Jolson Sings Again,” which once again evoked the Hollywood blacklist. “Attacks on the Heart” (2003) was about an American filmmaker whose relationship with a Turkish woman sours after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. “New Year’s Eve,” which had its premiere in the spring of 2009, was about an aging actress and her family. And “Come Back, Come Back, Wherever You Are,” which opened in the fall of 2009, was a portrait of a grieving family.

In these plays as in much of his earlier work, he explored questions of honesty and self-deception, guilt and innocence, love and loyalty. That was in keeping with his belief that a writer’s job was not only to entertain but also to illuminate.

“Entertainment is dessert,” he wrote in a 1995 essay in The New York Times; “it needs to be balanced by the main course: theater of substance.”

Arthur Laurents dies; playwright and Broadway director
Laurents, who won two Tony Awards, wrote the books for the classic Broadway musicals 'West Side Story' and 'Gypsy.' His screen credits include 'The Way We Were' and 'Rope.'

By Dennis McLellan, Los Angeles Times

Arthur Laurents, a Tony Award-winning playwright and director who wrote the books for the classic Broadway musicals "West Side Story" and "Gypsy" and later wrote the hit movies "The Way We Were" and "The Turning Point," died Thursday. He was believed to be 93.

Laurents died in his sleep at his home in New York City after a short illness, said his agent, Jonathan Lomma.

For his work on Broadway over more than six decades, Laurents won two Tony Awards — in 1968 as author of the book for best musical Tony winner "Hallelujah, Baby!" and in 1984 as best director of a musical for "La Cage aux Folles."

But he is best known for writing the books for "West Side Story" and "Gypsy," both of which were Tony Award nominees for best musical and later were turned into movies.

"West Side Story," with music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, was a contemporary Romeo and Juliet love story involving rival New York street gangs. It ran on Broadway from 1957 to 1959.

It was followed by "Gypsy," "a musical fable suggested by" stripper Gypsy Rose Lee's memoir and focusing on her driven, larger-than-life mother, Rose, played by Ethel Merman. "Gypsy" ran on Broadway from 1959 to 1961.

"The best damn musical I've seen in years," raved New York Herald Tribune theater critic Walter Kerr, who called the musical's book "a clean knockout."

"I think the book for 'Gypsy' is probably the best book ever written for a Broadway musical," said Miles Kreuger, president of the Los Angeles-based Institute of the American Musical, echoing a widely held view.

"It has character, it has a flavor of the period of the various theater styles of the time — it's an amazing book," Kreuger told The Times in 2009. "You really feel transported back to the world of second-rate vaudeville and burlesque. It's amazing that the script actually does that. And it was a great, great vehicle for Ethel Merman."

"Gypsy," Laurents later said of the show with music by Jule Styne and lyrics by Sondheim, was about "the need for recognition. ... a need everyone has in one way or another."

The Brooklyn-born Laurents launched his career on Broadway in 1945 with "Home of the Brave," a World War II drama about anti-Semitism in the military. The short-lived play was turned into a 1949 Stanley Kramer-produced movie of the same name about racism.

Among Laurents' other plays is "The Time of the Cuckoo," a 1952 comedy that earned Shirley Booth a Tony Award for best actress in a play. A romantic tale of a lonely American spinster who finds romance in Italy, the play was turned into a 1955 film called "Summertime" starring Katharine Hepburn; and Laurents later adapted his play into the 1965 Broadway musical "Do I Hear a Waltz?"

As a Broadway director, Laurents also received recognition for "I Can Get It for You Wholesale," a 1962 musical comedy that marked 20-year-old Barbra Streisand's Broadway debut.

And he received Tony nominations for directing the 1974 Broadway revival of "Gypsy" starring Angela Lansbury and the 2008 revival starring Patti LuPone.

The slightly built writer-director, who was once described as "a smallish, compact man who [looks] like a cross between a Roman senator and a gym instructor," had a reputation for being "difficult."

"They say I'm mean," he acknowledged in a 1984 interview with The Times while enjoying the success of the smash musical "La Cage aux Folles."

"They say this for two reasons," he said. "I used to be mean. ... I think too fast and I talk as fast as I think, and I'm often acerbic. But I say mean things as a defense. People who get their feelings hurt don't realize I have a very developed set of defenses. But also I will not suffer fools and amateurs. What that has cost me is a ... reputation. So?"

The son of a lawyer father and a teacher mother, Laurents was born Arthur Levine — "I changed it to get a job," he told New York Magazine in 2009 — in Brooklyn on July 14. Historical records list 1917 and 1918 as his birth year.

"My father was a humanitarian, a great man; the anger I got from my mother," he told The Times in 2000. "She was a socialist atheist until she met my father, then she became a Jew with a vengeance."

While growing up, Laurents became "wildly stage struck" and knew by the time he was 10 that he wanted to become a writer.

After earning a bachelor's degree in English at Cornell University in 1937, he wrote scripts for radio shows such as "Lux Radio Theater."

Drafted into the Army in 1941 before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, he spent his five years in the military writing training films and radio plays for "Armed Service Force Presents."

As a screenwriter in Hollywood for a few years after his 1945 Broadway debut, Laurents rewrote the troubled screen adaptation of "The Snake Pit," a 1948 drama about a woman's mental breakdown starring Olivia de Havilland, but was denied screen credit.

He also wrote the screenplay for the 1948 Alfred Hitchcock thriller "Rope." Among his other screen credits are "Anastasia" (1956), "Bonjour Tristesse" (1958), "The Way We Were" (1973) and "The Turning Point" (1977).

While in Hollywood in the late `40s, Laurents began an affair with Farley Granger, one of the stars of "Rope." (Granger died in March at 85.)

In his 2000 memoir "Original Story By: A Memoir of Broadway and Hollywood," Laurents candidly discussed his homosexuality, his time on the Hollywood blacklist and his personal and working relationships with numerous Hollywood and Broadway legends.

As a writer, Laurents recalled the McCarthy era in "The Way We Were," the hit 1973 movie starring Streisand and Robert Redford; and in his 1995 play "Jolson Sings Again."

In 2009, he was back on Broadway as the director of a revival of "West Side Story" (originally directed and choreographed by Jerome Robbins, who also directed the first "Gypsy") and had his book "Mainly on Directing" published.

Laurents never lost his passion for the theater.

"I still think the most wonderful feeling is walking down the aisle of a theater when the overture starts for the musical and they have a curtain and you can't wait to see the magic there is behind it," he told New Jersey's Asbury Park Press in 1999.

In 1955, Laurents met would-be actor Tom Hatcher when Hatcher was manager of a Beverly Hills men's shop. They were together until Hatcher's death from lung cancer in 2006.

"I had the most marvelous life that anybody could have with another person," Laurents told CBS' "Sunday Morning" program in 2009. "That, I'm proud of. That's an achievement. `Cause most people quit on each other. And we never did."
Copyright © 2011, Los Angeles Times,0,3806964,full.story
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