Comparing Stage Notes on Laurents
By JASON ZINOMAN
Asked by New York Magazine to talk about the pugnacious writer Arthur Laurents in 2009, the composer Mary Rodgers Guettel responded bluntly, “Call me back when he’s dead.” So I did. The answer remained: no comment.
Since Mr. Laurents died only last week, at 93, this was surely good manners. Considering that he was one of the most formidable, storied and intimidating figures in the history of Broadway, it would also not be surprising if some peers remained careful about what they said, because his would be one ghost who held a grudge.
Most of the major artists who revolutionized the American musical were composers and lyricists, but Mr. Laurents was the rare book writer who transformed the medium, starting with his titanic duo from the late 1950s, “West Side Story” and “Gypsy.” His singular Broadway career began as a playwright and ended with his directing the 2009 revival of “West Side Story.” Throughout, he never wavered in his commitment to his own high standards, influencing, inspiring and, yes, upsetting generations of artists. Here are memories from several.
STEPHEN SONDHEIM, Composer and Lyricist I remember Arthur telling me one afternoon while he was casting “I Can Get It for You Wholesale” about having just discovered a remarkable new actress. Her name was Barbra Streisand, he said. He told me how she had awkwardly entered from the wings with music pages falling behind her. Halfway across the stage, she realized what she had done, became embarrassed and walked back in embarrassment to pick them up. Then she asked for a chair to sit in while she sang. They brought her one, she sat in it, then looked around in a panic, stuck her hand in her mouth, took out some gum and put it under the chair. Arthur said: “At that moment, I knew she was a professional.”
TYNE DALY, Actor For Arthur, the theater was not a democracy. There was a pecking order, and he was the general. He believed you needed to be torn down before being built back up in his image. After I sang “Some People” for the first time in rehearsal for [the 1989] “Gypsy,” he told me: “Obviously, you don’t know how to sell a song.” So I said, “Show me how.” And he did. It was necessary for him to make you cry. I remember I was in tears in the bathroom at 890 Broadway, rehearsing the show, when Jane Alexander, who was working on a play down the hall, came in. She was putting on some unattractive Bermuda shorts. Jane asked, “You O.K.?” I said, “I’m fine, it’s sort of the pain part.” She said, “Already?!”
ANGELA LANSBURY, Actor If Arthur didn’t ask me to be in [the 1964 show] “Anyone Can Whistle,” I don’t think I would have been in the Broadway musical theater. At that time I had done plays. But there were points rehearsing that show when he was ready to fire me, and I was ready to go. He wanted me to be tougher and felt I should be more like, “Set the dogs on them.” That seemed too black and white to me. He was extraordinarily blunt about life and relationships, and everything had a sharp edge. He was always selling how strong he was and how he was the sexiest in the room. And you were either in with him or, if you tripped up, you were out. He wouldn’t forgive you for years. All of us would compare notes. Steve [Sondheim] would say, “So is Arthur talking to you these days?”
JOANNA GLEASON, Actor Here’s what I remember from working on “Nick & Nora” [a 1991 flop for which Laurents wrote the book and directed]: Screaming down hallways; new songs in and out within a day; my Act II solo lyrics written inside lids of seven hastily added prop hat boxes. I had never sung them publicly before the critics came. And Arthur. Loving and supportive to some, tough and hurtful to others. To me, then and always, loving. So when he said to me, opening night, “I’m leaving town tomorrow,” I said, “Take me with you.” He almost laughed. He said, “Listen, I owe you an apology.” I thought: Ah, it takes a big man. “I was wrong about your wig,” he said. “You look like a shopgirl.”
HARVEY FIERSTEIN, Actor and Playwright I had lunch in Midtown with NBC’s Warren Littlefield during the initial “La Cage Aux Folles” rehearsal period. Our actor/model/server could not wait to phone Page Six with a comment he’d overheard. I said something like, “[Mr. Fierstein’s 1982 play] ‘Torch Song [Trilogy]’ put real live fruits on Broadway, and now ‘La Cage’ would add singing and dancing ones.” When I walked into rehearsal the next morning, Arthur brought everything in the room to a screeching halt. And then, on his signal, the entire company stood and turned their backs to me. He then stepped forward, “You may be a fruit, but the rest of us are not.” I was, of course, destroyed and sat in the production office weeping as he lectured me until I finally was allowed to speak. I pointed out that I used the term “fruit” in the “La Cage” script twice, and he’d never voiced a problem. More accurately, he laughed loudly whenever that scene was played. “Oh,” he said. “True enough.” And then returned to rehearsal without another word on the matter.
SCOTT RUDIN, Producer Arthur had a fantastic eye. I showed him an early cut of [the 2002 film] “The Hours,” and he said, “It’s great, but what’s it about?” I told him this and this and that, but he said, “You’re telling me five different things because you don’t have one.” Brilliant note. He wouldn’t waste time praising the acting or directing, just cut right to what was wrong. He also never gave you a note you couldn’t take. He wouldn’t look at a movie with Sally Field and say it would be better with Meryl Streep. When I showed him [the 2006 film] “Notes on a Scandal,” he said you are alluding to all these things but they are not on screen. You have Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett, so where are the fight scenes? Who do you think you are? Where are the scenes where they go at it? So we added them.
MIKE NICHOLS, Director About four or five years ago, some people asked me about directing a film of “Gypsy.” I liked the idea but thought, “Oh no, that means I have to talk to Arthur.” I had been scared of him. So I called him up and found him to be funny, smart and surprisingly lovable. He always told the truth as he saw it, which is rare in the theater.
I eventually realized that I couldn’t find a way to do “Gypsy,” so backed out of it. Arthur understood. Then it became more of a pure friendship, where I saw him every two or three months.
Once his partner, Tom [Hatcher], died, Arthur became quieter, lonelier and more available. He was not sentimental or emotional about his loss. It was worse than that. Part of him left.
LIN-MANUEL MIRANDA, Composer and Lyricist Arthur was a complicated man who leaves behind a complicated legacy. He could verbally decimate something (or someone) when his opinion wasn’t positive, but when he was moved, the tears burst forth easily. I was initially furious with him for stealing Karen Olivo from “In the Heights,” but thrilled that their collaboration led to her shattering, Tony-winning performance as Anita in “West Side Story” I will never forget sitting in between him and Steve Sondheim at the cast album recording session, thinking, “How on earth did I get here?” In the end, his work — full of complicated, unforgettable characters — will outlive us all.
HAROLD PRINCE, Director Everyone knows that Arthur Laurents was a playwright, screenwriter and wrote two of the best librettos in the history of American musicals. But do they know he was also an expert skier?
My wife and I and Steve [Sondheim] dropped by for a visit where he and Tom Hatcher were racing down the slopes of St. Anton. That was in 1956 — 55 years ago. Fast forward to 2009: We skied together in Megève, France. He’d just opened a revival of “West Side Story” in Washington, D.C. He’d finished a new play he had been writing, and he beat me down the mountain every time. He was 91 years old and he was in top form.
PATTI LUPONE, Actor I was shooting David Mamet’s “Heist” in Montreal when I got a call from Arthur telling me I sunk his play “Jolson Sings Again” because I turned down a role. I told him the deal stunk. It was $1,500 [a week]. No transportation or hotel. It was insulting. Generally after a “Thanks, but no thanks,” you get a call back asking again. Not this time. Then I heard from the grapevine that I was banned from doing his work, including “Gypsy.” That hurt. It was Scott Rudin who told me to call him, and I thought, “But he already yelled at me once.” So I did, and Arthur complimented my performance in “Sweeney Todd” and said, “Let’s get to work.” And we never talked about it. That’s the scariest part. When he got into the rehearsal room, he lit up. He got younger. You could feel his passion. Arthur was a lot of human being.
Scrappy Papa of the Ultimate Stage Momma
By CHARLES ISHERWOOD
Arthur Laurents might have secured his place in the musical-theater pantheon with just three words: “Sing out, Louise!”
As any lover of Broadway musicals knows, that is the first line spoken — or rather bellowed — by Momma Rose, the monster mother in “Gypsy,” as she races down the aisle of a dingy Seattle theater to take charge of an audition going awry. With those three words Momma Rose instantly claims her place as one of the most vital, funny and memorable characters in the history of the American stage. And she does it without singing a note.
Almost everything we need to know about Rose is packed into that little phrase: her vulgarity and boldness, a bit of her desperation, perhaps. Certainly her domineering relationship with her daughter, and maybe her own unrecognized need for the spotlight, which is the furious internal engine that drives what many consider to be the greatest Broadway musical of all time.
Writing the book for a Broadway show must surely be among the more thankless tasks in the entertainment business. If the show works, the composer and lyricist will be showered in glory, or maybe the director and choreographer. If it doesn’t, chances are pretty good that its failure will be chalked up to the book’s author. The intensely collaborative nature of a musical tends to be forgotten when time comes to apportion blame.
Mr. Laurents, who died at 93 on Thursday, also supplied the book for the landmark musical “West Side Story.” He practically stands alone as a writer who owes his lasting fame to his authorship of two great musical books. While the scores for both “West Side Story” (by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim) and “Gypsy” (by Jule Styne and Mr. Sondheim) are among the most highly prized in the canon, and the dances by Jerome Robbins remain a pinnacle of the choreographer’s art, the dramatic integrity of Mr. Laurents’s contributions are of equal importance in keeping those shows viable onstage.
It’s amusing to note that the notoriously pugnacious Mr. Laurents, who never met a score he didn’t want to settle, was involved in two of the most fruitful (if often fraught) collaborations in musical-theater history. From the collisions of artists can arise work that doesn’t just benefit from the tensions of the collaborative process, but somehow embodies them: dance, drama and song are as tightly integrated in both “Gypsy” and “West Side Story” as they are in any major American musical.
That might not have been the case if it weren’t for Mr. Laurents. His book for “West Side Story” was notable for its stylized argot, which sounded like the scrappy talk of street toughs but was largely his own original patois. But it was more radical in its terseness and economy, its willingness to allow inarticulate characters to establish the rhythms of their lives and relationships through physical movement. It was Mr. Laurents’s notion to begin the show with an almost wordless sequence for the rival gangs — hardly what you’d expect from an established playwright with a solid ego.
Robbins, the director and choreographer of both musicals, conceived of “Gypsy” as a splashy “panorama of vaudeville and burlesque.” Mr. Laurents fought to place the figure of Rose, the stage mother to end them all, at the center of the show. As a result “Gypsy” became a musical that anatomizes the pathology of ambition and the need for love with a trenchant humor that makes the show as vividly alive today as it was when it opened in 1959.
For all the glory of Rose’s potent arias in “Gypsy,” the character’s fierce will and emotional obtuseness — and the damage they inflict on her family — are established strongly in the book scenes, despite their admirable economy.
The parting between Rose and her would-be husband Herbie has both a sad, sour potency and one of Mr. Laurents’s immortally terse lines. When a desperate Rose tells Herbie that she needs him “for a million things,” he responds, “Just one would be better.”
And while “Gypsy” is famous for the electrifying emotional breakdown in song that provides the show with its climax, the brief scene between Rose and her daughter that follows it exemplifies how Mr. Laurents and his collaborators moved “Gypsy” beyond traditional musical comedy, just as they had recreated the musical as a more integrated form of lyric theater with “West Side Story” two years before.
The central theme of “Gypsy,” the destructive potential in the yearning for acceptance, is encapsulated in a few beats of dialogue, as Louise, now Gypsy Rose Lee, joins Rose onstage and finally asks the question: What drove her mother so relentlessly to seek the spotlight for her daughters, even if its heat burned away their love for her?
“Just wanted to be noticed,” Rose answers, in a moment of defeated illumination.
“Like I wanted you to notice me,” Louise replies.
In a dozen words: two lives, infinite loss, and a devastating coda to an immortal work of musical theater.