Laurents is the author of two books, Original Story By Arthur Laurents: A Memoir of Broadway and Hollywood, published in 2000 and Mainly on Directing: Gypsy, West Side Story and Other Musicals, published in 2009. I am looking very forward to picking these two up and I will let you know what I think of them once I have finished reading. I am sure they are fraught with inspiration, incredible stories and blunt honesty.
As you can probably imagine, my love affair with musical theatre began fast and furious. Beginning at twelve I embarked on a mission to know every single show ever written inside and out; but, without any chronology, my knowledge, understanding and opinions of what musical theatre should or could be was being constantly challenged, thrown out and enriched. For example, in the summer of 1997 I was obsessed with Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, by that Christmas I considered Andrew Lloyd Webber the greatest menace ever produced on the Great White Way, until I discovered Song and Dance in 2001 when the menace title was slightly amended. My school usually did book musicals from “The Golden Age” of Broadway, we did Brigadoon and Hello Dolly, Guys and Dolls and Annie Get Your Gun, and I loved all of them but still with the sense that they were sort of dusty and hokey and the wistful remembrances of a distant, sweeter time gone by. The real future of musical theatre, I believed, was Rent and Jason Robert Brown and revivals of the concept musicals of Kander and Ebb and Sondheim, preferably, sixteen year old me would have said, at the Donmar Warehouse directed by Sam Mendes. And then I saw Gypsy and something in me profoundly changed.
The first time I saw Gypsy was in my aunt and uncle’s basement somewhere in 2000, with my best friend at the time who brought over the Bette Midler videotape. It’s amazing how even with an impressive cast, musical movies so rarely do the shows they are adapting adequate justice. Gypsy didn’t hit me like a hundred pound barrel to the stomach until I saw it at Neptune Theatre’s Fountain Hall in 2001 with Charlotte Moore playing Rose and Marla McLean playing Louise. Of course the music, by Jule Styne with lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, is legendary and for good reason. Charlotte Moore gave a tremendous powerhouse performance and Marla McLean firmly established herself as one of Nova Scotia’s most promising young theatre stars. Yet, what struck me so ardently about Gypsy, was the book, written by Arthur Laurents.
Gypsy was written in 1959, during the same “Golden Age of Broadway” that I had thought a bit hackneyed and lacking edge or relevance for a postmodern time (although those wouldn’t have been my exact words). Yet, Gypsy was different, there was a play in there, and one that resonated with depth and breadth of emotion like any great play does. The characters were complex and the exploration of their personalities was not just regaled to song soliloquies, but inherent in everything they said and did. Indeed, this musical seemed to me, at almost seventeen, the most tightly constructed one I had ever seen. Suddenly, I realized that the history of musical theatre and the future of musical theatre was not nearly as clear cut as I had previously thought and that I could not dismiss “book musicals” as being an archaic structure to be discarded, but that there was far more potential for greatness in them than I had ever imagined. Arthur Laurents also made me realize that there was much I didn’t know, that I didn’t understand, I was reminded that I was still a teenager and that in order to understand the future I needed to open my mind and my heart to the past.
As fate would have it, 2001 was also the year that Gypsy took over my life. Just having come from a tempestuous experience performing in a Youth Theatre Company the year before, mixed with the fact that I was shy and insecure about the merits of my talent, I was not entirely sure yet what I wanted to do in the theatre when I “grew up.” To make matters even more complicated, my best friend at the time was the musical theatre star of our school, and for four years I always felt overwhelmed by the intensity of her shadow. There’s a line in Jason Robert Brown’s song “A Part of That” (from The Last Five Years) where Cathy sings, “Yes, he’s insane/ but look what he can do/ and I’m a part of that” that I connected to vehemently at this time of my life. I felt like, if my friend was going to be the star, at least I could find a way of being a part of it. So, in a way, I became her Mama Rose, her “little agent.” She would dream the dreams, but I was the one who wasn’t content to have the dream “but not the guts.” So, when this friend wanted to play Louise in the upcoming Broadway production of Gypsy directed by Sam Mendes and starring Bernadette Peters, my response was, “why not? I will get you an audition.” It was this sort of brazen, blind, chutzpah that led to my getting a characteristically blunt letter from Arthur Laurents, which I will cherish forever.
The letter is short and to the point, but in it Laurents said to me that there was “no future in being an agent, so I should forget about it and focus on dreaming of being a writer instead.” At seventeen, and having gotten a little used to people thinking I was incredibly endearing and resourceful and quite the ambitious and driven quirky young lady, this negativity stung for a bit and eventually got brushed off, but there was something in what he said that stayed with me even though initially I didn’t pay it much mind. In hindsight, I’m not actually one hundred percent certain what beacon of wisdom Laurents intended with those words, if any at all, perhaps he was just making a cheap shot at agents, but what I came to take from what he said to me was that I needed to not spend my time in someone else’s shadow but to tend to my own artistic dreams instead.
Arthur Laurents was not someone who would stand to be overshadowed, indeed, by most accounts he was a formidable man of cutting honesty, with a shrewd eye and deep intelligence. Angela Lansbury said he was, “extraordinarily blunt about life and relationships, and everything had a sharp edge, ” while Tyne Daly said, “He believed you needed to be torn down before being built back up in his image… it was necessary that he made you cry.” Most book writers in the American musical theatre are over shadowed in their work. We say that Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote The Sound of Music and that Frank Loesser wrote Guys and Dolls, but we’re forgetting one integral part of those collaborations. Yet, on West Side Story (1957) and Gypsy, Laurents worked with two American composing giants, Leonard Bernstein and Jule Styne respectively, and yet, because his work as book writer was so groundbreaking and so integral to the whole of both shows, he refused to stand in their shadow and insisted on making a name for himself instead.
He also was not afraid to confront a challenge. After the mass success of West Side Story and Gypsy Arthur Laurents could have written hundreds of formulaic, sure-fire musicals hits, he could have also moved to Hollywood and, I’m sure, churned out a career-worth of screenplays. Instead, Laurents collaborated with Stephen Sondheim, directing the production of his most notorious flop, Anyone Can Whistle (1964), which I still maintain is one of the most brilliant political satire musicals ever written and perhaps the most misunderstood and under-rated musical of all time. Laurents, like any pioneer, did not do what was easy, or what was simple, but continually pushed toward the creation of the projects that he was passionate about and that he felt were important. Openly gay, Laurents directed the landmark Jerry Herman/Harvey Fierstein musical La Cage Aux Folles, despite concerns that the producers would not be able to find enough investors to finance a gay-themed project in the midst of the AIDS epidemic when homophobia was more intense than ever. The show went on to receive nine Tony nominations, winning six, including one for Best Director, Best Musical, Best Original Score, Best Book of a Musical and it also won three Drama Desk Awards and ran on Broadway for four years.
Laurents used his experience being blacklisted for his “radical political views” during the McCarthy Era to write his successful screenplay The Way We Were (1973), a project that reunited him with Barbra Streisand, who he also directed in her breakout role at nineteen in the Broadway Production I Can Get It For You Wholesale. Regarding being Blacklisted Laurents said, “They took my passport away, even though I was not a [Communist] party member. But I never informed on anybody; I was proud of that.” Laurents also wrote the book for the 1967 Broadway show Hallelujah, Baby, with music by Jule Styne and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green. This musical was “a musical chronicle of the African American struggle for equality during the first half of the 20th century”, but it didn’t end up being as hard hitting or darkly intense as Laurents had wanted because it did not star Lena Horne, as originally intended, but the young and frothy Leslie Uggams.
In January 2004, as a second year Drama Studies student, still unsure of what my future in the theatre would hold, my mother and I took our first trip to New York City and I saw my first Broadway show, Sam Mendes’ production of Gypsy starring Bernadette Peters, John Dossett and Tammy Blanchard. I was once again reduced to speechless rapture, struck by the nuance and the heartbreak of this story, of these unforgettable characters who rose beyond their songs, rose beyond their dances, and lived, just as vividly and fervent as any of Williams’ or Wilder’s characters. In March 2009, I returned to New York City, a second year Masters student, entirely free from the shadow that once bound me, and I was fortunate enough to see the last musical that Arthur Laurents ever directed (at the age of 91 (!)), the revival of West Side Story. I never had a close affinity with West Side Story. Bernstein’s music and Robbins’ choreography never seemed to me to emerge organically from the gang members that Laurents created. Yet, once again, Arthur Laurents proved my preconceived notions too hastily dismissive and lacking in insight because his production was absolutely flawless and it was the first time that story came alive for me, but it did, in the most organic and beautiful of ways. I don’t expect to see a better production of West Side Story for the rest of my life (although, I am open to the idea!!)
Arthur Laurents, a brave pioneer of the American musical theatre, a man of integrity and brilliance in writing and directing and the knowledge of how to construct films, plays and musicals that resonate timelessly and continue to live on into eternity, passed away on May 5th, 2011 after a short battle with pneumonia at the age of 93. He was predeceased by his parents Irving and Ada and his partner of 52 years, Tom Hatcher, who passed away in 2006. His passion and ingenuity for the theatre will be greatly missed but never forgotten. Good night, Arthur and thank you.