July 14, 2017: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler
Born on this day is one of the best librettists of the American musical theatre, Arthur Laurents, who (if he were still alive) would be celebrating his 100th birthday. And Laurents almost made it. He passed away just before his 94th birthday six years ago and had been working practically until the end. He was past 90 when he directed the 2008 Broadway revival of Gypsy, which led to Tonys for Patti LuPone, Laura Benanti and Boyd Gaines (Rose, Louise and Herbie). Laurents was also the recipient of his own Best Director Tony in 1984, when he helmed the original production of the Jerry Herman-Harvey Fierstein musical La Cage Aux Folles.
A man of intense contradictions, he was notoriously difficult, yet generously charitable. In the autobiographical books he produced late in life, he was quite candid about his sexual desires and conquests, but also about his deep love for his life partner, Tom Hatcher, with whom he lived for fifty-two years, until Hatcher’s death in 2000. He had a great many devoted enemies, but also a large group of equally devoted friends.
Laurents’s work in the theatre was prolific. His first play Home of the Brave, which opened in 1945, told the post-WWII story of a young Jewish soldier that had witnessed his best friend killed in action. A forceful look at anti-Semitism, its subject was changed to that of race relations instead, when a film version was produced four years later, and its central character became a black G.I.
Though Laurents had nothing to do with that film, he was hired to adapt other writers’ plays throughout the late forties, only to see his career halted by the Hollywood blacklist. It proved a subject he would delve into years later (and most successfully) with The Way We Were, which he based on his own novel. It starred Robert Redford as Hubbell Gardiner and Barbra Streisand as Katie Morosky, a young Communist agitator, who was based on a woman Laurents met in the late 1930s when he was an undergrad at Cornell. He wrote it specifically for Streisand, not only because she was a huge movie star in 1973, but because he was responsible for giving her her first Broadway show pre-Funny Girl. It was Laurents who cast her in a supporting role when he directed the 1962 musical I Can Get It For You Wholesale, that made clear her serious comedic chops as an actress, in addition to her enormous gifts as a singer.
When Laurents began work on his first book for a musical, his concept, conceived in tandem with director-choreographer Jerome Robbins, was a modern retelling of Romeo and Juliet set in New York City. Originally, it was to deal with the tensions between two opposing families of Catholics and Jews, titled East Side Story. Along the way, its plot was changed to the then-current conflict of the late 1950s between whites and darker-skinned Puerto Ricans on the Upper West Side, offering a slightly different, but far more relevant “story.” With music by Leonard Bernstein, the lyrics were hoped to be provided by his old friends Betty Comden and Adolph Green (his teammates on On the Town and Wonderful Town), except that other commitments took precedent before they ever began any work, leaving them to exit the project. Taking on the lyric writing duties himself had Bernstein a little in over his head than he initially imagined, so he agreed to a young friend of Laurents’s, Stephen Sondheim (then twenty-six years old and with no professional theatre credits to his name), to come on board as co-lyricist. And that’s the way the poster read for West Side Story up to and through its out of town tryout in Washington, D.C. Having by then fully come to recognize the young Sondheim’s prodigious talents, Bernstein generously (and voluntarily) relinquished his co-writing credit. And in so doing, cost himself a fortune in residuals when the soundtrack to the 1961 film would later spend 54 weeks at #1 on Billboard’s album charts, giving it the longest run at #1 of any album in history (something Bernstein never tired of telling anyone within earshot).
Laurents, Robbins and Sondheim would shortly thereafter join forces for another Broadway musical, this one loosely based on Gypsy Rose Lee’s loosely written autobiography, Gypsy, the story of her rise as a child actress to the heights of her unique fame as a stripper. This “musical fable,” as Laurents would subtitle it, quickly became the standard bearer of how to ideally integrate a dramatic story into a musical with wit, passion and intelligence. In Rose, Laurents created a stunning lead character despite the fact the show is called Gypsy, and was supposed to be about the daughter, not the mother. So good is Laurents’s book, that many believe it can stand all on its own as a straight play, even with a score as brilliant as the one Jule Styne and Sondheim came up with. Most of Laurents’s obituaries mention that even with West Side Story and The Way We Were among his credits, Gypsy is the one considered his greatest achievement. Last year, London saw its first major Gypsy revival in 40 years, leaving Michael Billington, the longtime reviewer for the Guardian, to write “Imelda Staunton gives one of the greatest performances I’ve ever seen in musical theatre.”
Which is good to know as it has been announced sometime in 2018, we should be seeing Ms. Staunton in yet another Broadway Gypsy. After all, you can’t keep a good girl down. And let us never forget, she was entirely a creation that came out of the creative imagination of Arthur Laurents.
This column is a revised version of one which was posted a year ago.
Ron Fassler’s Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, is now available at Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Up-Cheap-SeatsHistoricalBroadway/dp/0998168629/ref=sr_1_4ie=UTF8&qid=1494611605&sr=8-4&keywords=up+in+the+cheap+seats+book