Friday, May 06, 2011

Arthur Laurents Remembered

News of the death of Broadway playwright, librettist, director -- and novelist, memoirist, and screenwriter -- Arthur Laurents sent me looking through my archives.

Although I never had the privilege of meeting or interviewing Laurents, his name pops up frequently in my writing about the stage.

First, an introduction to those who might be unfamiliar with Laurents' work, from a Los Angeles Times obituary by Charles McNulty that refers to him in its headline as "prickly":

Arthur Laurents, who died Thursday as an exceptionally young nonagenarian, was one musical theater writer who was impossible to overlook. Dismiss him — and how could you dismiss the man who wrote the books for "West Side Story" and "Gypsy"? — and you'd have your head handed to you, no matter if you were a lowly reviewer or a formidable diva.
Charles Isherwood's obituary in the New York Times hits many of the same notes:
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.
NPR, referring to a 1990 interview with Laurents on Fresh Air with Terry Gross, sums things up like this:
Laurents started his career in radio and later wrote Hollywood film scripts. But his big career break came on the Broadway stage in the late 1950s, when both Gypsy and West Side Story premiered. Laurents wrote the script for both musicals and later directed two revivals of Gypsy, with Angela Lansbury and Tyne Daly in the title role.
One anecdote from Laurents' life comes from a blog post I published in June 2007, titled "Judy Garland and Homosexual Identity," which was sort of a mini-review of a coffee-table book called When I Knew. Laurents tells a story in the book from his pre-teen years:
Let Us Be GayMy favorite entry -- perhaps because it emphasizes the value of words and how artifice affects one's reality -- comes from playwright Arthur Laurents, who writes on page 50 about growing up in the 1930s:
When I was twelve, I had sex with one of the kids on the block. We also went to the movies together and one day saw the picture called, Let Us Be Gay. Back then "gay" merely meant bright, lively, merry, but for some unfathomable reason, whenever one of us wanted sex, we used the code phrase "Let Us Be Gay." I think we may have pioneered the use of "gay" to mean homosexual sex. More meaningful than a Tony or Oscar, but not quite worthy of the Nobel.
Arthur Laurents -- librettist and neologist.
Other articles I have written that refer to Arthur Laurents include reviews of various productions of West Side Story and Gypsy, including the most recent revival of the former, which was directed by a nonagenarian Laurents, who also revised the libretto to include Spanish dialogue (and lyrics), but -- bowing to the realities of audience demands and expectations -- later re-revised the book to remove the Spanish passages.

Here's a list of Arthur Laurents-related content on this blog:
Today Stephen Sondheim Is 80 (includes review of Gypsy at Heritage Repertory Theatre in Charlottesville)
Sondheim at 75 (Part Four) (includes review of London revival of West Side Story)
Liveblogging the Tony Awards (from 2008)
Lower East Side Story (about the West Side Story's collaborative team being Jewish and gay)
Interview with Cody Green of 'West Side Story' (from the latest Broadway revival)
Review of 'West Side Story' (from January 10, 2009)

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