July 14, 1917– Arthur Laurents, as the story goes: late for his place on a panel discussion, Laurents burst onto the stage draped in mink and announced: “Behold, a living legend!”. Stephen Sondheim, also on the panel, looked up and said: “Wrong on both counts”.
I just ate up his trio of memoirs Original Story By (2000), Mainly On Directing (2009), and The Rest Of The Story (2012), each chock full of yummy, dishy Theatre and Hollywood stories. Laurents is important to me in many ways. I admire the way he boldly lived his life. I love his work, most especially because he wrote the book for my favorite musical, Gypsy (1959), which I find to be perfect. Musical Theatre fanatics will go on forever discussing the subject of who was the greatest Mama Rose in this landmark musical. This casting quandary can be a playful parlor game or a bitter argument for Musical Theatre types. Jerome Robbins directed the original production, but Laurents directed three revivals of Gypsy including my favorite version starring my good close personal friend Angela Lansbury in 1974, but there was also Tyne Daly in 1989 and Patti Lupone’s 2007 Tony Award winning turn.
In 2010, at 92-years-old, Laurents directed a revival of West Side Story, a classic for which he wrote the original lean, strong book. In this production, it was Laurents’s conceit to have the Sharks and their girls, who are from Puerto Rico, speak and sing in Spanish, with Spanish translations of some dialogue and lyrics by some guy named Lin-Manuel Miranda. The cast would all be young and if not Puerto Rican, at least Hispanic. Laurents explained that the idea came from his partner Tom Hatcher who admired a production of the musical in South America.
It was also Hatcher who urged Laurents to revive Gypsy with LuPone, so that the controversial Sam Mendes directed 2003 production starring Bernadette Peters would not be the last Gypsy in Laurents’s lifetime.
Laurents won four Tony Awards and was nominated for six Academy Awards, winning for his screenplay for The Turning Point (1977).
His life encompassed great swaths of 20th century cultural history and the famous figures within it. His theatre career had barely started when Laurents was drafted into the Army in 1941. He spent the war years writing training films and radio propaganda shows under the command of Private George Cukor. He had also come to terms with his gayness and soon lost count of the sexual experiences he experienced while in the Army. In Original Story By he writes openly of his lifetime of gay encounters, referring to his partners as “those unremembered hundreds”.
As a gay man living as openly as possible during some of this country’s most dangerous times, Laurents was a role model of discretion, but he was living the way he wanted, despite public opinion and cruelty against gay people everywhere. Hatcher was an aspiring actor whom Gore Vidal suggested Laurents seek out at the Beverly Hills men’s clothing store Hatcher was managing at the time. They were a couple for 52 years.
In the last line of Original Story By, he writes of his partner Hatcher:
“As long as he lives, I will.”
Sadly, Hatcher left this world in 2006, and Laurents, in his 93rd year, had to adjust to life without him. When they first became a couple, Laurents claims his mother was more unhappy that Hatcher was a Gentile than that her son was gay.
Laurents led a rather wild life:
“I drank an awful lot, I drugged an awful lot. But I think I have a built-in governor, because at any point I would say OK, I’ve had enough, and I’d go home to bed. I assumed everybody could do that. I was never one for going to bars, that kind of thing. I was a hopeless romantic. Well, no one could have that much sex and be entirely romantic, but the dangerous side never appealed to me.”
Even with Laurents’ long and passionate affair with actor Farley Granger, Hatcher was undoubtedly the great love of Laurent’s life and their life together is one of the world’s great love affairs. Laurents:
“Tom and theatre, that’s what my life has been. And that’s what my book is… an effort to say thank you by doing what I can to make the theatre indestructible and to keep Tom alive.”
From the memoir:
“From Tom’s pool, you can see into the heart of his garden. In summer, we swim laps every day. Often, we walk through the park and then sit on that bench, looking at the view. Yesterday, we sat there a little longer than usual, just looking at the changing light, not saying anything. But Tom reads my mind: ‘You’re going to live 20 more years,’, he assured me.”
Laurents worked in many genres. The stage was his first love, and he worked in the Theatre for 65 years, creating comedies, romances, musicals and serious dramas that explored questions of ethics, social pressures and personal integrity with themes of anti-Semitism, male friendship, loyalty and political betrayal. In 1962, Laurents directed I Can Get It for You Wholesale, with Barbra Streisand in her first big role, a part that turned her into a star. His screenplay for The Way We Were (1973) was written for Streisand. It was based on Laurent’s own experience with the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in 1950. Because of a casual remark made by fellow playwright Russell Crouse, Laurents was called to testify before the committee and he ended up being blacklisted, sending him into exile in Europe for three years in the company of Granger. Laurents spent three months trying to clear his name, and after submitting a lengthy letter to HUAC explaining his political beliefs in detail, it was determined they were so idiosyncratic he couldn’t possibly have been a member of any subversive group.
In later years, he would work again with two of the men who had informed on him, Elia Kazan and Jerome Robbins (at one time Laurents’ BFF), although he protested when Kazan was given a special Academy Award for Lifetime Achievement in 1999.
“Writers are the chosen people. I am happiest when sitting alone and putting my daydreams and fantasies down on paper.”
He was by all accounts, a real son of a bitch, but an exceptionally talented son of a bitch. When asked for a quote for a New York Magazine profile on Laurents in 2009, talented composer Mary Rodgers, daughter of famed composer Richard Rodgers, quipped: “Call me when he’s dead”.
Laurents made his final exit, upstage center, in May 2011. The next evening the theatre lights on Broadway were dimmed in his memory. This is a just a partial list of Laurent’s contribution to our popular culture:
Librettos: Gypsy (1959), Nick & Nora (1991), West Side Story (1957), The Madwoman Of Central Park West (1979), Hallelujah, Baby! (1967), Do I Hear a Waltz? (1965), Anyone Can Whistle (1964)
Direction: Anyone Can Whistle, La Cage Aux Follies (1983), The Madwoman Of Central Park West, Gypsy (1974, 1989 and 2008), I Can Get It for You Wholesale (1962,), Invitation To A March (1960)
Plays: Invitation To A March, A Clearing In The Woods (1952), The Time Of The Cuckoo (1957), The Bird Cage (1950), Home Of The Brave (1945), Jolson Sings Again! (1999)
Screenplays: Anastasia (1956), The Turning Point (1977), The Way We Were (1973), Gypsy(1962), West Side Story (1961), Bonjour Tristesse (1959), Summertime (1955, from his play The Time Of The Cuckoo), Anna Lucasta (1959), Home Of The Brave (1949), Rope (1948), Caught (1949), The Snake Pit (1948)
“I reached a point where I had been drinking so much and screwing so much, it just depressed the hell out of me. Somebody said to me: ‘if you don’t stop going to parties, you’ll never write a play’. So I wrote a play.”