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 & announced: “Behold, a living legend!” Stephen Sondheim, also on the panel, looked up & said: “Wrong on both counts”.
I just ate up his trio of memoirs Original Story By (2000), & Mainly On Directing (2009),The Rest Of The Story (2012), each chock full of great dishy theatre & Hollywood stories. He is important to me in the 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 a near perfect piece of theatre. Musical Theatre fanatics will go on forever discussing who the greatest Mama Rose in this landmark musical might be. The casting can be a playful parlor game or a bitter argument for fans. Laurents directed 3 revivals of Gypsy including my favorite version starring my good close personal friend Angela Lansbury in 1974, plus Tyne Daly in 1989 & Patti Lupone’s 2007 Tony Award winning turn.
In 2010, at 92 years old, he directed a revival of West Side Story, a theatre classic for which he wrote the original lean & strong book. In this production, it was Laurents’s conceit to have the Sharks & their girls, who are from Puerto Rico, speak & sing in Spanish. The cast would all be young & if not Puerto Rican, at least Hispanic. Laurents has explained that the idea came from his partner of 52 years, Tom Hatcher (Laurents & actor Farley Granger were lovers in the late 1940s), 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 4 Tony Awards & was nominated for 6 Academy Awards, winning for his screenplay for The Turning Point (1977).
His life encompassed great swaths of 20th century history & 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 & radio propaganda shows under the command of Private George Cukor. He had also had come to terms with his gayness, & 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 living the way he wanted, despite public opinion & cruelty against gay people everywhere.
The last line of Original Story By writes of Hatcher, who was Laurents’ partner for more than 5 decades:
“As long as he lives, I will.”
But, Hatcher left this world in 2006 & Laurents, in his 93rd year, adjusted 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, & 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 & be entirely romantic, but the dangerous side never appealed to me.”
Even with Laurents’ long & passionate affair with Farley Granger, Hatcher was undoubtedly the great love of Laurent’s life & their life together is one of the world’s great love affairs. Laurents:
“Tom & theatre, that’s what my life has been. & that’s what my book is… an effort to say thank you by doing what I can to make the theatre indestructible & 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 & 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, & he wrote for it for 65 years, creating comedies, romances, musicals & serious dramas that explored questions of ethics, social pressures & personal integrity with themes of antisemitism, male friendship, loyalty & political betrayal. His screenplay for The Way We Were (1973) was based on Laurent’s own experience with the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1950. Because of a casual remark made by fellow playwright Russel Crouse, Laurents was called to testify before the committee & he was blacklisted, sending him into exile in Europe for 3 years in the company of Granger.
In later years, he would work again with the men who had informed on him, Elia Kazan & 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 & putting my daydreams & 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 of 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 & 2008), I Can Get It for You Wholesale (featuring a very young Barbra Streisand), 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 & 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.”