Saturday, May 7, 2011

"Gone But Great" - Arthur Laurents

Arthur Laurents passed away this past Thursday at the age of 93.   He was a playwright, screenwriter, author and director.  He wrote the books for two of Broadway's greatest musicals, has directed numerous Broadway productions and received an Oscar nomination as well as won two Tony awards.

Laurents began his writing career when he wrote radio scripts after graduating from Cornell University.  After he was drafted into the US Army he wrote training film scripts as well as radio plays for the Armed Services radio shows.  After his military career, Laurents tried his hand at writing plays, and his first Home of the Brave opened on Broadway in December 1945 and was even made into a movie by Stanley Kramer in 1949.   Laurents moved to Hollywood and in 1948 wrote the scripts for Snake Pit and Alfred Hitchcock's Rope.  He returned to Broadway in 1952 with the play Time of the Cuckoo, which starred Shirley Booth, who had also starred in one of his earlier radio plays.  That play would later be turned into the film Summertime, starring Katharine Hepburn.

Carol Lawrence and Larry Kert in a promotional picture for
the orginal Broadway cast of West Side Story.
In the early 50's, Laurents joined composer Leonard Bernstein and Director/Choreographer Jerome Robbins in the creation of what would become one of the most famous Broadway shows ever, West Side Story.  A modern updating of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, Bernstein, Robbins and Laurents originally planned to use the conflict between a Catholic family and a Jewish one as the basis of the musical, set during the week of Easter and Passover. The show was originally called East Side Story, as the setting was Manhattan's Lower East Side.  But after further discussion the project was shelved as it was thought that there were already several plays out there that dealt with the same themes.

Fortunately the three men kept crossing paths and when they were all in Los Angeles, around the time that Robbins was choreographing the film of The King and I, the three decided to change East Side Story to a tale of Puerto Ricans vs Whites in New York and set it in the upper West side of Manhattan, so they changed the name to West Side Story.  The three had also crossed paths with up and coming composer Stephen Sondheim.  When Bernstein asked him if he would be interested in writing the lyrics for the show, Sondheim at first refused as he was more interested in writing both the score and the lyrics to a show, but he later agreed after his mentor Oscar Hammerstein II convinced him that working with the three men would be a worthwhile experience.

And while this might be hard to believe now, knowing how excellent of a score and book the musical has, but no one wanted to fund this production, as it was deemed too controversial and depressing.  So the production almost didn't happen until Sondheim brought in his friend Hal Prince to produce the show.  Prince was able to raise the funding for the show, and after out of town tryouts in D.C. and Philadelphia where the creators made many changes to the structure of the show, it opened on Broadway on September 26, 1957.  The original cast starred Carol Lawrence and Larry Kert as the star crossed lovers and Chita Rivera as Anita.  Nominated for six Tony Awards, the show won for Robbin's choreography and Oliver Smith for his set design but lost out for Best Musical to The Music Man.

The Original Broadway cast of Gypsy -
Sandra Church, Ethel Merman and Larry Klugman
Two years after the success of West Side Story Laurents was back on Broadway with Gypsy. Teaming again with Sondheim and Robbins, Laurents crafted the memoir of Gypsy Rose Lee into a tale of the ultimate stage mother. Sondheim was originally planning to write both the music and lyrics for the show but Ethel Merman who was on board to star and play Lee's mother was concerned about having an unproven composer write the score and wanted one with a proven track record, Jule Styne, to write it instead.  It was Hammerstein again who convinced Sondheim that working with Styne and writing for a star like Merman would be a learning experience.   The musical opened on Broadway on May 21, 1959 and was nominated for eight Tony Awards but didn't win any, as it was the year of The Sound of Music, which virtually swept the awards that year.

Laurent's book for Gypsy has often been called the greatest book for a musical.  It is so well constructed with fully fleshed out characters that are completely three dimensional and no scene that is unnecessary to the story.  Now it also has a knock-out score as well, so the combination of Laurent's book, Styne's score and Sondheim's lyrics are why it has been revived on Broadway four times.

Besides writing the books for West Side Story and Gypsy, Laurents also wrote the book for the Best Musical Tony Winner Hallelujah, Baby! that opened in 1967 and two years before that he wrote the book for the flop musical Do I Hear a Waltz?, which was based on his own 1952 play Time of the Cuckoo.  Waltz was another show were Stephen Sondheim had to be convinced again to only write the lyrics, this time with Richard Rodger, Hammerstein's former partner, writing the score.   His last book for a Broadway show was for another flop musical that he also directed, 1991's Nick & Nora, which was based on the characters in the Thin Man movie series.

Laurents had previous experience directing on Broadway including the 1962 musical I Can Get It For You Wholesale that had the young unknown Barbra Streisand making her Broadway debut as well as directing and writing the book for another flop show, this one with the entire score by Stephen Sondheim, the 1964 musical Anyone Can Whistle that starred Angela Lansbury.  Laurents also directed three of the four revivals of Gypsy, including the first revival in 1974 where Lansbury played Rose, as well as the 1989 one with Tyne Daly and the latest one, just three years ago, at the age of 90 when he directed Patti LuPone in the lead.

While Laurents had been nominated several times for a Tony, he only won for Hallelujah, Baby! and for the direction of the hit 1983 musical La Cage Aux Folles

In between his Broadway successes and failures Laurents returned to Hollywood to write the screenplay for one of the most loved romantic movies of all time, The Way We Were, which was based somewhat on his own college years at Cornell as well as his early career writing radio scripts and his military experience.  It also was set during the McCarthy witch hunt days, which Laurents had personal experience with as he found himself blacklisted from Hollywood.  The film also gave him the chance to work with Streisand again.  He also wrote the screenplay for 1977's  The Turning Point, a movie set in the world of dance which was inspired by his romance in his early days with dancer Nora Kaye and the film was actually directed by Kaye's husband Herbert Ross.  Laurents received his only Oscar nomination for his screenplay for this film.  The film starred Shirley MacLaine, Anne Bancroft and Mikhail Baryshnikov in his film debut.

Over the past 10 years he wrote many more plays, several of which premiered at the George Street Playhouse, in New Brunswick NJ, which is about 15 minutes from us.  We've seen all of the premieres of his plays there and while none of them is on the calibre of some of his early work they all have interesting qualities about them and the distinguishable stamp that only a professional writer such as Laurents can give.  Two of my favorites of these plays are Venecia, which starred Chita Rivera as a blind hooker with a heart of gold and Two Lives, which told of an older gay male couple and was an extremely autobiographical play based on Laurent's own 52 year relationship with his partner Tom Hatcher who passed away within a year of this play premiering in 2005.

Laurents wrote his autobiography, Original Story By Arthur Laurents: A Memoir of Broadway and Hollywood, which was published in 2000.  It is an extremely interesting and personal account of Laurent's entire life and I highly recommend it.  He also wrote Mainly on Directing: Gypsy, West Side Story and Other Musicals.

Larry Kert and Carol Lawrence- selections from West Side Story -

Laurents discussing Gypsy -

Angela Lansbury in Gypsy -

Tyne Daly performs "Rose's Turn" from Gypsy- 

Trailer for The Way We Were - 

Trailer for The Turning Point- 

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