Arthur Laurents, 93, playwright for ‘Gypsy,’ ‘West Side Story’

Natalie Wood, George Chakiris, and Richard Beymer in the film version of “West Side Story.’’ Natalie Wood, George Chakiris, and Richard Beymer in the film version of “West Side Story.’’ (United Artists/File 1961)
By Mark Kennedy
Associated Press / May 7, 2011

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NEW YORK — Patti LuPone tells the story of the time Arthur Laurents violated theater superstition: The director, playwright, and screenwriter had unwittingly uttered the name Macbeth backstage during the 2008 Broadway revival of “Gypsy.’’ As most drama buffs know, saying the title of Shakespeare’s play spells unfortunate luck for a production.

Soon things started to go bad inside the St. James Theater: Curtains got snarled, and an actress fractured her pelvis. To the superstitious cast, Mr. Laurents’s mention of the play had clearly cursed the production. Only Mr. Laurents could break it.

So one night, LuPone insisted that Mr. Laurents — the three-time Tony Award winner responsible for the books to “Gypsy’’ and “West Side Story’’ — go through a ritual that involved spitting, cursing, and turning around counterclockwise on the street in front of the St. James. She shoved him out the door, and he did it.

“He really didn’t understand what was going on,’’ LuPone said yesterday following her friend’s death at age 93. “If anyone knows that’s Arthur Laurents, they’re going to think he lost his mind.’’

It apparently worked: The production won Tonys for LuPone, Laura Benanti, and Boyd Gaines. Mr. Laurents, who died Thursday, had proved yet again that he would do what it took to make a musical work.

“He humored me,’’ LuPone said. “He laughed, and I think he enjoyed a theatrical moment. You know, when he gets that gleam in his eye, it’s pretty fabulous. His whole body lights up.’’

The marquees of the St. James Theater, as well as those of all Broadway’s theaters, were dimmed last night at 8 p.m. in honor of Mr. Laurents, who died in his sleep in his New York City home.

He was a man who transformed Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet’’ into a story about rival New York gangs and who followed it up by turning the story of a stripper into the quintessential American musical. He was also the screenwriter for the weepy film classic “The Way We Were’’ and helped discover Barbra Streisand.

“Rest easy, if doing anything the easy way is possible for you, Arthur,’’ Harvey Fierstein wrote on Twitter. “Hell, you couldn’t even just slide down a hill. You had to make sport.’’

Mr. Laurents’s “West Side Story,’’ which opened on Broadway in 1957, substituted Jets and Sharks for Montagues and Capulets to thrilling effect, due in part to the choreography by Jerome Robbins, music by Leonard Bernstein, and lyrics by a young Stephen Sondheim.

Two years later, Mr. Laurents and Robbins teamed up again for “Gypsy,’’ based on the memoirs of stripper Gypsy Rose Lee. The musical, with a score by Jule Styne and Sondheim, told the story of Rose, a domineering stage mother who pushed her daughter into show business. As Rose, Ethel Merman had the greatest triumph of her career.

The show, Mr. Laurents once said in an interview with the Associated Press, is “about the need for recognition, which is a need for love.’’

“Gypsy’’ has been successfully revived four times on Broadway, first in 1974 with Angela Lansbury as Rose, then with Tyne Daly in 1989 (Mr. Laurents directed both), Bernadette Peters in 2003 (directed by Sam Mendes), and LuPone five years later, with Laurents again directing.

In 2009, Mr. Laurents directed a revised version of “West Side Story,’’ giving the show a new dose of realism by having much of the dialogue in Spanish. “There are not many creative writers who can take that chance, but it has to live,’’ LuPone said.

His credits as a stage director also include “I Can Get It for You Wholesale,’’ best remembered as the musical that introduced a 19-year-old Streisand to Broadway in 1962, and “La Cage Aux Folles’’ (1983), the smash Jerry Herman musical, based on a French play of the same name by Jean Poiret, that ran for four years.

Mr. Laurents was born in Brooklyn, the son of a lawyer. He attended Cornell University and after graduation began writing radio plays including scripts for such popular series as “Dr. Christian’’ and “The Thin Man.’’ While serving in the Army during World War II, Mr. Laurents wrote military training films, as well as scripts for such radio programs as “Army Service Forces Present’’ and “Assignment Home.’’

His wartime experiences led to his first Broadway play, “Home of the Brave,’’ which opened in December 1945. The military drama about anti-Semitism had a short run, but was later made into a well-received movie in which the theme was changed to racial, rather than religious, prejudice.

In Hollywood after the war, Mr. Laurents wrote or co-wrote scripts for such films as “Rope’’ (1948), “Caught’’ (1949), and “Anna Lucasta’’ (1949), and he had an uncredited contribution to “The Snake Pit’’ (1948), a look at mental illness underlined by Olivia de Havilland’s harrowing lead performance.

Mr. Laurents returned to the New York theater in 1950 with “The Bird Cage,’’ a drama about a nightclub owner. It quickly flopped, despite a cast that included Melvyn Douglas and Maureen Stapleton.

Two years later, he had one of his biggest successes, “The Time of the Cuckoo,’’ a rueful comedy about a lonely woman who finds romance in Venice with an already married Italian shopkeeper. “Cuckoo’’ provided Shirley Booth with one of her best stage roles and was later made into the movie “Summertime,’’ starring Katharine Hepburn.

In 1966, Mr. Laurents reworked “Cuckoo’’ as a musical, retitled “Do I Hear a Waltz?’’ It had music by Richard Rodgers and lyrics by Sondheim. The following year, he wrote the book for the musical “Hallelujah, Baby!’’ The show — starring Leslie Uggams and with a score by Styne, Betty Comden, and Adolph Green — won the best-musical Tony Award in 1968.

Mr. Laurents’s biggest film successes occurred in the 1970s, first as screenwriter for “The Way We Were,’’ the 1973 movie starring Streisand and Robert Redford, who played lovers pulled apart by the ideological conflicts of the McCarthy period of the late 1940s and 1950s.

Mr. Laurents was not immune to stage failure, either. “Anyone Can Whistle,’’ his 1964 collaboration with Sondheim, lasted only nine performances on Broadway. Yet due to its original cast recording featuring Lansbury and Lee Remick, the show developed a cult following among musical theater buffs.

In 1991, Mr. Laurents directed the musical “Nick and Nora,’’ which he called “the biggest and most public flop of my career.’’ Based on Dashiell Hammett’s famous “Thin Man’’ detective couple, Nick and Nora Charles, the show played nearly two months of preview performances before finally opening and closing in less than a week. This year, its dubious record for having the longest preview period on Broadway was beaten by “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark.’’

Last year, he established an award for emerging playwrights through the Laurents-Hatcher Foundation, named in honor of Tom Hatcher, an aspiring actor who became his partner. The couple were together for 52 years until Hatcher’s death in 2006.

In recent weeks, Mr. Laurents had finished work on a new play and had reportedly concluded negotiations with a major studio for a new feature film version of “Gypsy’’ that might have Streisand in the lead.