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Considered by many to be American theater's greatest librettist, Arthur Laurents was also remembered as a prolific stage director and screenwriter, whose credits include the books for the musicals "West Side Story" (1957) and "Gypsy" (1959), as well as the screenplay for "The Way We Were" (1973). Although he received his start in radio, Laurents had long aspired to write plays, and in 1945 made his Broadway debut with the premiere of the wartime drama "Home of the Brave," which was later adapted for film. Early work in Hollywood included the script for Alfred Hitchcock's thriller "Rope" (1948), before his film career was temporarily derailed by accusations leveled at him during the Communist witch hunts of the 1950s. He enjoyed a successful return to film with his script for the historical drama "Anastasia" (1956) prior to his triumph alongside frequent future collaborator Stephen Sondheim on the smash musical "West Side Story." Unbelievably, Laurents topped his previous achievement with the universally acclaimed musical memoir "Gypsy," featuring Ethel Merman in the role of her career. In the early 1960s, Laurents introduced a then-unknown Barbara Streisand to the world in the Broadway musical "I...
Considered by many to be American theater's greatest librettist, Arthur Laurents was also remembered as a prolific stage director and screenwriter, whose credits include the books for the musicals "West Side Story" (1957) and "Gypsy" (1959), as well as the screenplay for "The Way We Were" (1973). Although he received his start in radio, Laurents had long aspired to write plays, and in 1945 made his Broadway debut with the premiere of the wartime drama "Home of the Brave," which was later adapted for film. Early work in Hollywood included the script for Alfred Hitchcock's thriller "Rope" (1948), before his film career was temporarily derailed by accusations leveled at him during the Communist witch hunts of the 1950s. He enjoyed a successful return to film with his script for the historical drama "Anastasia" (1956) prior to his triumph alongside frequent future collaborator Stephen Sondheim on the smash musical "West Side Story." Unbelievably, Laurents topped his previous achievement with the universally acclaimed musical memoir "Gypsy," featuring Ethel Merman in the role of her career. In the early 1960s, Laurents introduced a then-unknown Barbara Streisand to the world in the Broadway musical "I Can Get It For You Wholesale," only to provide her with the script for one of her biggest box-office hits, "The Way We Were" a decade later. Less than five years later, he followed with the screenplay for yet another Oscar-nominated film, "The Turning Point" (1977), and in 1983 directed the Broadway smash hit "La Cage aux Folles." As a writer and director, Laurents sought to create works that would not only entertain, but that would also - and perhaps most importantly - educate, elucidate, and inspire.
Born Arthur Levine on July 14, 1917 in Brooklyn, NY, Laurents was raised in the community of Flatbush by parents Ada, a schoolteacher, and Irving, an attorney. After completing his studies at Erasmus Hall High School, he was accepted at Cornell University, where he nurtured an early love of theater by obsessively reading plays in his spare time. Upon graduating from Cornell, Laurents returned to New York City, and began taking a night class on writing at New York University. Barely 21, he wrote his first radio play "Now Playing Tomorrow" in 1939, which was aired on CBS radio after being submitted by his writing instructor. He went on to pen episodes for various radio series of the day, including "Dr. Christian," "The Thin Man," and numerous originals. In 1941, just as his nascent writing career was gathering steam, Laurents was drafted into the U.S. Army at the height of WWII. Although far from any combat, he served his country writing training films and propaganda radio plays for programs like "Armed Service Forces Present," "Assignment Home," and "This Is Your FBI." Having returned home after the war, Laurents made his Broadway debut with the play "Home of the Brave" in 1945. A scathing look at anti-Semitism in the military, it told the story of a young Jewish soldier traumatized by the death of a friend in combat. It premiered on the London stage the following year under the title "The Way Back" and was adapted for film by screenwriter Carl Foreman in 1949.
Soon after an unsuccessful mounting of his and director-choreographer Jerome Robbins' musical "Look Ma, I'm Dancin'!" in 1948, Laurents began an infrequent, and often frustrating relationship with Hollywood. After being hired to provide a rewrite on the script for the drama "The Snake Pit" (1948) - a harrowing study of mental illness starring Olivia de Havilland - Laurents was denied an official scripting credit, due to claims of plagiarism by the earlier writers. Years later, one of his two accusers would admit that the charges were false. More satisfying was the script Laurents wrote at the behest of legendary director Alfred Hitchcock for the thriller "Rope" (1948). Inspired by the infamous Leopold and Loeb murder case and based on the play by Patrick Hamilton, the film starred actor Farley Granger, Laurents' lover at the time. Other screen work of the period included an adaptation of the melodrama "Anna Lucasta" (1949), in conjunction with original playwright Philip Yordan. Laurents' personal and professional life entered a difficult and confusing period at the close of the decade when he was one of many politically "eccentric" artists suspected of engaging in subversive activities by the McCarthy-era House of Un-American Activities Commission, and subsequently blacklisted for several years in Hollywood.
Disenchanted with the movie business, Laurents returned to New York and the theater in 1950 with "The Bird Cage," a play drama about the dark side of a glamorous nightclub that starred Melvyn Douglas and Maureen Stapleton. The effort, however, was unceremoniously dismissed as melodrama by critics and soon closed. He followed in 1952 with "The Time of the Cuckoo." The romantic comedy, starring actress Shirley Booth - who, coincidentally, starred in Laurents' first radio production - proved a hit with theatergoers and re-established the playwright's reputation. Three years later, it was adapted to film as "Summertime," starring Katharine Hepburn. Laurents cautiously returned to film when he co-wrote the screenplay for "Anastasia" (1956), the story of a woman (Ingrid Bergman) who may or may not be the missing daughter of murdered Russian Tsar, Nicholas II. In 1957, Laurents saw his latest Broadway offering "A Clearing in the Woods," starring Kim Stanley as a troubled woman struggling with her past, scorned by critics. The sting of his failure would be short-lived, though, as another project that same year would go on to become one of the greatest musical theater sensations of all time.
In 1957, along with venerated composer Leonard Bernstein and neophyte lyricist Stephen Sondheim, Laurents wrote the libretto for "West Side Story." Originally conceived by Jerome Robbins (who directed and choreographed) as a twist on Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet," it was to have replaced the Montagues and the Capulets with Jews and Catholics, and was originally titled "East Side Story." Laurents and his co-creators, however, transformed it into an urban tale of a Polish-American Romeo and Puerto Rican Juliet, struggling with their forbidden love while their respective neighborhood gangs engage in a pyrrhic street war. The production, which opened to overwhelmingly positive reviews on Broadway, was nominated for the Best Musical of 1957 and later enjoyed an even warmer reception when it traveled to London the following year. In 1961, the musical was adapted into a film version that starred Natalie Wood and Richard Beymer as the young star-crossed lovers, Maria and Tony. An immediate sensation, it became one of the biggest films of that year, won a record-breaking 10 Academy Awards, and produced the biggest-selling soundtrack album at the time. He returned to screenwriting with an adaptation of Françoise Sagan's novel "Bonjour Tristesse" (1958), a drama about a young woman (Jean Seberg) who plots to destroy the relationship between her playboy father (David Niven) and his more refined girlfriend (Deborah Kerr) for fear it will disrupt her self-indulgent lifestyle on the French Riviera.
Laurents followed in 1959 with the book for "Gypsy" based on the memoirs of Gypsy Rose Lee, and focusing on her mother, Rose. The show reteamed Laurents, Robbins and Sondheim (Jule Styne wrote the bouncy score) and gave Ethel Merman what was arguably her greatest stage triumph. The original Broadway production, which opened to rave reviews, ran for more than two years and was nominated for a total of eight Tony Awards. It would later come to be regarded as one of the greatest American musicals of all time. Laurents began his directing career with "Invitation to a March" (1960), a play he had written which featured incidental music by Sondheim. In 1962, he also directed but did not write the musical "I Can Get It For You Wholesale," a comedy set in New York's garment district during the Great Depression. The cast included Lillian Roth, Elliot Gould and a newcomer, Barbra Streisand, who played the secretary Yetta Marmelstein and brought the house down on a nightly basis with her one solo number. Along with Leonard Spigelgass, Laurents wrote the screen adaptation for "Gypsy" (1962), which featured actress Rosalind Russell (whose singing was dubbed by Lisa Kirk) in the role of the world's most notorious stage mother and Natalie Wood - fresh off her success in Laurents' "West Side Story" - as the titular Gypsy. The film received exceptionally strong reviews upon its release and garnered several Oscar nominations come awards season.
Laurents' next project was the 1964 absurdist musical "Anyone Can Whistle," which he wrote with Sondheim in addition to taking on directorial duties. An unequivocal flop at the time, it was most notable for being actress Angela Lansbury's first role in a stage musical. Undeterred, Laurents transformed his own play "The Time of the Cuckoo" into the musical "Do I Hear A Waltz?" (1965), which was set to Sondheim's lyrics and composer Richard Rodgers' music. Originally written for Lena Horne, but ultimately starring then-unknown Leslie Uggams when it premiered in 1967, Laurents' "Hallelujah, Baby!" chronicled the struggle for equality by African-Americans in the early 20th century. Although he had received Tony Award nominations for "West Side Story" and "Gypsy," Laurents would not win until "Hallelujah, Baby!" landed the prize of Best Musical. As the 1960s gave way to the new decade, Laurents' theatrical endeavors would take a temporary backseat to his latest film venture, the romantic melodrama "The Way We Were" (1973). Very much inspired by Laurents' own past experiences, the story followed the unlikely, on-again/off-again - and ultimately doomed - relationship of a politically conscious Jewish woman (Barbara Streisand) and an upwardly mobile gentile writer (Robert Redford) in mid-century America. Although the movie met with mixed reviews, it proved to be a huge box-office success. Nominated for several Oscars, it won for the eponymous theme song, sung by Streisand, and picked up another for Best Original Score.
Laurents then directed Lansbury for a second time in the 1974 London premiere of "Gypsy," and its subsequent Broadway revival the following year. He followed with the feature film "The Turning Point" (1977), which he also produced along with director Herbert Ross. A critical and commercial success, the drama essayed the story of two middle-aged women (Shirley MacLaine and Anne Bancroft) who are reunited years after their highly competitive relationship as aspiring ballerinas had come to an end. Despite being nominated for a staggering 11 Academy Awards, the film failed to win any. In 1979, Laurents directed and co-wrote Phyllis Newman's one-woman show, "The Madwoman of Central Park West," but would not direct again until he helmed the Broadway musical version of "La Cage aux Folles" in 1983. Based on the original 1973 French stage play by Jean Poiret, the book was written by Harvey Fierstein with music and lyrics by Jerry Herman. Remarkably successful for a story about a cross-dressing gay couple presented at the height of the AIDS epidemic, the production ran for four years and won six Tony Awards, which included Best Musical, Best Score, Best Book, and a Best Director award for Laurents. In 1989, Laurents again oversaw a revival of "Gypsy," this time headlined by Tyne Daly. Two years later, he wrote and directed 1991's "Nick and Nora," a stage musical inspired by the characters featured in Dashiell Hammett's mystery novel "The Thin Man." An unmitigated disaster, Laurents would later refer to it as the "biggest and most public flop of my career."
In one of his few involvements with television, Laurents oversaw the TV-adaptation of "Gypsy" (CBS, 1993) for Bette Midler. He continued to write and direct for the stage with such works as "The Radical Mystique," a 1995 drama that explored the realities of liberal idealism, and made his final contribution to film with script work on the animated adaptation of "Anastasia" (1997). Always deeply inspired by the events of the day, Laurents was influenced enough by the reverberations of 9/11 to write the stage drama "Attacks of the Heart" (2003). He revisited his greatest triumphs when he directed Broadway revivals of "Gypsy" and "West Side Story" in 2008 and 2009, respectively. Continuing to work well into his nineties, Laurents wrote the family drama "Come Back, Come Back, Wherever You Are" which premiered in 2009. The esteemed writer-director passed away on May 5, 2011.
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"Theatre is not literal. It never was." --Arthur Laurents in Los Angeles Times, October 24, 1995.
"One gun is a metaphor for a whole bunch of uzis. 'West Side Story' was a metaphor then. It's more of [a] metaphor now." --Arthur Laurents in Los Angeles Times, October 24, 1995.
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