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Obituary: Arthur Laurents wrote scripts for stage and screen, including ‘Gypsy’

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Arthur Laurents, an irascible eminence of musical theater and movies out of whose typewriter came the stage scripts for “West Side Story,” “Gypsy” and the three-hanky film romance “The Way We Were,” died Thursday at his home in Manhattan. He was 93 and had pneumonia.

In a show-business career that spanned eight decades, Mr. Laurents wrote radio dramas, Broadway plays and novels. Besides “The Way We Were” (1973), his film credits included Alfred Hitchcock’s thrill-kill melodrama “Rope” (1948) and the acclaimed ballet drama “The Turning Point” (1977). He was a sought-after director for the stage as well, and continued to direct into his 90s.

His final New York directorial assignment was a 2009 revival of “West Side Story.” The controversial re-imagining, with some songs translated into Spanish, proved to be the show’s most successful Broadway mounting, running for 748 performances — 16 more than the legendary 1957 original.

The story and dialogue he developed as the book writer of “West Side Story” will likely go down as his most important achievement. The trailblazing, jazz-infused musical drama about gang warfare on the streets of Manhattan showed the world that the Broadway musical could tackle contemporary social issues in an exhilaratingly entertaining way.

And, of course, the character of the collaboration on that show is also sealed in legend. Mr. Laurents’s partners on “West Side Story” — composer Leonard Bernstein, lyricist Stephen Sondheim and director-choreographer Jerome Robbins — were about as close to a perfect distillation of musical-theater genius as any creative team in Broadway history.

The initial idea, to transform Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” into a contemporary musical, had been Robbins’s. Over the course of several years, Mr. Laurents refined the idea for “West Side Story” with Robbins, Bernstein and Sondheim.

Mr. Laurents eventually shifted the narrative from a story that included a Jewish gang to one that reflected the changing ethnic makeup of New York City. The Jewish gang became Puerto Rican, the Sharks; their rivals, the Jets, were from a cross-section of Polish and Irish blue-collar backgrounds. The playwright was also credited with expanding on themes of racism and juvenile delinquency.

Reviewer John McClain, writing in the New York Journal American, praised Mr. Laurents for having “captured the talk of the juveniles, or a reasonable facsimile, and woven it into a magic fabric.” In the New York Times, theater critic Brooks Atkinson called Mr. Laurents an “essential” force behind the production.

“The best thing about the show is the music, which is gorgeous,” Mr. Laurents, a two-time Tony winner, said in a 2008 Washington Post interview. During that conversation, he decried the 1961 Oscar-winning movie version as “bogus” and heaped scorn on some of the other attempts to stage the musical over the years.

Possessed of a formidable ego and a lacerating tongue, Mr. Laurents was never one to hold back. This trait, deeply on display in his 2000 memoir “Original Story,” contributed to his acknowledged up-and-down relationships over the years with collaborators such as Sondheim. The duo worked on “Gypsy” and, subsequently, two musicals that did far less well with audiences: “Anyone Can Whistle” (1964) and “Do I Hear a Waltz?” (1965). The latter featured music by Richard Rodgers.

But Mr. Laurents also had remarkable powers of perception, especially when a project called for a gutsy New York character or show-biz survivor.

Great book writers for musicals are hard to come by — narrative structure is the most routinely picked-apart aspect of a musical — and Mr. Laurents’s book for Jule Styne and Sondheim’s 1959 “Gypsy,” based on the life of burlesque queen Gypsy Rose Lee, is regarded by some as the finest example of the form ever written. 

Kenneth Tynan’s review of the show in the New Yorker praised Mr. Laurents for crafting a libretto that was “an exemplary mixture of gaiety, warmth and critical intelligence.”

As a writer, Mr. Laurents was from an early age versatile and adaptive. He was born Arthur Levine in Brooklyn on July 14, 1917, to a father who was a lawyer and a mother who had been a teacher.

After graduating from Cornell University, he got a job writing for radio dramas, and during World War II, was put in a stateside military unit that composed patriotic plays about Americans in uniform.

His first Broadway play, “Home of the Brave” (1945), was a six-character work inspired in part by his wartime experience: It took as themes anti-Semitism and the nature of male friendship in the armed forces. (Mr. Laurents did not publicly disclose he was gay until much later in life.)

He was able to segue from Broadway to Hollywood and back again; “Home of the Brave” was made into a movie in 1949 with the Jewish character transformed by the film studio into an African American.

During this period, he wrote or collaborated on a variety of screenplays, including “The Snake Pit,” “Anna Lucasta” and “Bonjour Tristesse,” the last based on Francoise Sagan’s bestseller. He also wrote the romantic melodrama “Anastasia” (1956), about an amnesiac (played by Ingrid Bergman in an Oscar-winning role) who thinks she’s an heir of a Russian czar.

In 1952, Mr. Laurents found a more sustained stage success with “The Time of the Cuckoo,” a comedy that starred Shirley Booth as an American spinster who has a romance with a married Italian shopkeeper while vacationing in Venice.

The play, elevated by its smart dialogue and well-rounded performances, ran for 263 performances and later became the musical “Do I Hear a Waltz?” It also was the basis for the 1955 David Lean film “Summertime,” starring Katharine Hepburn.

“West Side Story” set Mr. Laurents off into a rich career in musical theater. Both his Tonys would come in musical categories: best musical in 1968, for his book for “Hallelujah, Baby!,” a story about a black singer facing discrimination, and 16 years later for his direction of the original musical version of “La Cage aux Folles,” about a gay couple who run a St-Tropez nightspot.

If Mr. Laurents’s output was vast and varied, essayist Walter J. Meserve once wrote, a dominant theme was the “fearful uncertainties of the lonely person trying to find a meaningful identity in a world full of frustrations and strangers.”

Not everything Mr. Laurents worked on fared quite so well. He bore a large part of the responsibility for one of Broadway’s most notorious flops, the 1991 “Nick and Nora,” based on the “Thin Man” mystery movie comedies of the ’30s. The lavish musical was written and directed by Mr. Laurents and closed seven days after its official opening.

Nevertheless, he had often displayed a discerning eye for talent. As director of the 1962 musical “I Can Get It for You Wholesale,” he chose for the role of Miss Marmelstein an eager young unknown by the name of Barbra Streisand.

Streisand would figure in a far more substantial way in his life again, when she starred in what is unarguably Mr. Laurents’s most significant filmic legacy, “The Way We Were.”

The movie, adapted by Mr. Laurents from his own novel and directed by Sydney Pollack, was a winningly schmaltzy, old-style Hollywood romance for Streisand and co-star Robert Redford.

Dealing with the McCarthy era and Congress’s investigation of communist influence in the arts, the story was inspired in part by Mr. Laurents’s friendship with many who were blacklisted.

Despite the popularity of “The Way We Were” and the critical praise that befell “The Turning Point” a few years later, theater remained Mr. Laurents’s most intense passion. Late in life, he had remarkable triumphs directing some of the works he’d written decades before. In 2008, his “Gypsy” revival earned Tony Awards for all three of its leading actors.

His last Broadway venture, the 2009 “West Side Story,” was a tribute to his partner, Tom Hatcher, with whom he had lived for 52 years and who died in 2006.

It was Hatcher who had proposed the idea of redoing the show with some of the songs performed in Spanish. Mr. Laurents recalled that Hatcher had seen a South American production in which the Sharks came across far more sympathetically when speaking in their native tongue.

In an interview, Mr. Laurents grew teary recounting this back story — a tough old pillar of the stage shedding some of his protective coating. “It does something when you work from love,” he said during the break from “West Side Story” rehearsals. “You give love, and you get it back.”

© The Washington Post Company