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.