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For Laurents, Time to Revise & Shine

By Jane Horwitz
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, December 14, 2004; Page C05

"Don't look at the numbers, don't look in the mirror. . . . Never retire and never die," advises Arthur Laurents. "And I love what I do."

The 86-year-old playwright has been in Washington following his own advice, and his passion, staging a drastically revised version of "Hallelujah, Baby!" Now in previews at Arena Stage, the 1967 musical about race in America opens Thursday and runs through Feb. 13, a co-production with the George Street Playhouse of New Brunswick, N.J.

Arthur Laurents has drastically amended his 1967 musical, "Hallelujah, Baby!," for its Arena Stage run, cutting several songs and restoring another that had been trimmed from the original. (Ricky Carioti -- The Washington Post)

Long before "Baby!" Laurents had joined the top echelon of Broadway scribes, writing the books for "Gypsy" and "West Side Story," "Anyone Can Whistle" and "Do I Hear a Waltz?" His first play, "Home of the Brave," dealt with anti-Semitism in the military, circa 1945. He's written scripts for films such as "Anastasia," "The Turning Point" and "The Way We Were," the latter two based on his novels.

"Hallelujah, Baby!," with music by Jule Styne and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, follows the life of an ageless African American woman through several decades of the 20th century as she deals with ever-changing, and yet never-changing, racial attitudes.

Lena Horne was slated to play the lead in the original production. "I wrote it for Lena. We were extremely close and I knew her. The character was a very hard-edged, angry, funny, sexual tigress," Laurents says. But Horne dropped out of the show for personal reasons.

"At that point we should have dropped the project," he says, "because she was unique. . . . And then along came Leslie." Leslie Uggams took over the role and won a Tony Award for it, though Laurents says he "lost interest" after the role was changed to suit Uggams's girl-next-door image. The 1967 "Baby!" was not a hit; it ran only 293 performances.

Laurents recalls how hard it was in the turbulent 1960s to find African American actors willing to appear in a white-written show about race. "There was enormous resentment and resistance," he says. This time, he senses that the actors are comfortable with the revised material and with him. "The black people in this company know how I feel, which is about as unprejudiced as a white American can be. That's probably because I'm gay and Jewish. This whole company's incredible," Laurents says.

The Arena production is about 60 percent new. He cut several songs, added new lyrics (by the late Green's daughter, Amanda Green) and restored a song that Styne had cut in a fit of what Laurents calls "Broadway panic." That song, "When the Weather's Better," expresses a longing for kinder, more just times and ends the show "with a question," Laurents says. The final word, punctuated as it appears in his script, is "WHEN?!"

Laurents is now writing a play titled "A Country Made of Ice Cream," about the absence of outrage and activism in a nation filled with moneymakers and materialists. He quotes a line from "Hallelujah, Baby!" about speaking up: " 'You don't want, you don't get.' I really believe in standing up and being counted."

Opening Minds

In a rehearsal hall at George Mason University, six young performers take ideas from blues musician Olu Dara and director-choreographer Dianne McIntyre and run with them. Dara suggests that Tryphena Wade, singing scat for the first time, ad-lib, using the alphabet for practice. As Wade moves from her solo into a close-harmony chorus with Nyahale Allie and Joy Jones, Steven A. Butler Jr. stands and speaks: "We had teachers that really cared about us."

The words are from an interview McIntyre conducted as part of her research for "Open the Door, Virginia!," which will run at George Mason's professional Theater of the First Amendment (TFA) Jan. 12 through Feb. 6. Another quote from those interviews heard in rehearsal: "That was the time they burned the cross in my front yard."

"Open the Door, Virginia!" was inspired by the 1951 strike by African American students in Farmville, Va. Their case became part of the landmark Brown v. Board of Education lawsuit and the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision that outlawed school segregation. The show was workshopped in February at TFA's First Light Festival of new plays. The upcoming run represents TFA's first full production after its reorganization during a couple of drastically scaled-back seasons.

McIntyre was choreographing a piece earlier this year at the University of Illinois to commemorate Brown when "a seed came [into] my stomach," she recalls. She conducted interviews with people involved in the Farmville High School strike and the public school closings that came after the 1954 ruling.

"I am drawn to the real words of people who've lived a certain experience," she says. "I find theatricality in the words. . . . We're drawn to the roots of life in the words, the music and the dance."

McIntyre and Dara work in a way that would give most producers the vapors. "We do everything on the spot -- when I write songs, I write songs at the rehearsal," says Dara. ". . . I have to see the people's faces, the tone of their voices. . . . [It] helps me musically."

McIntyre is of a like mind. "The script develops as we go," she says. "You're going like" -- she spreads her arms wide -- "you're on the edge of a hill; yes, I trust that we're going to fly."

The music, Dara says, will be "like a mix of everything -- from ancient to the future. . . . Black music has always been like that . . . very old and very new at the same time."

Dara and McIntyre's first collaboration, in 1984 at Lincoln Center's outdoor venue, was "Mississippi Talks, Ohio Walks." (Dara hails from Mississippi, McIntyre from Ohio). In the 1990s, TFA presented their "Blues Rooms" and "In Living Colors." McIntyre also performed a solo tribute to her father at TFA -- "I Could Stop on a Dime and Get Ten Cents Change." Recently she choreographed "Crowns" at Arena Stage. Dara's most recent album is "Neighborhoods," and he appears in the video "Bridging the Gap" with his son, rap musician Nas.

Follow Spots

• The Folger Theatre will have a post-show discussion tonight of "The Two Gentlemen of Verona," moderated by artist and teacher Janis Goodman. Call 202-544-7077 or visit www.folger.edu.

• Diane Hamilton has been named artistic director of the Musical Theater Center in Rockville and Silver Spring, which trains young people in musical theater arts. Choreographer Hamilton, who was MTC's dance educator for 15 years, became acting artistic director when founder Richard L. Hartzell stepped down in July.

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