On a crisp, sunny March afternoon, Arthur Laurents welcomed me into his handsome townhouse in Greenwich Village, his home for 51 years, which he had filled with tasteful furnishings, antiques and fine artwork.
He agreed to the in-person interview to talk about the touring production of his Broadway revival of "West Side Story," which opens Tuesday, May 24, at Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts.
The show hardly needed promoting, but I jumped at the chance to talk to the writer-director who at 93 was a theatrical legend, for his scripts for "West Side Story" and "Gypsy" and his direction of their acclaimed revivals.
He was also the screenwriter for Alfred Hitchcock's "Rope," "Anastasia," "Summertime," "The Way We Were" and "The Turning Point," among other classic films. He also endured anti-Semitism, homophobia and the Black List in Hollywood.
He had an acerbic tongue, a pen that could be dipped in acid and amazing insights that he showed off in his books "Original Story by Arthur Laurents" and "Mainly on Directing."
Laurents led me to his living room, where he sat in a straight-back chair while I settled in to his slightly lower cushioned couch. We faced his favorite artwork, a Graham Sutherland painting of Venice's San Marco piazza. As we spoke for an hour or so, he talked about the making of "West Side Story" and his re-imagining of the now-bilingual show. He also shared his thoughts on current shows and stars, nixed the idea of Barbra Streisand in a film version of "Gypsy" and announced he finished another book that would no doubt ruffle a few more feathers. It also has a personal epilogue about love, he said.
Small, trim and tailored, he offered a wicked smile before answering questions whose responses would surely make some theater folks cringe. He had a recurring cough.
"I always wanted to write musicals," he said, talking about his childhood. "When I was a kid, really a kid — 7 or 8 — I lived in Brooklyn and there was a stock company and my cousin and I would go Saturday afternoons. I remember two productions. One was 'No, No, Nanette.' I still remember them twirling the parasols, thinking, 'Oh, this is wonderful!' The other one was 'Rain' by Somerset Maugham and they had real rain!"
Laurents said he had been a writer since he was 10, starting with a short story. "To tell you what a terrible child I was, it was about Sleeping Beauty and when the Prince kissed her and she awoke after 100 years, she was a bore. She didn't know what was going on and they got a divorce. Ten years old. Scary."
Laurents had been writing ever since, and directing, too. But not content to simply revive another production of "West Side Story" several years ago, he decided to take an entirely fresh look at the show. He was in his early 90s.
Laurents died of pneumonia on May 5 in New York.
The idea of introducing Spanish into 1957's "West Side Story" in a significant way originated with Laurents' longtime partner Tom Hatcher (who died in 2006 after 52 years together). Hatcher saw a production of the musical in Bogota, Colombia and thought of the show in a new light.
"The Sharks became the heroes and the Jets were the villains," said Laurents. "Of course, to me they're both villains but I thought god, it would be great if we could find a way of doing that here [with the Sharks speaking in Spanish]. But I knew it would have to be calibrated about how much should be in Spanish."
(The Sharks are the Puerto Rican gang; the Jets, Anglo.)
But the revival's new approach didn't stop there.
"The big goal was to make both gangs tough. I thought in the original version the gangs were played like adorable little thugs, and they're killers."
He also wanted to intensify the romance between the lovers from two cultures, Tony and Maria.
"They have to be intensely sexual," he says. "I told [the actors] about the balcony scene, 'You should have difficulty singing together because you can hardly keep your tongues out of each other's mouths, that they should be all over each other. [By doing that] it takes it away from the ingenue-juvenile singing where they are clutching air, not each other."
In this production, the acting is the thing, he said.
"Take Tony's first scene in [Doc's] store. Before it was a 'cute' scene [between him and Riff]. But it's all about love, which is what the whole show is about. It's a love scene between these two boys. They may have had a physical relationship or they may not have, but they love each other. If you begin there, then the ending at the rumble is enormous because he [Riff] is doing it out of love for his friend."
Laurents told the touring company that the Spanish used in the show was going to have a great effect on the road than in New York because "you're going into places where they will embrace it and places where they will hate it, and its true."
"Immigration is such a big thing in the country now. In Washington D.C., we got hate mail, saying 'In America, we speak English.' "
Don't get Laurents started about the 1961 movie of "West Side Story."
"The movie is so degrading to Hispanics. It had that Max Factor 'Hispanic' make-up and the Hispanic equivalent of the oo-la-la accents and those DayGlo costumes. Just awful."
Did the Sharks ever have a song?
"No. Subliminal prejudice, that's all I can say. But you watch the show now. This is where the Spanish helped. They were really put down [in the original]. The Spanish has lifted them up. So now there's equality."
The Show's Origins
Laurents spoke of how "West Side Story" began. The idea of doing a modern musical adaptation of Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" began in the late '40s but discussions centered on conflicts between Jews and Catholics and to Laurents and composer Leonard Bernstein and director Jerome Robbins, it seemed too much like a popular interfaith romantic comedy of its day, "Abie's Irish Rose." The project was tabled.
"But [in 1954] juvenile delinquency began rising in the country and there were gang riots. In Los Angeles it was Chicanos against Anglos. Lenny was conducting there and we were at the Beverly Hills Hotel swimming pool talking about gangs. It was so incongruous."
That's when they had the idea of making it between rival gangs of Hispanics and whites. It was a "eureka" moment, he says.
Laurents shared some behind-the scenes stories:
Laurents said there was supposed to be an aria sung by Maria at the climax of the musical. "I wrote a dummy speech [as a place holder] but Lenny could never find the music and suddenly we were ready to go and we ask 'Where is the music' and he goes, 'Well, there isn't any.' So they're going to just say that ad lib lyric? Yeah. So that's what they did."
He also said "West Side Story" might have been called "Gang Way." "Let me tell you what that was. Hal and Bobby thought [legendary producer] George Abbott was god and Abbott said 'West Side Story' was a terrible title and as a kind of acid joke I said, 'Gang Way' and they said, 'Oh, great.' It even made it on the back of the scenery. It got that far. I think everyone realized, 'Now wait a minute, it's not so great a title.' "
And the talk about Disney wanting to do "West Side Story" as an animated version with cats?
"Someplace I have a seven-minute reel that they made with white cats and black cats," he said. "I remember the Maria cat came down the rope of a steamer illegally into the country. In the end I remember the Tony cat got run over. You can't believe how terrible it was. But they proposed it. See, 'Cats' had just opened on Broadway."
There was a point when Robbins announced he just wanted to direct the show and not choreograph. "It was terror. That's when [the show's producer] Hal Prince was so brilliant. He brought in Peter Gennaro, who choreographed all the dances the Sharks did. "
"Chita Rivera was doing her one-woman show and they needed permission to use material from 'West Side Story' and I said on one condition: You're always saying how wonderful Jerry Robbins was. Every single step you did in the show was done by Peter. Give him the credit." She did.
There was also a song cut from "West Side Story" called "Kid Stuff."
"It came after the previews and there were those [Jet] characters that [audiences] loved so Lenny and Steve wrote this song, 'Kid Stuff.' It was a very good song. And Hal and Bobby said, "It's terrific.' I said it is but it's too 'musical comedy.' The minute I said that that was it."
Was it ever recorded? "I have to ask Steve. He's the archival guardian of everything. He kept every first-night telegram he ever got."
"The only thing I keep are letters that other people wish I didn't keep."
They perhaps came in handy when writing his new book, called 'The Rest of the Story."
"That's what I'm working on now. It's finished. And then I wrote an epilogue and now I have to go back to the last chapter and redo it because my life changed.
"Love is the most important thing in the world. My life is totally different with Tom gone. I will never recover in a sense. But there are friends. And there was a fellow who was the closest friend Tom and I had for years. He came every place with us, to London, to Paris, skiing. Actually he was my assistant and he and Tom became friends first and then something happened. To this day neither of us knows what it was but he and Tom parted and that meant I parted.
"And 20, 30 years later I got a letter from him and it came at a perfect time. He knows Tom better than anyone except me. So he's back in my life and we're best friends again. And that brings another side of Tom back into my life, so it is very nice."
Would the 1977 film "The Turning Point," in which he wrote the screenplay, be a promising basis for a musical?
"No," he said. "Dozens of people have been trying for years. Remember, in the film you don't have to finish a number. 'Turning Point' is full of musical snippets. You can't do that on stage. It's essentially about ballet so you've got to show it, and how much ballet do you want to see?"
What did he think of the recent revival of "La Cage Aux Folles?" (He directed the original in 1983.)
"Terrible. Vulgar. Transvestites live in fantasy. They're beautiful and everything is beautiful. [The revival] goes out of its way to show they're ugly, unattractive men in drag. They call it 'real.' I call it 'bullshit.' The leading man doesn't sing that well and he doesn't just do double takes, he does triple takes. The only one I liked was Kelsey Grammer. I thought he was really good."
On the much-talked-about proposed new film version of "Gypsy" starring Barbra Streisand?
"The theater's greatest essence is that it is ephemeral. You don't need a record. The fact that it's ephemeral means you can have different productions, different Roses on into infinity. So I don't want it now. I don't want a definitive record. I want it to stay alive."
In his book "On Directing," he took Sam Mendes to task, director of an earlier revival of "Gypsy," for not having "musicals in his bones." Who has?
Composer Adam Guettel, son of composer Mary Rodgers?
"That's my godchild, Adam. 'Light in the Piazza' has a glorious score, very rich, and his music really soars, but I don't think the book does."
And what about the 2009 New York magazine profile on him where some former friends and associates were less than flattering and others were chillingly silent? Mary Rodgers famously told the writer, "Call me back when he's dead." "I never read it," said Laurents cooly. "Well, I saw part of it and it was so horrendous I thought, 'Why am I reading this?' They were vicious."
And Mary Rodgers?
"That's in my new book. There's a chapter called, 'My Reputation.' "
What does he say in it?
He paused, and offered a devilish smile. "A lot. You have to read it."
WEST SIDE STORY opens Tuesday at 7:30 p.m. at the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts, 166 Capitol Ave. Hartford. The show also plays Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 p.m.; Friday at 8 p.m.; Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m. and Sunday at 1 and 6:30 p.m.. Tickets are $17 to $75, not including fees. Information: 860-987-5900 and http://www.bushnell.org.
Read Frank Rizzo's blog on theater, the arts and entertainment — and more on Arthur Laurents — at http://www.courant.com/curtain.
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