“I don’t care about what prize I get or whether I’m in somebody’s collected works. I don’t worry about the past or think about posterity. I live in the now.”
TRQ: Arthur Laurents, Born July 14, 1917
Writer and director for the stage and screen, Arthur Laurents was born on July 14th, 1917 in Brooklyn, New York. He is known for writing Broadway productions like West Side Story and Gypsy, through a series of collaborations with Stephen Sondheim, Leonard Bernstein, Harvey Fierstein and other gay artists who challenged conventional conceptions of the American Dream.
Laurents graduated from Cornell University, and was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1941, where he worked on training films and radio plays for the military. These years of military service would go on to influence and shape Laurent’s work, such as his 1945 play, Home of the Brave, the sale of which to a film studio paved the way for his becoming a Hollywood screenwriter.
As a screenwriter, Laurents was known for his ability to explore psychological complexity, whether it be the struggle of a woman to regain her sanity in The Snake Pit (1948), or the homosexual tone of the Alfred Hitchcock thriller Rope (1948), starring James Stewart and Farley Granger, Laurents’ lover at the time.
By the late 1950’s, Laurents had taken to writing the musicals for which he would most well known. These include West Side Story (1957) and Gypsy (1959), both of which were nominated for a Tony. Gypsy in particular picks up on the theme of psychological complexity by shifting the musical away from Gypsy Rose Lee and to her mother Rose, who in her search for liberation from the humdrum and conventional, shouts at her father, “I’ll be damned if I’m gonna let them sit away their lives like I did. And like you do–with only the calendar to tell you one day is different from the next!” This message resonated with gay men looking to build their own alternative existences.
In 1962 he directed the play, I Can Get It for You Wholesale (1962), which starred Barbara Streisand, who was just emerging as an artist of recognisable talent. In 1974, Laurents directed a new production of Gypsy, which received another Tony nomination.
“My dream was that some day I would walk down the aisle of a musical I had written, while the orchestra was playing. And I did, and it was Gypsy. That was the high spot of my life.”
During the 1970’s Laurents worked on the films The Way We Were (1973), which reconnected him with Barbara Streisand, and The Turning Point (1977). The Way We Were tells the story of Katie, a marginalized Jewish woman fighting for social justice who falls in love with a socially compliant white Protestant. The film was based in part on Luarents’ encounter with the House of Un-American Activities Committee, that stemmed from the leftist embrace of his play Home of the Brave.
Though his career had been not seen the same ruin faced by others in the entertainment industry, he nevertheless was blacklisted and spent many months working abroad.
In 1983, Laurents won a Tony for directing a production of La Cage aux Folles, a musical about a gay nightclub owner who clashes with the family of his son’s fiancee. “I never thought it would get off the ground,” Laurents once explained. “It was a smash from the first preview, the biggest hit I’d ever been associated with.” The musical would later be adapted into the film, The Bird Cage(1996) starring Robin Williams, Gene Hackman and Nathan Lane.
In 2008, Laurents directed Patti LuPone in another acclaimed revival of Gypsy, for which he won another Tony for Best Director. His follow-up revival of West Side Story (2009), which focused on bilingual acting rather than singing, was more controversial.
Laurents once claimed that when the musical Wicked was still in development, he gave some advice to its producers. “I said it’s about the friendship of two girls. I said start tracking that. That whole thing made the show an enormous success.”
In a series of memoirs, Laurents discusses his career in show business, his early relationship with Farley Granger, and his longterm relationship with Tom Hatcher, with whom he lived in Long Island from 1955 until Hatcher’s death in October, 2006. Laurents died in Manhattan on May 5, 2011.