Theatre yesterday and today



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I didn't plan to write a themed series of blogs this week, but it seems as if my desire to honor key dates in theatre history keep bringing me back to certain figures of the late 50s and early 60s Broadway. One of the best librettists of the American musical theatre, Arthur Laurents was born on this day and, if he were still alive, would be celebrating his 99th birthday.

Laurents almost made it. He passed away just before his 94th birthday five years ago and had been working practically until the end. He was past 90 when he directed the 2008 Broadway revival of Gypsy, which led to Tonys for Patti Lupone, Laura Benanti and Boyd Gaynes (Rose, Louise and Herbie). He also won his own Best Director Tony in 1984, when he helmed the original production of the Jerry Herman-Harvey Fierstein musical La Cage Aux Folles.

A man of intense contradictions, he was notoriously difficult, yet generously charitable. In the autobiographical books he produced late in life, he was quite candid about his sexual desires and conquests, but also about his deep love for his life partner, Tom Hatcher, with whom he lived for fifty-two years, until Hatcher's death in 2000. He had a great many devoted friends, but also a large group of equally devoted enemies.

Arthur Laurents and his last Broadway Rose, Patti LuPone (2008)

Laurents's work in the theatre was prolific. His first play Home of the Brave, which opened in 1945, told the post-WWII story of a young Jewish soldier that had witnessed his best friend killed in action. A forceful look at anti-Semitism, its subject was changed to that of race relations instead, when a film version was produced four years later, and its central character became a black G.I.

Though Laurents had nothing to do with that film, he was hired to adapt other writers' plays throughout the late forties, only to see his career halted by the Hollywood blacklist. It proved a subject he would delve into years later (and most successfully) with The Way We Were, which he based on his own novel. It starred Robert Redford as Hubbell Gardiner and Barbra Streisand as Katie Morosky, a young Communist agitator, who was based on a woman Laurents met in the late 1930's when he was an undergrad at Cornell. He wrote it specifically for Streisand, not only because she was a huge movie star in 1973, but because he had practically discovered her pre-Funny Girl. It was Laurents who cast her in a supporting role in the 1962 musical I Can Get It For You Wholesale, which he adapted and directed for the stage, and that made clear her serious comedic chops as an actress, in addition to her enormous gifts as a singer.

When Laurents began work on his first book for a musical, his concept, conceived in tandem with director-choreographer Jerome Robbins, was a modern retelling of Romeo and Juliet set in New York City. At first, it was to deal with a fight between two opposing families of Catholics and Jews, titled East Side Story. Then its plotting was changed to conflicts between whites and darker-skinned Puerto Ricans on the Upper West Side, offering a slightly different, but far more relevant "story." Shortly after the positive critical (though not commercial reception) of West Side Story—it didn't become a hit until the film version was released to great acclaim and ten Oscars in 1961—Laurents and Robbins began their collaboration on Gypsy.

Based on the autobiography of Gypsy Rose Lee, this "musical fable," as it was subtitled, quickly became the standard bearer of how to ideally integrate a dramatic story into a musical with wit, passion and intelligence. In Rose, Laurents created a stunning lead character despite the fact the show is called Gypsy, and was supposed to be about the daughter, not the mother. So good is Laurents's book, that many believe it can stand all on its won as a straight play, even with a score as brilliant as the one Styne and Sondheim came up with. Most of Laurents's obituaries mention that though the author of West Side Story and The Way We Were, Gypsy was considered his greatest achievement. Only recently, London saw its first major Gypsy revival in 40 years, leaving Michael Billington, the longtime reviewer for the Guardian, to write that "Imelda Staunton gives one of the greatest performances I’ve ever seen in musical theatre."

Which is we should be seeing Ms. Staunton in yet another Broadway Gypsy sometime in 2017. After all, you can't keep a good girl down. And let us never forget, she was entirely a creation that came out of the creative imagination of Arthur Laurents.

If you would like to comment on any of these posts, please do so below. I look forward to hearing from you.