‘Gypsy’ playwright Arthur Laurents mourned

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NEW YORK (AP) - Patti LuPone tells the story of the time Arthur Laurents violated theater folklore: The director, playwright and screenwriter had unwittingly uttered the word “Macbeth” backstage during the 2008 Broadway revival of “Gypsy.” As most drama buffs know, saying the title of Shakespeare’s play spells unfortunate luck for a production.

Soon things started to go bad inside the St. James Theater _ curtains got snarled, an actor fractured her pelvis. To the superstitious cast, Laurents‘ mention of the Scottish play had clearly cursed the production. Only Laurents could break it.

So one night, LuPone insisted that Laurents _ the three-time Tony Award winner responsible for the books to “Gypsy” and “West Side Story” _ go through a specific ritual that involved spitting, cursing and turning around counterclockwise on the street in front of the St. James. She shoved him out the door and he did it.

“He really didn’t understand what was going on,” LuPone said Friday following the death at age 93 of her friend. “If anyone knows that’s Arthur Laurents, they’re going to think he lost his mind.”

It apparently worked: The production won Tonys for LuPone, Laura Benanti and Boyd Gaines. Laurents, who died Thursday, had proved yet again that he would do what it took to make a musical work.

“He humored me,” LuPone said. “He laughed and I think he enjoyed a theatrical moment. You know, when he gets that gleam in his eye, it’s pretty fabulous. His whole body lights up.”

The marquees of the St. James Theater _ as well as all of Broadway’s theaters _ will be dimmed Friday at 8 p.m. in honor of Laurents, who died in his sleep in his New York City home.

“He created people you care about because he cared about people. I spoke to him a few weeks ago and he sounded so strong, as always. He was lucky to have lived a full and creative life up til the very end. I’ll miss working with him again,” said Barbra Streisand, who first worked with Laurents in 1962 on “I Can Get It for You Wholesale” and was about to do “Gypsy” with him.

He was a man who transformed Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” into a story about rival New York gangs and who followed it up by turning the story of a stripper into the quintessential American musical. He was also the screenwriter for the weepy film classic “The Way We Were,” starring Streisand and Robert Redford.

“Rest easy, if doing anything the easy way is possible for you, Arthur,” tweeted Harvey Fierstein. “Hell, you couldn’t even just slide down a hill. You had to make sport.”

Laurents‘ “West Side Story,” which opened on Broadway in 1957, substituted the Jets and the Sharks for the Montagues and Capulets to thrilling effect, thanks in part to Jerome Robbins’ choreography, music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by a young Stephen Sondheim.

Two years later, Laurents and Robbins teamed up again for “Gypsy,” based on the memoirs of stripper Gypsy Rose Lee. The musical, with a score by Jule Styne and Sondheim, told the story of Rose, a domineering stage mother who pushed her daughter into show business. As Rose, Ethel Merman had the greatest triumph of her career.

The show, Laurents once said in an interview with The Associated Press, is “about the need for recognition, which is a need for love.”

“Gypsy” has been successfully revived four times on Broadway, first in 1974 with Angela Lansbury as Rose, then with Tyne Daly in 1989 (Laurents directed both), Bernadette Peters in 2003 (directed by Sam Mendes) and LuPone five years later, with Laurents again directing.

LuPone recalled how helpful it was to have the playwright in the room as they practiced getting the revival ready. “We knew how lucky we were in the initial readings. Not only would he illuminate the text for us, but then there were the accompanying stories,” she said.

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