- Associated Press - Friday, May 6, 2011

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.

In 2009, Laurents directed a revised version of “West Side Story,” giving the show a new dose of realism by having much of the dialogue in Spanish. “There are not many creative writers who can take that chance. But it has to live,” said LuPone.

His credits as a stage director also include “I Can Get It for You Wholesale,” best remembered as the musical that introduced a 19-year-old Streisand to Broadway, and “La Cage Aux Folles” (1983), the smash Jerry Herman musical _ based on a French play of the same name by Jean Poiret _ that ran for four years.

“His name is synonymous with the great Broadway musicals and plays of our time,” Charlotte St. Martin, executive director of The Broadway League, said Friday.

Laurents was born in Brooklyn, the son of an attorney. He attended Cornell University and after graduation began writing radio plays including scripts for such popular series as “Dr. Christian” and “The Thin Man.” While serving in the Army during World War II, Laurents wrote military training films as well as scripts for such radio programs as “Army Service Forces Present” and “Assignment Home.”

His wartime experiences led to his first Broadway play, “Home of the Brave,” which opened in December 1945. The military drama about anti-Semitism had a short run but later was made into a well-received movie in which the theme was changed to racial rather than religious prejudice.

In Hollywood after the war, Laurents wrote or co-wrote scripts for such films as “Rope” (1948), “Caught” (1949) and “Anna Lucasta” (1949), and he had an uncredited contribution to “The Snake Pit” (1948), a look at mental illness underlined by Olivia de Havilland’s harrowing lead performance

Laurents returned to the New York theater in 1950 with “The Bird Cage,” a drama about a nightclub owner. It quickly flopped despite a cast that included Melvyn Douglas and Maureen Stapleton.

Two years later, he had one of his biggest successes, “The Time of the Cuckoo,” a rueful comedy about a lonely woman who finds romance in Venice with an already married Italian shopkeeper. “Cuckoo” provided Shirley Booth with one of her best stage roles and was later made into the movie “Summertime,” starring Katharine Hepburn.

In 1966, Laurents reworked “Cuckoo” as a musical, retitled “Do I Hear a Waltz?” It had music by Richard Rodgers and lyrics by Sondheim. The following year, he wrote the book for the musical “Hallelujah, Baby!” The show, starring Leslie Uggams and with a score by Styne, Betty Comden and Adolph Green, won the best-musical Tony Award in 1968.

Laurents‘ biggest film successes occurred in the 1970s, first as screenwriter for “The Way We Were,” the 1973 movie about lovers pulled apart by the ideological conflicts of the McCarthy period of the late 1940s and 1950s.

He also wrote the script for “The Turning Point” (1977), “Anastasia” (1956) and the unsuccessful “Bonjour Tristesse” (1958).

Laurents was not immune to stage failure, either. “Anyone Can Whistle,” his 1964 collaboration with Sondheim, lasted only nine performances on Broadway. Yet thanks to its original cast recording featuring Angela Lansbury and Lee Remick, the show developed a cult following among musical-theater buffs.

In 1991, Laurents directed the musical “Nick and Nora,” which he called “the biggest and most public flop of my career.” Based on Dashiell Hammett’s famous “Thin Man” detective couple _ Nick and Nora Charles _ the show played nearly two months of preview performances before finally opening _ and closing _ in less than a week. This year, its dubious record for having the longest preview period on Broadway was beaten by “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark.”

Last year, he established an award for emerging playwrights through the Laurents-Hatcher Foundation, named in honor of Tom Hatcher, an aspiring actor who became his partner. The couple remained together for 52 years until Hatcher’s death in 2006. Laurents‘ play “Two Lives” was written about their relationship.

In recent weeks, Laurents had finished work on a new play and had reportedly concluded negotiations with a major studio for a new feature film version of “Gypsy” with Streisand in the lead.


Former AP Drama Writer Michael Kuchwara contributed to this report before his death in 2010.

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