Musical Theater Playwright Arthur Laurents Dies

American musical theater legend Arthur Laurents has died. Laurents wrote the books for classic shows West Side Story and Gypsy. He worked with giants of the theater such as Stephen Sondheim, Richard Rodgers, Jerome Robbins and Leonard Bernstein.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

A major force in American theater has died. Award-winning playwright and director Arthur Laurents died yesterday at his home in New York. He was 93.

Laurents wrote the book, that's the story and dialogue, for the musicals "West Side Story" and "Gypsy." He also wrote screenplays for the movies "The Way We Were," "The Turning Point," and Alfred Hitchcock's "Rope."

NPR's Elizabeth Blair has this appreciation.

ELIZABETH BLAIR: In 1950, choreographer Jerome Robbins suggested to Arthur Laurents they make a modern day version of Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet." Laurents thought it was a great idea. Instead of feuding families, Laurents wrote a story about rival street gangs.

(Soundbite of musical, "West Side Story")

Unidentified Group (Actors): (as characters) (Singing) The Jets are gonna have their day tonight. The Sharks are gonna have their way tonight.

BLAIR: Audiences flocked to "West Side Story." One critic called it revolutionary for the way it addressed racial tensions. In an interview with NPR, Arthur Laurents said because you couldn't say four-letter words on stage back in 1950s, he invented tough-sounding slang for his teenagers.

(Soundbite of archived audio)

Mr. ARTHUR LAURENTS (Playwright): So I have them say things like cut the frabba-jabba. Well, it sounds like, you know, real talk. Things like daddio, which I threw in, they picked up on.

BLAIR: "West Side Story" is considered one of the greatest musicals of all time, as is another Broadway musical for which Arthur Laurents wrote the book, based on the memoirs of the stripper Gypsy Rose Lee. In "Gypsy," Laurents created the character Momma Rose, a stage mother from hell.

(Soundbite of musical, "Gypsy")

Unidentified Woman #1 (Actor): (as Momma Rose) Well, she's nothing without me. I'm her mother and I made her. And I can make you now.

BLAIR: Complex and grand is how New York Times critic Ben Brantley described Momma Rose. Arthur Laurents was known for writing stories that examined the extremes of human nature. In the 1940s, he started writing for Hollywood, but his movie career was suspended when he was blacklisted. Several years later, the experience inspired his screenplay for "The Way We Were," starring Barbra Streisand and Robert Redford.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Way We Were")

Mr. ROBERT REDFORD (Actor): (as Hubbell Gardiner) ... rights. We don't have free speech in this country. We never will have.

Ms. BARBRA STREISAND (Actor): (as Katie Morosky) We never will if people aren't willing to take a stand for what's right.

Mr. REDFORD: (as Hubbell Gardiner) We never will have it because people are scared.

BLAIR: Arthur Laurents' characters were passionate - the writer and political activist in "The Way We Were," the former dancers in "The Turning Point," and, of course, Tony and Maria.

(Soundbite of musical, "West Side Story")

Unidentified Man (Actor): (as Tony) (Singing) Make of our vows, one last vow.

BLAIR: Leonard Bernstein, Jerome Robbins, Steven Sondheim and Arthur Laurents created "West Side Story" together in the late 1950s. Arthur Laurents told NPR they shared something unique.

(Soundbite of archived audio)

Mr. LAURENTS: We all grew up in The Depression. We went through the war. We've all lived in a time when there were real issues, and people were passionate about them. It was an exciting world, even with all that hatred. You fought it. You know, you took part in life, and that show came out of four people who were taking part in life.

(Soundbite of musical, "West Side Story")

Unidentified Man and Woman #2: (as Tony and Maria) (Singing) ...one heart. Even death won't part us now.

BLAIR: Arthur Laurents died on Thursday in New York.

Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.

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Broadway Playwright Arthur Laurents Dies At 93

Playwright Arthur Laurents (center) is shown with collaborators Richard Rodgers (seated) and Stephen Sondheim as they begin work on the new musical Do I Hear a Waltz? in New York City in December 1964. Laurents died on Thursday at age 93. i i

Playwright Arthur Laurents (center) is shown with collaborators Richard Rodgers (seated) and Stephen Sondheim as they begin work on the new musical Do I Hear a Waltz? in New York City in December 1964. Laurents died on Thursday at age 93. AP hide caption

itoggle caption AP
Playwright Arthur Laurents (center) is shown with collaborators Richard Rodgers (seated) and Stephen Sondheim as they begin work on the new musical Do I Hear a Waltz? in New York City in December 1964. Laurents died on Thursday at age 93.

Playwright Arthur Laurents (center) is shown with collaborators Richard Rodgers (seated) and Stephen Sondheim as they begin work on the new musical Do I Hear a Waltz? in New York City in December 1964. Laurents died on Thursday at age 93.

AP

Playwright Arthur Laurents, best known for writing the books for the landmark Broadway musicals Gypsy and West Side Story, died Thursday at age 93.

Laurents started his career in radio and later wrote Hollywood film scripts. But his big career break came on the Broadway stage in the late 1950s, when both Gypsy and West Side Story premiered. Laurents wrote the script for both musicals and later directed two revivals of Gypsy, with Angela Lansbury and Tyne Daly in the title role.

In 1990, Laurents joined Terry Gross for a conversation about his career, which also included writing credits for The Way We Were, Rope, and The Turning Point, and about collaborating with Jerome Robbins and Stephen Sondheim on several Broadway musicals.


Interview Highlights

On Ethel Merman in Gypsy

"I'm very grateful to Merman because I don't think they would have done the show without her, even though she was on the skids, as it were, at that time. She had had a flop or two. ... She did us a great service and for that time, she was terrific, but it was never what I thought the performance should be."

On directing Angela Lansbury in Gypsy

"She's a very fine actress. ... The emphasis [in the revival] was more on the comedic quality and she's a really terrific comedienne. Rose was quite a reach for her. There's an earthiness, a trashiness about Rose that's very difficult for Angela to get. But in her own terms, she was terrific."

On collaborating with Stephen Sondheim

"Steve is wonderful to collaborate with and he thinks I am, because I say, 'Go ahead, raid the dialogue.' For example, the first line of Mr. Goldstone — 'Have an egg roll, Mr. Goldstone — was taken from the dialogue. But he means really more than that. He is one of the few, too few, lyricists who knows that each character speaks differently and sings differently. They have a different diction. So he waited, in the case of Gypsy, so I could write the characters. He would see how they would speak. That affected what lyrics he wrote for them."

On songwriters getting more credit than the librettist

"Every librettist feels that, and it's accurate. No musical is ever referred to as the world of the librettist. It is only referred to in terms of the composer and — if the lyricist is as famous as Stephen Sondheim — the lyricist. I think it goes back to opera where you don't know who wrote the libretto for the opera — you only know the composer.

I think one of the reasons we don't have more and better playwrights writing musicals is that everybody has a need for recognition, which is what Gypsy is really about. It is so frustrating not to get any recognition for what one has done in creating a musical that a lot of playwrights simply won't try ... The reason I do it is I love musical theater and I love writing. ... I'm stuck."

On the original pitch for West Side Story

"The initial idea was quite different. It was about a Jewish girl and a Catholic boy in New York over Easter and Passover. And I wanted no part of it. And then several years passed and I happened to be in California and Lenny Bernstein was in California. By that time, juvenile delinquent gangs had come into being. ... That's where the idea came from — the front page. And then Lenny and I called Jerry and said, 'We're ready to go.' "

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