Arthur Laurents was an American playwright, screenwriter, and director well known for his work on major Golden Age Broadway musicals like West Side Story and Gypsy. Born to Jewish parents in Brooklyn, New York, as Arthur Levine, he began his writing career in radio, writing for several popular shows and ultimately writing training films and plays for the armed forces while stationed in New York during World War II.
He wrote both plays and screenplays in the 1940s and 1950s, before being asked to write the libretto for West Side Story, alongside Leonard Bernstein (composer) and Steven Sondheim (lyricist). Laurents helped to shape the planned “East Side Story”, a modern Romeo and Juliet adaptation into the vital and gritty story of two rival street gangs jockeying for turf rights, while Tony and Maria fall blissfully in love. His next project would reunite him with Steven Sondheim as lyricist and librettist, with Jule Styne managing the tunes for Gypsy, often considered one of the best books written for a Broadway musical. Laurents took on the role of director as well. In fact, he directed four of the five Broadway productions: the original with Ethel Merman (1959); the 1974 revival with Angela Lansbury (London transfer); the 1989 revival with Tyne Daly; and the most recent revival in 2008 with Patti LuPone, when he was 90 years old.
Laurents continued to write and/or direct musicals in the 1960s with Sondheim’s Anyone Can Whistle (book and direction), Do I Hear a Waltz? an adaptation of his 1952 play The Time of the Cuckoo, and Hallelujah Baby, which won for Best Musical of 1968.
Laurents later wrote the screenplays to 1970s hits The Way We Were and The Turning Point and in 1983, he was back on Broadway directing the Jerry Herman smash La Cage aux Folles for which he won Best Director of a Musical.
Laurents was often known to be rather prickly and didn’t mask his personal feelings about people or their behavior. He was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee to testify on his potential “subversive” activity. For those who did “name names” he had no patience, but his own career was relatively unscathed.
Laurents was in a relationship with Tom Hatcher for 52 years until Hatcher’s death in 2006. Arthur Laurents died in his sleep in 2011 at the age of 93.
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