Arthur Laurents, 1917 - 2011

From left to right: Stephen Sondheim, Arthur Laurents, Hal Prince, Robert Griffith, Leonard Bernstein and Jerome Robbins

Updated through 5/9.

"Arthur Laurents, the playwright, screenwriter and director who wrote and ultimately transformed two of Broadway's landmark shows, Gypsy and West Side Story, and created one of Hollywood's most well-known romances, The Way We Were, died on Thursday at his home in Manhattan," reports Robert Berkvist in the New York Times. "He was 93."

Regarding West Side Story, "Mr Laurents's book gave a contemporary spin to the tale of Romeo and Juliet. The Montagues and the Capulets, the families of the doomed young lovers, were now represented by the Jets and the Sharks, warring street gangs in Manhattan. It was a plot device that had been discussed several years earlier by Mr Laurents, the director and choreographer Jerome Robbins and the composer Leonard Bernstein. Initially, Bernstein was to have written both the music and lyrics, but he eventually accepted Mr Laurents's suggestion that a co-lyricist could ease the burden of composition. Mr Laurents then brought in a talented newcomer named Stephen Sondheim, who eventually wrote all the lyrics for what became his Broadway debut. 'What we really did stylistically with West Side Story was take every musical theater technique as far as it could be taken,' Mr Laurents wrote in a 2009 memoir. 'Scene, song and dance were integrated seamlessly; we did it all better than anyone ever had before.'"

"It was followed by Gypsy," writes Dennis McLellan in the Los Angeles Times, "'a musical fable suggested by' stripper Gypsy Rose Lee's memoir and focusing on her driven, larger-than-life mother, Rose, played by Ethel Merman. Gypsy ran on Broadway from 1959 to 1961. 'The best damn musical I've seen in years," raved New York Herald Tribune theater critic Walter Kerr, who called the musical's book 'a clean knockout.'" The show would be revived in 1974 with Angela Lansbury as Rose, with Tyne Daly in 1989 and with Bernadette Peters in 2003.

The AP: "Laurents wrote or co-wrote scripts for such films as Rope (1948), Alfred Hitchcock's masterful take on the Leopold-Loeb murder case; an uncredited contribution to The Snake Pit (1948), a look at mental illness underlined by Olivia de Havilland's harrowing lead performance; Caught (1949), Max Ophüls's love triangle melodrama starring James Mason, Barbara Bel Geddes and Robert Ryan, and Anna Lucasta, (1949) an all-white version of the black stage hit about a Brooklyn prostitute…. Laurents' biggest film successes occurred in the 1970s, first as screenwriter for The Way We Were, the 1973 movie starring [Barbra] Streisand and Robert Redford who played lovers pulled apart by the ideological conflicts of the McCarthy period of the late 1940s and 50s. He also wrote the script for The Turning Point, a 1977 film starring Shirley MacLaine and Anne Bancroft as two former dancers still enmeshed in a personal rivalry. Other movies with screenplays by Laurents include Anastasia (1956) and the unsuccessful Bonjour Tristesse (1958), based on the novel by Françoise Sagan."

Kyle Buchanan for Vulture: "The irascible talent hardly slowed down in his old age; his last credit was directing the 2009 revival of West Side Story, which prompted [Jesse Green's] memorable profile in New York."

Update: In the Guardian, Christopher Hawtree notes that Rope "brought Laurents a sustained affair with its star, Farley Granger" and that his "romantic play The Time of the Cuckoo (1952), set in Venice, was turned into the film Summertime (1955), with Katharine Hepburn taking the role created on stage by Shirley Booth. The play, which had been inspired by Laurents and Granger's European retreat from Senator Joseph McCarthy's anti-communist witch-hunts in Hollywood, also became a misbegotten musical, Do I Hear a Waltz? (1965)."

Update, 5/9: The New Yorker's Hendrik Hertzberg met Laurents about ten years ago: "Arthur was a lifelong lefty. I would be very surprised if he was ever an actual member of the Communist Party, but I'd be even more surprised if he wasn't a fellow traveller back in the Party's 30s-to-40s heyday, which in my opinion would have been pretty deplorable, too. (Whichever he was, it was enough to get him blacklisted for a while. That was most deplorable of all.) By the time he and I started exchanging e-mails, though, none of that mattered. Arthur had long since become a standard-issue, MoveOn.org-type, Nader-tempted left-liberal, inclined to assume that Democratic politicians always sell out and given to periodic bouts of thinking that since big money controls everything, why bother? (That may be true, but one should bother nevertheless.) I was forever urging him to look on the bright side. Last year, I assigned myself the task of persuading him to overlook his disappointments with Obama and the Democratic Congress and vote for his local representative, a moderate (by downstate standards) Democrat named Tim Bishop. The New York 1st is an iffy district. Bishop held on this time by a mere 235 votes — one of them Arthur's, I'm glad to say."

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