Corrections or additions?
This article by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the January 24,
2001 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Arthur Laurents: Nothing’s Taboo
A whirlwind life of sex and celebrities, carousing
and creativity, fame and failures, protests and parlor games from
Shubert Alley to Tinseltown: It could be anybody, right? Yet it
marks the colorful and sometimes contentious life of award-winning
playwright, screenwriter, director, musical theater collaborator,
and author Arthur Laurents who will take the spotlight at a gala
— "Broadway at George Street" — for George Street
Playhouse on Monday, January 29.
Laurents is definitely on the short list of most talented
creative forces in American musical theater. But Laurents’ musical
theater credits are only a portion of the forces that will drive the
benefit for George Street that promises to be something to sing about.
Other than raising money ("We’re looking at $25,000 with a full
house"), artistic director David Saint says that it is a nice
way for the audience to feel they are in a private salon with
It’s not an overstatement to say that Laurents’ impact on Broadway
is legendary. His colleagues and collaborators have included Leonard
Bernstein, Jerome Robbins, and Stephen Sondheim. Audiences will have
the opportunity to hear eye-opening, ear-pricking, behind-the-scenes
tales and recollections about their favorite shows and personalities.
For the gala occasion, George Street has obtained the services of
celebrated cabaret and musical theater stars K.T. Sullivan (currently
starring in the Off-Broadway revue "American Rhapsody") and
Lee Roy Reams (recently featured in the Paper Mill Playhouse
of "Victor/Victoria"). They will sing songs from eight
collaborations, including "West Side Story," "La Cage
Aux Folles," "Gypsy," and "Do I Hear a Waltz."
The musical entertainment will be augmented by host Lee Davis, who
will talk with Laurents about his career and his book "Original
Story By: A Memoir of Broadway and Hollywood." While Laurents’
accomplishments in musical theater will provide the core of the
entertainment, tales of his bi-sexually active around-the-world
can also be counted on to add a spicy subtext to the theatrics.
Even if Laurents’ distinguished books for the landmark musicals
and "West Side Story" had not placed him among the giants
of American theatrical literature, his tenderly romantic plays
Time of the Cuckoo" (the film version which he hated was titled
"Summertime") and "Invitation to a March", and the
musical "Anyone Can Whistle," would endear him to theater
Laurents’ active presence at and for the George Street Playhouse is
highly valued by David Saint. He says Laurents has become a friend
to him and to the playhouse, and (with a chuckle), with A.R. Gurney
and Anne Meara, is a member of "my over-65 playwrights club."
Asked if any topics are taboo, Saint says, "I’ve never met anyone
who speaks so honestly and candidly about what he feels. Before I
even met him I was warned by others to be careful of Laurents, that
he eats directors for breakfast. But we clicked the minute we
Saint feels that he could not have a stronger supporter than Laurents.
Because Laurents will not, as Saint puts it "bullshit you or couch
something in diplomacy, those who get to hear him at the benefit can
expect no holding back."
"Laurents is one of the few people whom the great Sondheim will
listen to. He’s not afraid to tell him what he thinks is wrong,"
says Saint, referring to the revised production of "Do I Hear
A Waltz," produced at the theater last season. Spotlighting
for the benefit is well timed. He is currently at the theater
his adaptation of "Venecia," by Argentine playwright Jorge
Accame and starring Chita Rivera. With previews beginning Saturday,
February 10, it follows George Street’s current world premiere
of Gurney’s "Human Events."
Laurents’ relationship with Saint and George Street
began when Saint directed Laurents’ play "Jolson Sings Again."
Those who are familiar with Laurents’ life and career know he was
one among many theater professionals blacklisted by Hollywood during
the 1950s. From a distance of more than 40 years, Laurents wrote
Sings Again" about that bleak period. The play had a successful
run at the George Street Playhouse in March 1999. The infamous HUAC
hearings of the ’50s, the probe of communists in Hollywood that caused
career havoc and irreparable personal despair, was at the heart of
the play that teamed Laurents and Saint. Laurents actually wrote
Sings Again" in 1992. However, it was not until 1995 that the
play was given a pre-Broadway tryout at the Seattle Rep. Saint became
acquainted with Laurents in 1998 while directing his play "My
Good Name" at the Bay Street Theater, Sag Harbor.
Although Laurents told me when I spoke with him during the run of
"Jolson Sings Again" that he had never joined the Communist
Party, he said he was blacklisted because of his association with
a lot of left-wing causes. "They took my passport away and it
took me three months to get it back," he says. Laurents spent
an extended period in Paris. I was curious to know if Laurents had
ever written under a pseudonym during that time. "No,"
laughing, "but I had one ready — Jack Ash — just in
In 1955 Laurents returned to Hollywood after the "witch hunt"
was over. Of course the agents were compelled to ask Laurents to write
a statement stating that he was "not now, nor have ever been,
a member, etc." They told him that it didn’t matter what he was
swearing to. So Laurents finished the statement with "a member
of the shoe-shine boys union." He said, "As long as they had
your name on a piece of paper, they took it. I’m sure no one ever
Laurents has received honors and awards from the National Institute
of Arts and Letters, Writers Guild of America, the Tonys, Golden
Drama Desk, and National Board of Review. Brooklyn born and raised,
Laurents earned his B.A. from Cornell ("a crap degree," he
says). Laurents continues to be an advocate of social and political
issues about which he feels passionately. He and Sondheim, his
friend and collaborator recently rose up and spoke in support of a
controversial New York theater district zoning plan that would permit
its theaters to sell air rights.
Beginning with "Home of the Brave" (1945), a powerful play
about anti-Semitism, which Hollywood (for reasons of its own) turned
into a film about racial prejudice in the armed forces, Laurents was
in the vanguard in dramatizing with sensitivity and skill such
topics as homosexuality (Hitchcock’s 1949 film "Rope"), mental
illness (the 1948 film, "The Snake Pit"), "witch
and blacklisting in Hollywood ("The Way We Were"), and women’s
and civil rights reform (the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical
Baby"). When I asked Laurents why he was not given screenplay
credit for "The Snake Pit," he replied, "I got screwed.
It’s a typical Hollywood story that I’ve included in my memoirs."
Laurents’ memoirs are charged with not-so-typical stories about his
ex-lovers, actor Farley Grainger and dancer Nora Kaye, ex-drinking
partner Bill Holden; about such eccentrics as Hepburn, Streisand,
Bernstein, and Robbins; about escapades in Paris with Lena Horn, and
charades in Hollywood with Gene Kelly. But like the best of
story telling, the stories pointedly and poignantly reveal a talented
man’s reflective journey from self-doubt to self-determination. It’s
a terrific and titillating read.
After more than a half century of writing on a wide variety of
for both stage and screen, 85-year-old Laurents says that he continues
to be haunted by the effects that McCarthyism had on private lives.
On the brighter side, those at the benefit can expect to be haunted
by some of the most beautiful songs ever written and by some of the
most outrageous stories ever told. Besides his home in New York City,
Laurents has shared a Hamptons beach home he built with the money
he made from "The Time of the Cuckoo," with his partner, Tom
Hatcher, for 40 years. That’s also something to sing about.
— Simon Saltzman
9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick, 732-246-7717. "Broadway at
George Street," an evening of stories and songs with Arthur
A benefit for the George Street Playhouse, tickets includes VIP
and dinner at Soho on George for $150. Tickets for performance only
are $30 & $45. Monday, January 29, 7:30 p.m.
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