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

specifically

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

benefit

— "Broadway at George Street" — for George Street

Playhouse on Monday, January 29.

Laurents is definitely on the short list of most talented

multi-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

"Arthur."

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

production

of "Victor/Victoria"). They will sing songs from eight

Laurents

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

evening’s

entertainment, tales of his bi-sexually active around-the-world

adventures

can also be counted on to add a spicy subtext to the theatrics.

Even if Laurents’ distinguished books for the landmark musicals

"Gypsy"

and "West Side Story" had not placed him among the giants

of American theatrical literature, his tenderly romantic plays

"The

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

lovers.

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

met."

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

Laurents

for the benefit is well timed. He is currently at the theater

directing

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

production

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

"Jolson

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

"Jolson

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,"

replied,

laughing, "but I had one ready — Jack Ash — just in

case."

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

read it."

Laurents has received honors and awards from the National Institute

of Arts and Letters, Writers Guild of America, the Tonys, Golden

Globe,

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

long-time

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

controversial

topics as homosexuality (Hitchcock’s 1949 film "Rope"), mental

illness (the 1948 film, "The Snake Pit"), "witch

hunts"

and blacklisting in Hollywood ("The Way We Were"), and women’s

and civil rights reform (the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical

"Hallelujah

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

autobiographical

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

subjects

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

The Musicals of Arthur Laurents, George Street

Playhouse ,

9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick, 732-246-7717. "Broadway at

George Street," an evening of stories and songs with Arthur

Laurents.

A benefit for the George Street Playhouse, tickets includes VIP

seating

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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