The Way He Is

As the wordsmith behind such hits as 'West Side Story' and 'The Way We Were,' Arthur Laurents is as anonymous as his work is renowned.

December 09, 2004|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

He has a reputation for being cranky. OK, downright difficult.

You might think that's because he's been brilliantly successful -- yet never quite famous.

Arthur Laurents, however, says he's enjoyed being behind the scenes. He doesn't mind the fact that everyone knows the titles, West Side Story, Gypsy and The Way We Were. But few know that his scripts and screenplays helped make them household names.

"I've never cared about being a celebrity," says Laurents, displaying a graciousness that belies his prickly reputation (more on that later). "People in the theater world know what I do."

Laurents is in Washington this month directing a revival of Hallelujah, Baby!, a Tony Award-winning musical (perhaps once more aimed for Broadway) about race relations that he wrote in 1967 with composer Jule Styne and lyricists Betty Comden and Adolph Green. The show begins performances at Arena Stage tomorrow.

"I learned a lot from him because he was the first person I collaborated with more than once," says Stephen Sondheim, who went on to achieve greater name recognition as a composer than Laurents has found as a librettist.

Indeed, Laurents helped launch Sondheim's career with West Side Story. When the show was in the planning stage, Sondheim asked Laurents who was writing the lyrics. Laurents literally smote his forehead as he replied, "Why didn't I think of you?" Sondheim still enjoys recalling the moment.

"He wrote probably the best book ever for the American musical theater, which is the book to Gypsy, followed pretty closely by a musical that changed musical theater, which is West Side Story," says David Saint, artistic director of the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick, N.J., which is co-producing Hallelujah, Baby! "If he had done nothing else in his life that would be a huge legacy."

But it wouldn't have been enough for Laurents, who at age 86 has outlived many of his legendary collaborators, including Styne and Green, as well as West Side Story's composer, Leonard Bernstein, and director/choreographer, Jerome Robbins. Still, Laurents accepts the fact that few accolades fall to the author of a musical's book (the term for the script or libretto). Consider the way a few of his shows are usually described: "Bernstein's West Side Story" and "Sondheim's Anyone Can Whistle."

"I love musicals and I figure [anonymity] goes with the territory," explains Laurents, an unprepossessing man of relatively short stature, who's modestly dressed on this day at Arena Stage in brown corduroys and a matching brown shirt.

"The trick with Arthur is that as long as he knows you respect him and are trying your hardest, he is incredibly supportive," says Saint, who also admits, "I had been told by many people, including my agent: `Be careful, he eats directors for breakfast.'"

"I had heard horror stories about him in New York," says Suzzanne Douglas, the actress starring in the revival of Hallelujah, Baby! In the show, Douglas plays a young African-American woman who goes through a century of change without aging. In working with Laurents, she discovered, "If you don't come to the party with your homework done for the role, then he can't do his role." In other words, respect him by doing the work, and he'll respect you.

Respect for actors was one of the early lessons Sondheim says Laurents taught him. In the 1950s, Laurents took Sondheim to the Actors Studio to observe. "He said, `You have to see the material you're going to work with and that means the actor,'" the composer recalls. "It was the first time I saw actors working on scenes."

Laurents may not seem the most likely candidate to turn to for encouragement. Brutal honesty, acidity, pulling no punches and taking no prisoners are just a few phrases that crop up in articles about him.

Still, in recent years, Laurents has unexpectedly found himself the recipient of fan mail and autograph requests. It's a turn of events he attributes to his 2000 memoir, Original Story By.

The book contains lacerating appraisals of contemporaries ranging from director Elia Kazan ("a world-class informer" at a time when many in Hollywood, including Laurents, were blacklisted for their political views) to producer Ray Stark ("the only thing he stood for was to [urinate]"). Original Story By also boasts of Laurents' "hundreds" of sex partners (mostly male and mostly before he settled down with his partner of 49 years, Tom Hatcher, a landscape artist and real estate developer).

His fan mail has been surprisingly personal -- "three- and four-page letters telling me about their lives" and "sending their regards to Tom," he says.

A `wonderful time'

The revival of Hallelujah, Baby!, Laurents' latest production, has left him feeling relaxed and refreshingly affable. By his own cheerful admission, he's had a "wonderful time" working and re-working his civil rights musical, first at the George Street Playhouse, and now in Washington. He's even added a scene at the end set in the modern-day White House.

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