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Back Tracks, In Memoriam: The Musical Legacy of Arthur Laurents

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The late Arthur Laurents wrote many of the most beloved musicals and films in entertainment history including West Side Story, Gypsy, The Way We Were and Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope.  He passed away on May 5, but today’s special Back Tracks celebrates this great writer’s legacy in music.

“If you have a good strong finish, they’ll forgive anything!”

So implores stage mother Madame Rose to her daughter Louise, the future Gypsy Rose Lee, in the 1959 musical Gypsy.  Rose’s bon mot was one of many priceless lines written by Arthur Laurents, and unsurprisingly, an incredibly true one.  Laurents, who died on May 5 at the age of 93, certainly had a good strong finish, directing the smash 2008 Broadway revival of Gypsy and following it in 2009 with an equally-successful production of his 1957 musical West Side Story.  But Arthur Laurents had amazing first and second acts, too, making his mark in the worlds of film, literature and most especially theatre.

Arthur was a true American original.  He wrote the timeless screenplay to The Way We Were, and was among the first to discover its star, Barbra Streisand.  He penned Rope for director Alfred Hitchcock, and was an Academy Award nominee for The Turning Point.  Laurents was a passionate advocate of the truth, and stood up to the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) at the height of the blacklist.  He directed and guided the original Broadway production of La Cage Aux Folles, recently revived to much success in New York.  His greatest legacies may be the books for two of the most significant musicals ever written: West Side Story, on which he collaborated with Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim, and Gypsy, with Sondheim and Jule Styne.   A librettist of a Broadway musical may have the most thankless task of any member of the creative team; his job is to create the words that will inspire a song to take flight – and in most cases, replace that original dialogue.  And Arthur was second to none in creating the characters and situations that allowed Stephen Sondheim, Leonard Bernstein and others’ melodies to soar.

Today’s special edition of Back Tracks looks at the musical world of Arthur Laurents through the original soundtracks and cast recordings of his the films and musicals he wrote.  (He also had success as a director; in addition to La Cage aux Folles, he was the original helmer of I Can Get It For You Wholesale, which introduced Barbra Streisand to the world in 1962.)  We’ll explore all of the many reissues of these timeless titles and let you know just where to find bonus tracks and additional material.  You can hit the jump below if you’d like to skip to that portion of our post, but in a break from tradition here at The Second Disc, I hope many of you will indulge me in a personal reminiscence about this most remarkable man and writer who was so mightily influential to me and many others.

Having grown up with many of the works mentioned above, your humble author found himself quite intimidated when first introduced to Arthur in the fall of 1999.  The occasion was the first day of rehearsals for the world premiere of Laurents’ revised version of Do I Hear a Waltz?  Arthur collaborated with Richard Rodgers and Stephen Sondheim on this 1965 musical based on his own play The Time of the Cuckoo (which in turn was adapted into David Lean’s film Summertime, starring Katharine Hepburn).  The original production was an unhappy experience for many of its creators, but Arthur was in high spirits when we began rehearsals that crisp fall morning at George Street Playhouse under the direction of David Saint.  I was assisting David, for the first but not the last time, and any nerves quickly evaporated that very day. Arthur was passionately dedicated to making this musical sing anew, sharply focusing his own text and always at the ready with a new line or bit of staging that would just make a scene click.  It was simply a joy getting new pages to type for the cast!  He charismatically and generously imparted the experience gained over 50 years in the theatre to all in attendance.  Even when I must have seemed like the green kid asking another question about what it was like to work with Richard Rodgers or Alfred Hitchcock, I was never turned away.   Arthur was fiendishly clever and unfailingly honest, with the best theatrical instinct I’ve ever encountered.  I considered Arthur a teacher; David was among those he mentored, and David, in turn, remains a treasured mentor of mine.  Like his frequent collaborator David, Arthur always led by example.  Our company was proud to be working with him on this important reclamation of a lost musical.

I was lucky enough to work with him again in the ensuing years, including on a new play, the cheekily-titled and decidedly contemporary The Vibrator, and to see him with semi-regularity at opening nights and other occasions.  I remember Arthur engaging audience members in the George Street lobby, greeting complete strangers like old friends.  He was far from shy, and his candor is legendary.  I can hear his hearty congratulations on each opening and also his incisive, sharp criticism when something wasn’t right.   Yet most of all I think of the joy he took in collaboration, the big hugs and bigger smiles, and his refusal to ever remain stagnant.  Energetic beyond his years, he was writing up until the very end of his life, and constantly inspiring with sheer tenacity and limitless vivacity.  He continually looked with new, critical eyes at projects acclaimed long ago, never content to rest on his well-earned laurels.  I learned from Arthur the importance of considering those people and those works which came before me, while still looking forward.  Arthur made good on his beliefs.  He established The Laurents-Hatcher Award, a $150,000.00 prize distributed annually to deserving young playwrights and named for Arthur and his late partner of 52 years, Tom Hatcher.

Arthur’s work and reputation will live on, thanks to the innumerable theatres who will continue to celebrate his life and art, and especially his beloved George Street Playhouse.  Each day, somewhere in the world, there will be a pushy lady making her way down the aisle with a dog and a hatpin admonishing “Sing out, Louise!” or a Maria holding her beloved Tony in her arms, praying the violence will stop.  But much like his characters, Arthur Laurents was larger than life.  I’ll always be grateful and privileged to have known this great man over the past twelve years, and will long cherish those misty watercolor memories of the way he was.

Rope (1948 – no soundtrack recording issued)

Alfred Hitchcock’s 1948 thriller showcased the director’s dazzling camera work, shot in lengthy, unedited sequences on a single set of a New York City apartment.  Laurents penned the chilling and witty screenplay from Patrick Hamilton’s play, depicting two young men (Farley Granger and John Dall) who commit the “perfect murder” simply to prove their intellectual superiority.  James Stewart portrays their prep-school housemaster who inadvertently spurred them to action with his talks of Nietzsche’s theories.  The uncredited film score was provided by David Buttolph, incorporating Francis Poulenc’s “Mouvement Perpetuel No. 1” played by Granger in the film on piano.  No soundtrack album was released, but the Poulenc/Buttolph main title music can be heard on a number of Silva Screen compilations devoted to Hitchcock’s film music including 1995’s To Catch a Thief: A History of Hitchcock II (FILMCD 159).  Hitchcock hoped to work with Laurents again, but the writer turned down proposals to script both Torn Curtain and Topaz.

Anastasia: Original Soundtrack Recording (Decca, 1956 – reissued Varese Sarabande, 1982 & 1993)

Another early Hollywood assignment for Laurents was 1956’s Anastasia, starring Ingrid Bergman, Helen Hayes and Yul Brynner.  The film was loosely based on a true story and adapted from Marcelle Maurette’s stage play.  It plays on questions of identity via the tale of a young woman in 1920s France (Bergman) who may or may not be the Grand Duchess Anastasia, the daughter of Tsar Nicholas II thought to have been murdered.  Anatole Litvak’s film gained Bergman an Academy Award for her performance and a nomination for composer Alfred Newman’s score, which was released at the time on Decca LP DL-8460.  Varese Sarabande reissued it in 1982 on LP (STV 81125) and 1993 on CD (VSD-5422), but Anastasia is currently out-of-print.  20th Century Fox remade the film in animated form in 1997, and none other than Alfred’s son David handled the scoring chores.

West Side Story: Original Broadway Cast Recording (Columbia, 1957 – reissued 1986, 1994 & 1998)

Arthur Laurents had his first Broadway success in 1945 with his play Home of the Brave, but it took over a decade before he had his name as author of a Broadway musical.  His book for West Side Story remains a benchmark in musical theatre, a model of economy and impact.  Initially conceived with Jerome Robbins (director/choreographer) and Leonard Bernstein (composer) as East Side Story, Laurents and Bernstein hit upon the notion of setting it in the up-to-the-minute world of juvenile delinquency.  Stephen Sondheim was brought on board for his Broadway debut as lyricist, and Larry Kert and Carol Lawrence were cast as Tony and Maria, the star-crossed lovers caught between gang rivalries.  Laurents ensured his book would be timeless by inventing his own jargon for the Jets and the Sharks, avoiding then-current slang and rooting it in the attitude and spirit of contemporary youth.  The libretto was seamlessly integrated with the pulsating, rhythmic score by Bernstein and Sondheim.  Columbia’s 1957 Original Broadway Cast Recording (OS 2001/OL 5230), produced by Goddard Lieberson, preserved the introduction of now-standards like “Somewhere,” “Maria,” “Tonight,” “America” and “Something’s Coming.”

This seminal recording was an early CD release in 1986.  It was reissued in 1994 as a MasterSound gold CD (CK 64119) for the audiophile market and again in 1998 by Columbia Broadway Masterworks (SK 60724), this time with a brace of symphonic dances from the score conducted by Bernstein as bonus tracks.  The 1961 film version spawned one of the most successful soundtrack albums of all time, spending 54 (!) weeks as Billboard’s No. 1 album.  It was reissued and expanded by Sony Broadway in 1992 (SK 48211) and again in 2004 by Sony Classical and Legacy (SK 89226); both editions feature slightly different track line-ups.  The Laurents-directed 2009 Broadway revival, incorporating Spanish language lyrics, also was recorded by Sony’s Masterworks Broadway division.

Gypsy: Original Broadway Cast Recording (Columbia, 1959 – reissued 1986, 1999 & 2009)

Ask a panel of musical theatre enthusiasts to name the greatest book to a musical of all time, and chances are your answer will be Gypsy.  Loosely based on the memoirs of Gypsy Rose Lee, Laurents’ 1959 “musical fable” isn’t only one of the most perfectly structured plays ever, but gave the theatre some of its best-remembered lines and phrases (“Sing out, Louise!”) plus the role often thought of as the musical female equivalent to King Lear.  Madame Rose, the role created by Ethel Merman, and reprised by Angela Lansbury, Tyne Daly, Bernadette Peters and Patti LuPone onstage and Rosalind Russell and Bette Midler onscreen, is a titanic creation in every way, the ultimate stage mother who is willing to turn her children into stars at any cost.  On Gypsy, Laurents reteamed with Sondheim and Robbins, and Jule Styne (“I Don’t Want to Walk Without You,” “Let It Snow”) joined the team as composer.  ASCAP’s composers and lyricists voted the score to Gypsy the greatest ever created for a Broadway musical, as well, so felicitously were its creators in tune with each other.  “Small World” became a hit song for Johnny Mathis, Frank Sinatra was among the artists to record “All I Need is the Girl” and “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” became part of the national lingo.  Perhaps best of all was “Rose’s Turn,” a theatrical nervous breakdown crafted by Styne and Sondheim from Laurents’ dramatic beats found in his script, most especially the line, “Momma, you’ve got to let go,” spoken by the long-neglected daughter of the insatiable stage mother.  The result may be the most dramatic song ever heard on a Broadway stage.  The original production, starring Merman, Jack Klugman and Sandra Church, was preserved on another Lieberson-produced cast recording at Columbia (OS 2017/OL 5420), which was reissued on CD in 1986 (CK 32607).

In 1999, producer Thomas Z. Shepard helmed an expanded reissue for Masterworks (SK 60848).  He added material to “Baby June and Her Newsboys”, “You Gotta Get a Gimmick” and “Let Me Entertain You” and more controversially, replaced portions of “All I Need is the Girl” and even Merman’s “Rose’s Turn” with alternate takes.  Rare demos were also included.  This edition was further expanded in 2009 for the musical’s 50th anniversary (88697-49406-2) with two spoken-word tracks from composer Styne and Gypsy Rose Lee herself.  While the extra material makes these reissues essential, the original recording remains the ultimate document of the show, and listeners should have held onto their copies of it.  All three of Laurents’ Broadway revivals have been captured on disc.  RCA Victor recorded Lansbury’s 1973 London production, Elektra preserved Tyne Daly’s 1989 performance, and Time Life recorded LuPone in 2008 in a deluxe edition with copious bonus material.  EMI’s Broadway Angel division was the label for Bernadette Peters’ 2003 revival, directed by Sam Mendes.  Laurents contributed enjoyable liner notes to the Angel release.  Readers may also take note of the two available soundtrack recordings.  Atlantic released the soundtrack to Bette Midler’s 1993 TV movie version (shot from Laurents’ own stage script) and Rhino expanded the original 1962 Warner Bros. film soundtrack with Rosalind Russell as a deluxe edition CD in 2003.

Anyone Can Whistle: Original Broadway Cast Recording (Columbia, 1964 – reissued 1986 & 2003)

After the success of West Side Story and Gypsy, it was only natural that Sondheim and Laurents would reteam.  Following Gypsy, Sondheim had made his Broadway debut as a composer/lyricist on A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, and it was in both capacities that he joined writer/director Laurents for an all-original musical, Anyone Can Whistle.  A stunningly contemporary piece that poked satirical fun at the establishment, Whistle depicted a corrupt mayoress who brings a miracle to her town, home to an insane asylum known as The Cookie Jar.  But the irreverent musical was too far ahead of its time to register on Broadway in 1964, and the production starring Angela Lansbury, Lee Remick and Harry Guardino closed after a mere 9 performances.  Sondheim observed, correctly, that it was “smart-ass,” “unconventional,” “inventive and, above all, playful.”

Columbia Records President Goddard Lieberson believed fervently in it, and produced the original cast recording despite the quick closing (KOS 2480/KOL 6080).  In years to come, this wild and wonderful musical has lived on thanks to Lieberson’s foresight.  The original CD reissue in 1988 (CK 2480) restored additional material to the lengthy “Cookie Chase” sequence and added “There Won’t Be Trumpets,” a song cut from the original production but recorded by Lieberson.  2003’s Columbia Broadway Masterworks reissue (SK 86860) enhanced this edition with a brace of five demos performed by Sondheim at the piano.  A 1995 concert version at Carnegie Hall starring Scott Bakula, Bernadette Peters and Madeline Kahn was also recorded by Columbia (CK 67224), and remains the most complete document of the score yet, and even features chunks of Laurents’ book, narrated by Angela Lansbury.

Do I Hear a Waltz?: Original Broadway Cast Recording (Columbia, 1965 – reissued Sony Broadway, 1992)

By all accounts, Do I Hear a Waltz? should have been a slam-dunk.  Its libretto was written by Laurents, based on his play The Time of the Cuckoo.  The music was by Richard Rodgers, still one of the most recorded composers circa 2011.  Lyrics were by Sondheim, making good on a promise to his late mentor and Rodgers’ long-term collaborator, Oscar Hammerstein II.  Waltz centered on one Leona Samish, an attractive if repressed American who goes on an Italian vacation, falls in love and learns more about herself than she could have imagined.  Rodgers enthused of the project, “Arthur, Steve and I decided that we would purposely avoid the cliches that we could easily fall into with a story about an American tourist in Venice.  We weren’t going to resort to tarantellas or a comic ballet featuring gondoliers…the story was touching and intimate, and this was exactly the way we planned to keep it.”  The marriage between Sondheim and Rodgers was an unhappy one, though, and Sondheim to this day regrets his involvement in the musical.  As Laurents later offered, “My first mistake, and a mistake to me personally, was talking Steve into working on the show.”  Rodgers clashed with both men, and director John Dexter’s contentious behavior didn’t help matters.  Still, the Lieberson-produced Columbia cast recording (KOS 2770/KOL 6370) reveals a delightful score.  Elizabeth Allen, Sergio Franchi and Stuart Damon starred, and jazz and Broadway legend Ralph Burns wrote the shimmering orchestrations .  From the joyous title song to the yearning “Moon In My Window” and lush, romantic “Take the Moment,” Rodgers and Sondheim created some beautiful music together, giving voice to the deep, complex characters created by Laurents.  Sony Broadway reissued the original album in 1992 (SK 48206).

In 1999, Arthur decided to take another look at his libretto, and the George Street Playhouse production was the result.  I remain proud of my involvement with David Saint’s reconceived production which firmly established Waltz as a poignant, wistful chamber musical.  Director David Lee, of television’s Frasier, became intrigued by Arthur’s revision created for Saint’s staging, and in 2001 mounted his own revival utilizing the new script.  Lee’s Pasadena Playhouse production was recorded by our good friend Bruce Kimmel for the Fynsworth Alley label (302 062 126 2) with additional new orchestrations by Steven Orich.  Do I Hear a Waltz? still remains a musical ripe for rediscovery.

Hallelujah, Baby!: Original Broadway Cast Recording (Columbia, 1967 – reissued Sony Broadway, 1992)

Though neither West Side Story or Gypsy won the Tony Award for Best Musical, 1967’s Hallejulah, Baby! ironically did.  An original conception of Laurents originally intended for his friend Lena Horne but eventually starring Leslie Uggams, Hallejulah, Baby! examined race relations in America from the turn of the century to the present day in a musical comedy framework.  The show focused on four principal characters who do not age but reflect the changing times.  Laurents turned to Gypsy’s Jule Styne and the legendary team of Betty Comden and Adolph Green (Singin’ in the Rain, On the Town) for the score.  Despite the authors’ good intentions, the musical became embroiled in a tumultuous try-out period.  Comden commented, “We never thought of ourselves as white people writing about black people, but then the militant movement started…we were looked on as quite suspect and it was sort of uncomfortable.”  Laurents added, “It all softened.  It got softer and softer and worse and worse.  I relearned the old lesson, ‘Fellows, what we started with is gone.  Let’s forget it.”  The musical opened in April 1967 and closed in January 1968 after 293 performances, leaving behind a cast album (KOS 3090/KOL 6690, produced by Ed Kleban, later the lyricist of A Chorus Line) showing off the often exciting and contemporary-tinged score.  It won its Tony Awards three months later.   Sony Broadway’s CD reissue of the original recording was released in 1992 (SK 48218). Arthur directed a revised, updated version of the musical at George Street Playhouse and Washington, DC’s Arena Stage in 2004.

The Way We Were: Original Soundtrack Recording (Columbia, 1973 – reissued 1993)

With his screenplay to The Way We Were, based on his own novel, Arthur Laurents created that rarest of films, one that is both timelessly romantic and socially relevant.  Sydney Pollack directed Barbra Streisand and Robert Redford as Katie Morosky and Hubbell Gardiner, she a vocal Marxist Jew and he a WASP with no particular political stance.  They fall passionately in love but by film’s end, are simply left with bittersweet memories of the way they were.  Laurents based his script on his own college days at Cornell University as well as his experiences with HUAC.  Marvin Hamlisch wrote the film’s score and also composed the title song with Alan and Marilyn Bergman.  The Columbia soundtrack recording (KS 32830) was a Top 20 album, and contains three versions of the title song (two sung by Streisand) though not the hit single version.  That recording of “The Way We Were” was a chart-topper for Streisand, remaining on the charts for 23 weeks, three of them at No. 1.  It appeared on the singer’s pop album of the same name.  Sony’s 1993 CD reissue (CK 57381) of the soundtrack was remastered from the original tapes; Hamlisch picked up two Academy Awards for his work on the film.  Laurents was nominated for the Writers Guild of America’s Award for Best Original Screenplay.

The Turning Point: Original Soundtrack (20th Century Fox, 1977)

1977’s The Turning Point reunited Laurents with the choreographer of Anyone Can Whistle, Herbert Ross, by then a successful film director.  Shirley MacLaine and Anne Bancroft starred as two friends in a ballet company; Dee Dee (MacLaine) leaves the company after becoming pregnant with the child of another dancer (Tom Skerritt) and founds a dance studio while Emma (Bancroft) stays on, becoming a prima ballerina.  Their reunion is spurred on when Dee Dee’s daughter is invited to join the company.  The Turning Point was nominated for eleven Academy Awards, including one for Arthur, although it picked up no trophies.  (It is tied with The Color Purple for the most nominations and no wins.)  20th Century Fox Records released a soundtrack album (T-549) of mainly classical pieces by Prokofiev, Chopin and Tchaikovsky, played by the Los Angeles Philharmonic under the baton of Lawrence Foster.  It has, alas, never been released on CD to date.

The Madwoman of Central Park West: Original Broadway Cast Recording (DRG, 1979 – reissued 1990)

Arthur Laurents described The Madwoman of Central Park West as “a semi-autobiographical one-woman musical play about surviving as a woman/wife/mother” and Phyllis Newman was the star, subject and co-writer with Laurents, who also directed.  This original musical comedy premiered in 1979 and featured a “who’s who” of songwriters, with the score culled from both original material and established songs: Peter Allen and Carole Bayer Sager, Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, Betty Comden and Adolph Green (Green was Newman’s husband), John Kander and Fred Ebb, Joe Raposo, Mary Rodgers and even Barry Manilow, via a Dietrich-styled take on “Copacabana.”  Another highlight was a “Women’s Medley” in which Newman took on songs most associated with the other sex, such as “There Is Nothin’ Like a Dame” and “Thank Heaven for Little Girls.”  This zany, singular musical was recorded by DRG, and released on CD in 1990 (CDSL 5212), though it’s unfortunately now out-of-print.

Nick & Nora: Original Broadway Cast Recording (TER, 1992)

The 1991 musical Nick & Nora was based on the Thin Man characters created by Dashiell Hammett, and in the words of its composer Charles (Bye Bye Birdie, Annie) Strouse, featured a “murderously witty” script by Arthur Laurents.   Strouse and Laurents, together with lyricist Richard Maltby Jr., devised a unique style for the show, combining song, dance, dialogue and constant underscoring, with extended musical sequences.  The unorthodox structure may have hampered audiences’ abilities to enjoy the musical whodunit, however, and Nick & Nora closed after 71 previews and only 9 performances.  It was far from a happy experience for its creators, but the talented cast – Barry Bostwick, Joanna Gleason, Christine Baranski, Faith Prince, Chris Sarandon and Debra Monk among them – reunited after the closing to record an original cast album for the TER label (TER 1191).  For the album, Strouse and Maltby refashioned their score into more traditional songs.  The result is a delightful, sophisticated listen.

Unsung Sondheim (Varese Sarabande, 1993)

Music from two of Arthur Laurents’ plays appeared on the 1993 collection Unsung Sondheim (VSD-5433).  Producer Bruce Kimmel, musical director James Stenborg and orchestrator Larry Moore premiered a number of unrecorded Sondheim compositions on this disc.  These world premieres included Sondheim’s incidental music from Laurents’ Invitation to a March (1960) and The Enclave (1973).  The former starred Celeste Holm, Eileen Heckart and a young Jane Fonda and was set outside two Long Island beach houses on the eve of a wedding.  One house is occupied by the bride, her mother and their houseguests, the groom and his well-to-do parents.  The other house is home to a woman and her son, who was sired in a long-ago affair with the groom’s father.  When everybody meets, tensions rise.  1973’s The Enclave was a risky and provocative gamble, concerning the residents of a Manhattan building who plan to inhabit it as their own private island in the city.  When one resident announces his plan to come out of the closet and live openly with his homosexual lover, however, their utopian dream is put to the test.  Sondheim’s music for Invitation is atmospheric, subtle and delicate, while he supplied a jagged, unsettling and tense series of cues for The EnclaveUnsung Sondheim also includes one song cut from Anyone Can Whistle, “There’s Always a Woman,” as performed by Kaye Ballard and Sally Mayes.

Nick & Nora marked Arthur Laurents’ final original Broadway musical, although he staged critically-acclaimed revivals of both Gypsy and West Side Story on the Great White Way in the new millennium.  He also remained a prolific playwright into his nineties, with new works produced at theatres such as George Street Playhouse and Boston’s Huntington Theatre Company.

One last personal memory: on the day of the closing performance of Do I Hear a Waltz? in 1999, I asked Arthur to inscribe a program for me.  He gladly agreed, and took the program and pen from my hand.  “To Joe,” he wrote, and then he paused.  “What would you like me to write?”  I let out a chuckle, but he continued, “No, seriously, what would you like me to write?”  I quipped, “You’re the award-winning playwright,” but he remained firm.  I then volunteered hopefully, “’Til the next time,” fervently wishing there would indeed be one.  Arthur nodded and obliged, writing, “’Til the next time.”  He then added in pen, “For both of us,” and signed his name.  And as always, Arthur Laurents was true to his word.

Written by Joe Marchese

May 9, 2011 at 13:29

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