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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.

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Written by Joe Marchese

May 9, 2011 at 13:29