Arthur Laurents, Tony-Winning Playwright-Screenwriter, Dies at 93

Arthur Laurents with Chita Rivera in 2009
Arthur Laurents with Chita Rivera in 2009
 Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images

Arthur Laurents, who penned the librettos for Broadway classics West Side Story and Gypsy as well as screenplays including The Way We Were and The Turning Point, died Thursday of pneumonia complications in Manhattan. He was 93.

Laurents also was an accomplished director during a more than 70-year career that began with radio plays in college and continued through the 2009 Main Stem revival of West Side Story he directed. He won Tony Awards as author of the book for best musical Hallelujah, Baby! in 1968 and best director (musical) for La Cage aux Folles in 1984.

He was best known in Hollywood for his acclaimed scripts for The Way We Were (1973), which featured the romantic chemistry of its characters as played by Robert Redford and Barbra Streisand, and Turning Point (1977) — which he also produced — the story of a lifelong friendship between two women played by Shirley MacLaine and Anne Bancroft. He earned best picture and original screenplay Oscar nominations and a WGA Award for Turning Point.

The movies’ box office and critical popularity served notice of Laurents’ strong skill in creating well-rounded female characters.

Laurents was born July 14, 1918, in Brooklyn. He studied at Cornell and received his B.A. in English in 1937. During college, he performed in a satirical nightclub revue and wrote radio plays for series including The Thin Man.

He enlisted in the Army in 1941 and worked on military training films, as well as writing radio scripts for such service programs as The Man Behind the Gun and Assignment Home. He distinguished himself during World War II, winning a Variety radio award in 1945 for his script The Face, a drama about a maimed veteran’s rehab.

While researching for Assignment Home, Laurents visited veterans hospitals and began work on his first play, Home of the Brave, about a veteran’s amnesia. It opened on Broadway in 1945, winning critical praise. The play garnered him a grant from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and UA released a film adaptation by Carl Foreman in 1949.

During the early 1950s, Laurents began work on a contemporary musical based on Romeo and Juliet with Leonard Bernstein. Stephen Sondheim was signed to write the lyrics, and West Side Story became a sizzling, gigantic hit when it opened in 1957.

Laurents was widely praised for his book for the project, including a rave from The New York Times that called his contribution “the essential one.” He shared a Tony nom for best musical for the production.

After a successful two-year run on Broadway, the musical was adapted into a film and won 10 Oscars including best picture. West Side Story enjoyed many subsequent revivals as a musical, including a Broadway production directed by Laurents that ran from March 2009 through January and is touring the U.S.

Propelled by the success of West Side Story, Laurents went on to collaborate with Sondheim and Jule Styne on Gypsy (1959), which starred Ethel Merman as Gypsy’s titanic stage mother. Laurents’ writing was hailed by Kenneth Tynan as “an exemplary mixture of gaiety, warmth and critical intelligence.”

Laurents shared Tony noms for best musical for West Side Story and Gypsy but lost to, respectively, The Music Man and The Sound of Music and Fiorello! (which tied in 1960).

He also was Tony-nominated as best director (musical) for Gypsy revivals in 1975 and 2008 and directed such other Broadway fare as I Can Get It for You Wholesale (1962), which marked Streisand’s Main Stem debut as an overworked, unsung secretary, and 1991’s Nick & Nora.

He was given a National Board of Review career achievement award for screenwriting, and many of his plays were published in 2004 as Selected Plays of Arthur Laurents.

His play The Time of the Cuckoo, which starred Shirley Booth as an American single woman who finds romance with a married Italian shopkeeper while on holiday, was a hit and served as the basis of the 1955 motion picture Summertime, starring Katharine Hepburn.

Laurents divided his talent between movies and the stage during the 1950s. He wrote the movie adaptation of Rope (1948) for Alfred Hitchcock and screenplays for Otto Preminger’s Bonjour Tristesse (1958) and Anastasia (1956), starring Ingrid Bergman as the heir to the Romanov fortune.

He also wrote such Broadway plays as The Bird Cage (1950), A Clearing in the Woods (1957) and Invitation to a March (1960) and the books for Main Stem musicals including Anyone Can Whistle (1964) and Do I Hear a Waltz? (1965).

More offbeat, Laurents wrote The Enclave, which opened in Boston in 1973 with its plot centered on a tony New York housing unit that has its liberal sensibilities challenged by a gay tenant and his lover.

Actor Farley Granger revealed in his 2007 memoir Include Me Out: My Life From Goldwyn to Broadway that he was bisexual and had an affair with Laurents. Granger died March 30. Laurents was predeceased by his partner of more than 50 years, Tom Hatcher.

 

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