Arthur Laurents: A collected tribute
Arthur Laurents, librettist of West Side Story and Gypsy, and Broadway director died May 5 in his Manhattan home at age 93. He leaves behind a career legacy that changed musical theater forever, but more importantly, contributed to moments that will always live in theatergoers’ hearts. Stage Rush asked readers to submit their cherished memories connected with Laurents’ work and describe how his contribution to the arts affected them. Here is a collected tribute to Arthur Laurents from the people his work touched most—the audience.
If Arthur Laurents had written the libretto for just West Side Story or Gypsy, it would be a great accomplishment. The fact that he was the author of both forever cements his legacy in the world of American musical theatre. The closing performance of the 2003 revival of Gypsy remains one of the most important experiences of my life (for a variety of reasons), and has in many ways led to who I am and where I am this very day. For that, I am eternally grateful.
—Kevin Daly, Theatre Aficionado at Large
When I saw Gypsy in 2008, I truly understood for the first time that this show was an honest-to-God classic.
—Matt Orell, via Facebook
I met Arthur Laurents one time in New York City. I was 15 and I have been in love with his work since I saw West Side Story at age 7. I don’t remember the name of the restaurant, but he was having dinner with a few people when my aunt and I walked into the restaurant. Needless to say, I was really exited and my aunt thought I was crazy. I was determined to say hi, so after a while, I saw that his table was getting ready to leave, so I walked up to him, to my aunt’s dismay. I told him I loved his plays and his work on musicals most of all. He said he was surprised someone my age would like his stuff (he actually said “stuff”!). I was amazed, and before I could realize what I was saying, I asked if I could get a hug and a kiss, and he said yes! So I got a kiss and a hug from Arthur Laurents!
Some people sit on their butts / Got the dream yeah but not the guts / That’s living for some people I suppose / Well they can stay and rot / But not Rose! Sing these lyrics tomorrow night! Mr. Laurents, thanks for a perfect song!
—Lynne Andrus Wright, via Facebook
I’m in awe of all the wonders Arthur Laurents wrote for Broadway and films. He worked with the greats because he was great himself. His libretto for West Side Story was edgy and sympathetic. My parents wouldn’t let me see that show because the Jets said “Krup you” to Officer Krupke—and they knew I’d figure out what was really meant. That was the start of my teenage rebellion. I’m still angry about that censorship. But the main reason I am forever grateful to Mr. Laurents is for his direction of the show I Can Get It For You Wholesale. It was Barbra Streisand’s debut on Broadway and her first showstopper! She had standing O’s when she sang “Miss Marmelstein.”
In 2009, West Side Story was the first show I saw on Broadway. With a group of wide-eyed college students, we were amazed by the dazzling choreography and vigorous music throughout the entire show. Later, I found out that the director of that production was also the original book writer, the legendary Arthur Laurents. The director of my school program took us to that show because it was a bi-lingual production, combining Spanish and English in both the songs and dialogue. Laurents suggested that element so that the Sharks would seem more authentic and the musical would become more ethnically integrated. Although I didn’t speak a word of Spanish and sat high up in the balcony, I was greatly touched by the passion that radiated through the music and the moves. I wasn’t fortunate enough to see more works by Mr. Laurents, but what I had seen were gems in my memory. At his age, Mr. Laurents had become a symbol in the theatrical world. He was directing the revival of Gypsy at the same time the West Side Story revival was in the works. However, beyond theater, he also wrote the screenplay for Rope. Being a life-long Alfred Hitchcock fan, I was astonished when I found out. Rope is one of the most intense movies I’ve ever seen. It seems that the passing of this legend ends an era on Broadway. Yet the stories he created as well as his legacy is never paused, for the theater world is a living organism that constantly reinvents itself and breathes with new life, constantly gains old legends new fans. But more importantly, I’m glad that what Laurents created long ago is still attracting new audiences today and does not seem dated at all. It’s something magical, yet not surprising.
West Side Story is one of my all-time favorite musicals. I can go on and on about how much I love the characters, the setting, the music, the way Arthur Laurents seamlessly modernized a classic tale. But what I love most about this tragic love story (my favorite kind, by the way) is actually the song “America.” As an immigrant myself, I can completely relate to the sentiments in this song. Living here is a blessing, but I am sometimes overwhelmed with a sense of nostalgia when I think of where I came from. Funnily enough, my parents have this conversation occasionally—with my Cuban dad playing the role of nostalgic Rosalia and my Russian mom playing “we came here for a good reason” Anita. Whenever I miss home (either the house where I spent the latter part of my childhood in Florida, my grandmother’s house and my birth place in Russia, or my faint memories of beautiful beaches in Cuba), I always listen to this song. It is amazing to me how Laurents perfectly captured the ever-lasting dilemma of someone who chose to come to America—missing your language, customs and traditions but knowing that you came here to live in a better place. I feel like Laurents was in my heart when he wrote this, and for that I will always be grateful. Peace to him now.
—Irina Gonzalez, The Fit Flexitarian
It was 2005 and my friends and I were freshman at Temple University. On a Friday night, which always consisted of takeout dinner and board games in our dorm, it came up in conversation that some of us had never seen the film West Side Story (myself included). Magically, one of my friends dove into her DVD collection and emerged with a copy of the movie. While the usual practice was to chatter during a movie, the five of us sat in silence as the context of the songs we were all familiar with merged with the story, which we were not. I remember feeling chills rush through my body when Tony and Maria sang “One Hand, One Heart,” and a shocking jolt when Maria so boldly confronted the rival gangs at the end of the film. My friends and I must have watched a few hundred movies throughout our college years, but the night we watched West Side Story in transfixed silence stands out among them. The fact that Arthur Laurents’ 44-year-old movie could make a group of hungry, gabby college students shut up for two hours—that’s quite a testament to the work. Even sweeter was the discussion and swooning over the songs that we did after.
—Jesse North, Stage Rush
When I heard Arthur Laurents had died, it upset me more than I ever thought it would. I’d never actually met him and he was 93, so he lived a full life. But he is one of those musical theater legends who seemed would always be around. He pissed a lot of people off, but I loved and admired that he spoke his mind. When I think of Arthur Laurents, I think of West Side Story, one of my favorite musicals (I won’t hold it against him that he directed the extremely disappointing revival). I’ve heard complaints about his book for West Side Story, that that’s not how gang members would talk, but gang members probably wouldn’t sing and dance either. There is a scene in the film of West Side Story after the rumble (I’m pretty sure it’s in the stage version too, and I hope I’m correct that Laurents actually wrote this), where Baby John is crying and A-Rab says, “I wish it was yesterday.” Every time we watch it, my mom comments on what a great line that is because that’s exactly how a person feels when something bad happens. Thank you for your contributions to musical theater, Arthur Laurents. You will be missed.
—Linda Buchwald, Pataphysical Science
What are your favorite memories tied to Arthur Laurents’ work, Rushers? Did any of the tributes here reflect your own? Leave your thoughts on the comments below.