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When You’re a Shark You’re a Shark All the Way

In the fifties, with West Side Story and Gypsy, Arthur Laurents made theatrical history. Later he became famous for his lacerating tongue. At 91, both he and it are having a comeback.


Theater people are always saying awful things about Arthur Laurents. One popular story has him expressing his displeasure over a rehearsal of the original West Side Story, for which he wrote the book, by pissing on the set. Another has him making a belated entrance at a panel discussion, draped in mink and announcing, “Behold, a living legend!”—to which Stephen Sondheim, also on the panel, supposedly retorted, “Wrong on both counts.” That these stories are almost certainly untrue (the former sounds more like Jerome Robbins; the latter like Leonard Bernstein) only emphasizes the degree to which Laurents’s actual antics attract them. In any case, he laughs them off—“What kind of asshole would say things like that?”—but doesn’t seem to mind the notoriety; as the name Dorothy Parker once validated a witticism, his name now authenticates an outrage.

That’s partly because, at 91, Laurents is one of the few left standing from the theater’s golden age of bad behavior. As well-known as he is for his writing, he is almost better known for his wronging. Straight people he believes to be gay have found themselves outed. Marriages he deems inconveniently convenient have been publicized as such. Even questions of paternity are not beyond his purview. And then, when he really gets going, beware. People who don’t conform to his narrative may find that they’re no longer in it. Especially when the subject is theater. On January 11, after the final performance of the revival of Gypsy he’d directed, he stood impassively during the curtain call as star Patti LuPone took a moment to acknowledge, in memoriam, both Jerome Robbins, who’d staged the 1959 original, and Jule Styne, who’d written the score. LuPone did so because Laurents, according to someone who was there, wouldn’t even “share applause with a dead man.”

That sharing problem was finessed six weeks later at the dress rehearsal for the current West Side Story revival. Robbins (whose 1957 billing credited him with choreographing, directing, and conceiving the show) was still dead, as was Bernstein, who’d written the score; Sondheim, the lyricist, was out of town, and the cast featured no stars. When the orchestra finished tuning up, Laurents, having revised his book and directed the production with the aim of reinventing it, stepped out from behind the curtain at the Palace—alone. The roar of the standing ovation seemed to blow him back at first; he is not unaware that many people, even those who don’t know him, think he’s “a mean, ornery son of a bitch,” as Larry Kramer put it in a rather loving piece he was asked to write for a 2002 tribute. (The piece was rejected.) But he quickly adjusted to being the toast of Broadway, an institution he often, and not behind its back, calls Chernobyl.

It was possible to believe, in that moment, that this self-styled Cassandra of the Rialto was the most adored man in theater. Admittedly, the invited audience was riddled with investors, friends of the cast, and others with an interest in the success of the $14 million revival. (It opens on Thursday.) Some were surely applauding the marvel of his vitality after a substantial life’s work: the books of those two classic musicals, among several others; more than a dozen plays, still being produced; a handful of directing successes, including the original Broadway production of La Cage aux Folles; and the screenplays for movies like Rope and The Way We Were. But there were also, no doubt, some who stood pro forma, fearing that if they didn’t, he would somehow, with his eagle eye for betrayal, hunt them down.

Once hunted, the kill is often swift. Kramer describes arguments with Laurents as “slam, bam, thank you ma’am” affairs that leave the victim reeling. (He can’t even recall what most of their fights were about.) But sometimes the kill is long, torturous—and in print. Several people volunteered to let me read (if not quote from) furious but beautifully phrased letters they’d received: the work, as one recipient put it, of a “vicious troublemaker.”

Anyone lacking such documentation can instead read Laurents’s score-settling 2000 memoir, Original Story By, or its just-published follow-up, Mainly on Directing. Billed as an inside look at the director’s role, the new book offers plenty of negative examples (Sam Mendes, Robert Wise, Harold Clurman) but very few positive ones (mostly Laurents himself). “Neophyte,” “shameless,” “Führer,” “disgusting,” “sentimental slop,” and “coked out of his head” are some of the gifts distributed to stingy producers, feckless collaborators, disloyal designers, and dim-witted actors. It isn’t ad hominem; Laurents seems less concerned with who you are than what you do. Praised on one page, Jerry Mitchell gets the lash on another. But Mendes, whose crime was directing the Bernadette Peters Gypsy in 2003, gets the electric chair throughout. Well, not quite: Laurents waits one whole sentence before insulting him.

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