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

1962: Laurents (right) with Tom Hatcher in Hollywood.  

Whether in print or in person, the barbs are well honed. (Truth, he writes, “doesn’t have to hurt, as those who don’t tell it profess to believe.”) The compliments are even sharper. (The producers of West Side Story, he tells me, “have been very good: They have not lived up to their reputations.”) A conversation with Laurents is dishy fun, as long as you aren’t worried about collateral damage. (An ex-friend: “He always wants to suck you into his malevolent opinions of someone; you have a choice to agree and feel hypocritical or disagree and get dropped.”) His mastery of the writer’s zoom lens for the unimprovable detail is always evident: the musical he and his partner, Tom Hatcher, took Laurents’s parents to see when they met—She Loves Me; the stack of “how to stop drinking” books on a table as martinis are served at eleven in the morning.

You hardly realize that while you were being distracted by such treats, the seducer has rotated his anecdotes 90 degrees; wherever they started, they now star him. And he knows exactly how to play the Robert Redford role of glamorous writer. His five years in the Army, he says, were partly spent “writing and drinking and screwing my head off” in a radio unit “created for me.” A story about his analysis ends up suggesting that Laurents himself is indirectly responsible for the removal of homosexuality from the American Psychiatric Association’s list of perversions.

If provocation is Laurents’s default mode, his life experience long ago taught him the value, and perhaps the necessity, of unashamedness. Even in the fifties he was audacious enough to put Hatcher—a drop-dead hunk of a model turned actor he met selling clothes at a Beverly Hills men’s store—in some of his plays. But living openly as a gay man (and a lefty atheist Jew to boot) was only the start of it. The same principle applied to politics: You didn’t pull punches, you didn’t cower, you didn’t live a lie. In 1949, when the State Department declined to renew his passport on suspicion of seditious associations, he refused to disown his views; rather, according to Original Story By, he wrote a treatise describing them at such length and so idiosyncratically that the bureaucrats surrendered. He proved he couldn’t have been a member of any group.

Moral certainty may be inherently suspect, but that doesn’t mean it’s always misapplied. A stopped crock is right twice a day. For Laurents, the perfect excuse for his venom came in the convenient and recurring form of Robbins, perhaps the only theater legend with a more poisonous reputation. (Robbins was so disliked for his sadistic antics that the company of the musical Billion Dollar Baby watched silently as he backed up toward the orchestra pit—and fell in.) To condemn Robbins was not just a responsibility but a pleasure: He had named names before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1953. Yes, he believed he would be outed and blacklisted if he didn’t—but Laurents, who was blacklisted, didn’t buy that excuse. In her biography of the choreographer, Amanda Vaill relates the story of the two men sitting in Robbins’s apartment after the testimony; when Robbins muses that it would be years before he knew whether he’d done the right thing, Laurents says, “I can tell you right now, you were a shit.”

But the two men’s poisons seemed to neutralize each other, at least enough to allow them to collaborate, contentiously but brilliantly, on West Side Story and Gypsy. And it’s no accident that these are the two shows with which Laurents has made his late-inning Broadway comeback. For one thing, they’re the only shows he has any power over that are likely to be produced there; no one is clamoring to mount a megarevival of his 1945 debut drama, Home of the Brave. But West Side Story and Gypsy also represent Laurents’s last and best chance to rewrite theatrical history—now with better billing.

But how do you undo a legend? Laurents’s most recent revisiting of Gypsy—he also directed the 1974 revival with Angela Lansbury and the 1989 revival with Tyne Daly—largely involved adjustments at the margins. He made cuts, tweaked the ending, did excellent work with the actors, and, perhaps less successfully, replaced the live lamb with a Bunraku puppet. And even though the songs, to my ear, seemed madly rushed, as if to get past Styne’s (and Sondheim’s) contributions as quickly as possible, the critics raved: Laurents was hot again at 90. Still, when the possibility of reviving West Side Story arose, he wasn’t interested if the brief was merely to polish a trophy. Unless he could melt it down and make it new, he didn’t want to do it at all.