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

2009: Karen Olivo as Anita and George Akram as Bernardo in the new revival.  

“It was Steve [Sondheim] and the Bernstein kids who wanted every note and every vamp and every word untouched,” he says. “What it comes down to is that even in this age of Obama, they basically don’t want change. The Bernstein estate was the worst. They’d say things like ‘Bars 75 through 81a have been omitted, and we want them back.’ But theater music is written for theater, and if you would like to stage it, you are welcome to come in and do so. They’re just pedants. Archivists.”

Laurents actually got his way fairly often, but Alexander Bernstein, responding for the composer’s heirs, would not take the bait. “We think that Arthur has done a superb job of reconceiving and directing the show,” he said. “He is an artist of convictions and has the courage to fight for them.”

“ ‘It’s a classic,’ they say,” says Laurents. “Well, so I hear. But the three previous revivals were all replicas, and all failed. That’s no accident. The original was about dancing and singing. This West Side Story is about what it was always meant to be about but wasn’t. This one”—he pauses as if issuing a challenge—“is all about love.”

“It’s when you’re miserable that he’s at his best,” says Stephen Sondheim. “If you’re happy or, especially, successful—watch out.”

Laurents maintains that Robbins’s credit for the conception of West Side Story was a case of overreaching. The gang element, he says, was his own idea, arising from news reports he’d been reading about Chicano riots in Los Angeles. Fifty years later, and ten years after Robbins’s death, the two men still seem to be enacting their Jacob-and-Esau battles. In the current revival, Robbins’s work takes the brunt of the changes. Yet it is Robbins’s estate, as Laurents admits, that has been “most accommodating.” For Robbins is that curious case of an artist who makes it into the pantheon without ever making it out of the doghouse. Laurents’s attacks on him, and some would say on his work, are in that sense innocuous: too little, too late. Robbins’s West Side Story will survive his revisions, even if they are improvements.

But Laurents’s attacks on those nearer by have done permanent damage. At his beach house in Quogue, photos of friends once lined a wall; as people fell into disfavor, their pictures were stashed in a large cigar box. “Oh, I’ve been cigar-boxed again!” became shorthand for Laurents’s rearrangements of his circle—but that, he protests, was 50 years ago. “Why are they still talking about it?”

Perhaps because it’s crowded in that box. He has lost many of his oldest friends—and not quietly. His public dismissals, epistolary upbraidings, and gleeful pans were like atomic bombs detonated on relationships already weakened by too many cycles of betrayal and rapprochement. Laurents doesn’t deny that he was usually the bomb-dropper; it’s the nature of the bombs he disputes. “What other people call mean,” he says, “I call telling the truth unguardedly.”

Laurents does not have, as most of us do, two truths: one in private and one for dress-up. Admirably, he has but one; the question is whether it’s true. “It’s only what he thinks,” says Kramer. “And he doesn’t say it to be truthful but to wound and to shock.” In any case, Laurents proceeds from a basic trust in his own convictions, let friends fall where they may. “If I worried about being thought well of, I’d have shot myself by now,” he says. “I guess I’m blocking or denying, but relationships I’ve had that have broken up—I forget them. You only have so much heart and time in life, and you waste your energy being angry, as I used to. And by the way, I’m just as honest with myself as I am with anyone else.”

Perhaps, in a touching way, even more so. No press or document I can find has ever let on, as some people told me, that the author of the play My Good Name was actually born Arthur Levine.

“True,” he says flatly—the only time I see him flinch. “I changed it to get a job. But that we don’t talk about.”

Not, it seems, because the change itself is embarrassing to a man who sees his standards of honesty as fundamental and exacting. (Many Jews, especially in the arts, have reimagined their names: Robbins was born Rabinowitz.) Rather, his reluctance seems more primal, recalling to memory the virulent anti-Semitism of his Brooklyn youth: the drive-by hooligans shouting out “sheeny” as he stood at a trolley stop, shaded by a tree, in his first pair of long pants. But the memory stopped there. The teary past, he says, doesn’t interest him; even during his time in analysis, he rarely brought up his childhood, despite such ripe figures as an embracing father, a difficult mother, and a sickly sister. “I don’t want to know that maybe there’s something really askew with me,” he says. “It makes it easier to live, I’ll tell you that.”