Indeed, in our conversations, Laurents seemed to be steering a narrow mountain road between two overwhelming abysses: the pit of sadness on one side, and the sea of vitriol on the other. As the sadness, with its odor of sentimentality, repulsed him, so the vitriol attracted him; the combination made me wonder how he ever stayed on track—and explained why so many passengers had bolted.
Sondheim held on until a few years ago, when yet another Laurents jab appeared in an article. Sondheim declined to “stir up any goblins” by discussing specifics but said, “It’s not that I don’t talk to him—we have a working relationship. But the friendship is kaput, and we once were really close. I was the last long-term friend of his to say ‘enough already.’ The best part of our relationship was wonderful. He was a joy to write with. It was only when rehearsals started that the trouble began, especially if another director was involved. And he was always a great foul-weather friend: comforting, smart, a good guidance counselor. When I had my first serious love affair and it broke up, I was destroyed, and Arthur was one of the two people who steered me through the shoals. It’s when you’re miserable that he’s at his best. If you’re happy or, especially, successful—watch out. Arthur is the master of the imagined slight. I had the temerity to question some of the things he did to Gypsy when it transferred from City Center to Broadway—oy, was that a mistake. The screaming hasn’t stopped since.”
Most of Laurents’s other ex-friends plead the Fifth. Ellen Violett, a television writer, actually gasped when I mentioned Laurents’s name on the phone. She and her partner, the artist Mary Thomas, had palled around with Laurents and Hatcher for decades until Laurents did whatever he did; another ex-friend told me it involved a vicious dinner-party comment about Thomas’s career. In any case, they haven’t spoken since 2001, not even when Hatcher died. “I’m glad about his success, sad about Tom, and don’t wish to say one more word about it,” said Violett. Thomas wouldn’t speak at all.
Even the theater composer Mary Rodgers Guettel, no slouch in the candor department, went silent for a moment when asked about the long friendship she and her husband, Hank, shared with Laurents. Eventually, she dictated this statement for the record: “Call me back when he’s dead.”
That may take a while. Climbing to the mezzanine at the Palace and, later, moving about his 1852 West Village townhouse—where the walls are covered with art and the tables are encrusted with brass and crystal tchotchkes—Laurents looks preposterously fit. David Saint, his associate director on West Side Story, calls him a mountain goat. Sure enough, he had recently returned from a ski vacation in Megève with the director Harold Prince, one of his few old friends not in the cigar box. He has made little accommodation to age, and even while tinkering daily at the Palace was involved in casting a new play, called New Year’s Eve, which will begin rehearsals at the George Street Playhouse, in New Brunswick, New Jersey, two days before West Side Story opens. Another, called Come Back, Come Back, Wherever You Are, is waiting in the laptop; one glance at the screen saver—a photo of Laurents and Hatcher, looking happy and studly by a Hollywood pool in 1962—tells you what the play is about.
But everything is about that now. “Sometimes I just think my heart will break,” Laurents says. “And then I just get through it. I try to do what I know he would want. It’s why I’ve become so spiritual lately.”
He pauses to appreciate the imaginary gagging sounds of the theater community. “I know you are saying, ‘Arthur Laurents, spiritual?’ And it’s true, this is the kind of thing I would have scoffed at in the past. But loss gives you perspective on what’s important. I used to be upset when productions I thought were inferior got raves. Now, I think, like Rose, ‘That’s show business.’ I don’t have any need to respond anymore. I do care that the theater isn’t better. Where is the emotion? Sentimentality is an expensive substitute for emotion, but look at what gets attention on Broadway. Take a recent hit and an avant-garde cause célèbre: One is about ‘I’m going back home’ and one is about ‘I’m going back to mama.’ ” He seems to be describing In the Heights and Passing Strange but catches himself before driving off that cliff.
“The theater means a good deal less to me. I care about my few—and they are few—friends. I care about love.” Seeing my eyebrows lift, he adds, “Do you think I’m holding out on you? I’m not. This is who I am.”