Certainly, the young company of West Side Story adores him; they treat him as an embracing father—“or grandfather, or great-grandfather,” Saint says. But this lovable Laurents is hard to square with the one on display in Mainly on Directing. Despite what Laurents has described as good-faith efforts to strip the book of viciousness, you could hardly blame Sam Mendes if he felt that the strip job didn’t go far enough. Mendes, who staged several successful musicals at London’s Donmar Warehouse, which he ran until 2002, is repeatedly called unfit for Broadway because his work on Gypsy proved he doesn’t have “the musical in his bones.” The epithet is never defined, but that’s the point. “You either got it or you ain’t,” Laurents concludes, quoting Sondheim’s lyric for “Rose’s Turn.” And “he didn’t got it.”
Mendes, who may originally have incurred Laurents’s wrath by declining to produce two of his plays at the Donmar, said in an e-mail message: “I do not wish to comment on Arthur Laurents, despite the many opportunities recently afforded me.” Perhaps he prefers the box office to comment for him; Mendes’s Gypsy was seen by 100,000 more people than saw Laurents’s and grossed $6 million more.
But from a theater-lover’s perspective, the key facts are that both productions had wonderful moments and neither recouped its investment. It’s all musical chairs on a sinking ship. When the tune stops, who cares who’s left enthroned at the bottom of the ocean?
Laurents has been writing for almost 70 years. Home of the Brave appeared in an anthology of great plays of the forties alongside The Skin of Our Teeth and All My Sons. But as Wilder and Miller—and Williams and Inge and, later, Albee and Mamet—became part of the canon, Laurents was left holding only West Side Story and Gypsy, collaborations in which he’d taken a back seat to Robbins or Bernstein or Styne, if not Sondheim. “So now he’s trying to bring the spotlight back to his own work by minimizing the contributions of the others,” says one ex-friend. “He’s Rose at the climax of Gypsy, bellowing ‘Someone tell me, when is it my turn?’ ”
According to this interpretation, the accident of longevity has given Laurents a platform on which to portray himself as the primary author and sole savior of works that were severely limited by the conventions of their era. In other words, he’s rewriting the history of the American musical theater—and saying, with Rose, “this time for me.”
Laurents is not impressed by the theory. “I don’t care about what prize I get or whether I’m in somebody’s collected works. I don’t worry about the past or think about posterity. I live in the now. Some of those writers—Williams, Inge—when they had failures, they went to pieces. But I went, ‘Okay, here’s another.’ Which is good for you. People are quite disbelieving about all of this, but that’s the way I am. I get angry; I get over it. Apparently others don’t.”
Is this the equanimity of the deranged or of the only honest person in the thin-skinned world of Chernobyl? Either way, it’s equanimity. Many old men become incontinent; perhaps Laurents is living in reverse. David Saint, who describes Laurents as his best friend, and who has been living in the West Village townhouse with him during West Side Story rehearsals, says he actually sees Laurents button his lip from time to time. But he’s not sure that’s an improvement.
“When I was first offered a script of Arthur’s”—Saint is the artistic director at George Street, which has produced eight of Laurents’s plays—“everyone warned me he eats directors for breakfast. And it took me a few years to get used to the fact that he could come see a play and, literally as he’s coming down the aisle, say, ‘David, it’s a piece of shit.’ You sort of have to wipe that off your face, but then, after you talk to him about it awhile, you see that he understood why you did it, he doesn’t think you’re an idiot, and he acknowledges the positive parts of it. Which is the opposite of what most people do: say they love something and then, over time, let you know they didn’t. Is that better?”
Indeed, his ex-friends and fuming colleagues admit that no one ever offered more incisive feedback on their work. If they miss it, too bad; he’s moved on. As beautifully psychological as the book of Gypsy is, Laurents isn’t interested in reviewing his own behavior. He’s only interested in continuing to have behavior. “When he gets the mail every day, he opens every letter and answers immediately,” Saint says. “He opens every bill and pays it. He can’t put anything off. When I try to be diplomatic, he says to me, ‘David, if you just get it out, it’s much better, because if you get something out, it’s gone.’ ”
And look how far being undiplomatic has got him: if not all the way to the pantheon, at least to its suburbs. What must be galling is to have seen those who were hypocrites, like Robbins, or who lived (in his view) less-honest lives, step so easily through gates kept shut against him, as if he really were every disreputable thing the world of his youth tried to peg him as: sheeny, commie, dirty fag.
“I don’t think anger is a very deep emotion,” he says. “I think pain is.” He is talking about West Side Story but the thought applies to Gypsy as well. One is about the pain of love in a world of hate, the other about the pain of not being noticed. Whether they are both in that sense autobiographical is something one doesn’t ask Arthur Laurents—let alone Arthur Levine.