Losing Arthur Laurents

A theatre legend's passing marks the end of an era

I expect any theatre lover will know his name quite well – because Arthur Laurents has been a legend in America theatre (and film) for decades. But even those who may not share quite the same passion for the stage and screen (or who are remiss to read the Playbill or end credits), Laurents was responsible for many famous shows, like West Side Story, Gypsy and La Cage aux Folles, the last of which is enjoying a successful revival on Broadway right now starring Harvey Fierstein.

When I read today that Laurents had died at the age of 93 – no small feat considering he was an openly gay man who lived through the early AIDS crisis when so many others were dying too soon from what seemed like such a mysterious disease – I couldn’t help but wonder if his passing somehow signals the end of an era. Even up until recently, Laurents was working in the business, tied to a rumored production of Gypsy starring none other than Barbra Streisand as Mama Rose. He also directed several other revivals of the hit musical starring Patti LuPone, Bernadette Peters and Tyne Daly over the years.

There was a certain sentimentality to his work, but also a seriousness, that will leave an indelible mark on the arts for generations to come. In fact, when I was a high school student toying with the idea of one day becoming a playwright, I wrote a letter to Laurents, never truly expecting to receive a reply. But what a surprise when I opened up an envelope to discover not only a note of encouragement, but also a signed glossy (he was a handsome man and knew it) that I still keep tucked away in my desk drawer.

A decade ago, Laurents also penned a very candid autobiography – Original Story By – that weaves its way through his early years as a screenwriter and through his affairs and Tony-winning moments. Anyone who A.) loves theatre, B.) enjoys a testimony of the creative process, and C.) enjoys a gay kiss-and-tell, should read this book. What even the most astute theatre folks may not know is that Laurents wrote several classic films, like Hitchcock’s Rope in 1949 with no shortage of homoerotic subtext, as well as The Way We Were in 1973 starring Barbra Streisand and Robert Redford (it was based on a novel he wrote with the same name), and the lesser-known The Turning Point, a ballet drama with Anne Bancroft and Shirley MacLaine from 1977 long before there would ever be a Black Swan.

His book also discussed his experiences in the army as a gay man during the 1940s. He was linked to many famous men, including Farley Granger and Tom Hatcher, his partner for more than 50 years, who passed away just five years ago.

The New York Times published Laurents’ obituary, which sums up his professional and personal life very well. But for people like me who have spent much of their own lives enjoying his work, no summary – however eloquent – could come close to expressing the impact he’s had on the arts in America and around the world.

And anyone who’s ever picked up a pen or tapped the keys would appreciate Laurents’ respect for the craft. He once described writers as “the chosen people.” And in his case, that was certainly the truth.

He will be missed.