Arthur Laurents Will Not Go Quietly

3.16.2010

By Mickey Rapkin

Over six decades in the theater, Arthur Laurents -- who wrote the celebrated books to Gypsy and West Side Story -- has earned a reputation for honesty. Well, that's one word for it. He called Sydney Pollack an asshole. He said Ethel Merman couldn't act. Sam Mendes? He doesn't have the musical in his bones.

Perhaps Laurents has earned the right to speak his mind. At 91, while Broadway's old guard is dead or in diapers, he's doing some of the best work of his life. His revelatory revival of West Side Story -- in which the Sharks speak (gasp!) Spanish -- recouped its $14 million investment in just 30 weeks and is still regularly selling out a full year after opening night.

But now comes word of a third memoir, still being written, in which Laurents is said to be putting away his poison pen and apologizing for old sins. That take-stock reflection comes with nearing the century mark. Or maybe it's more than that. In 2006, Laurents lost his partner of 52 years, Tom Hatcher. That devastation will level a man. Here, in a two-hour conversation that took place in his West Village townhouse, Laurents discusses the state of Broadway ('Chernobyl!'), Obama's disservice to the gay community, and why he doesn't expect much from April's revival of La Cage aux Folles.

Out: When the new West Side Story opened a year ago, the hook was that the Sharks spoke Spanish. This was a West Side Story for the Obama generation! Yet you recently changed some lyrics back to English. Why?
Arthur Laurents: It's hard to be tactful.

Well, you're famous for your honesty.
I've also been attacked for it. I'll say this: I realized that we had to put in more English for the audience. Josefina [Scaglione, who plays Maria] protested the changes. She was vehemently against putting any lyrics back into English. But then, a couple of months ago, she came to see me and she said, 'Can we put 'I Feel Pretty' into English?' I said, 'Why?' She said, 'Every time I start to sing in Spanish I hear the audience go, 'Uch.' '

Funny. I suppose tourists want to see the movie on stage. Meanwhile, there were reports of backstage drama. The principal actors were calling in sick so often you had to give the company a dressing down.
There's an Equity ruling -- a thing called a personal day. It's a question of whether you take advantage of it. When we did Gypsy with Patti LuPone, no one ever took a personal day, because I think she would have killed them. There was one performance of West Side Story where 11 people were out. We have replacements in this cast now that have given the show a new jolt. And some of them are better than the originals.

OK. Let's talk for a minute about the original West Side Story team. Leonard Bernstein was gay but married to a woman. Jerome Robbins was gay but used to call Larry Kert (who played Tony) a 'faggot' in rehearsal. You've got Sondheim who, well, he had his own issues with his sexuality. There's a great anecdote in your first book where Tom Hatcher asks you if Sondheim is gay and you say --
'I don't think he's anything.'

Did the four of you socialize at night?
I knew Jerry for years. We were old friends. But we didn't go out. I didn't travel in theater circles much.

Why not?
First of all, it's like living in a ghetto. You know? I didn't want to have a house on Fire Island, either. The other thing is, Tom and I lived together, and they were just terrible to him.

Why?
Because I had some kind of name and who the hell was he? Much more, he was incredibly good-looking.

How did you feel when Jerome Robbins called Larry Kert a faggot?
I was angry. A lot of people were angry because Jerry was humiliating Larry. But people who didn't live then didn't know what it was like. You had to live with a lot you didn't like.

Did you ever say to Bernstein, 'Come on, Lenny? You're gay. Stop all this nonsense'?
The closest I ever came to anything like that was at a gay New Year's Eve party. Lenny was there, and I said to him, 'You have no business being here.' It was very sanctimonious of me and really none of my business. But I thought it was hypocrisy. Lenny didn't care. He laughed.

There's nothing outrageous left in New York. The city feels so sterile. What did my generation miss?
It seems to me today that there's no passion. It was all much more romantic then. It wasn't as easy. A lot of people got off on the forbidden, the furtiveness. When gay liberation came -- with these trucks where everybody had sex -- I had a big argument with this guy named Steve Ashkenazi. You can't forget that name. I said, 'I don't think having anonymous sex in trucks is gay liberation.'

To be fair, you certainly weren't a prude.
Well, you know, sex is a very personal thing. The other day I was talking to somebody about this new book I'm writing, and I said, 'I was going to write that I was oversexed.' But I won't now. I think that people who are healthy have good sex -- with a lot of variety to it.

You write that you knew, at age 7, that you were gay. How?
The kid across the street -- it was a Catholic family -- he was my best friend. He said to me, 'I'll kiss yours if you'll kiss mine.' And I knew. That simplified things.

You served in the military during World War II. What was that like for you? Did you have to hide your sexuality?
I was sent by mistake to Fort Benning, Ga. The first morning, the captain or the major or whoever did roll call was calling for this guy Ellis. 'Ellis! Ellis!' And out of the barracks he said, 'Hold your water, Mary.' And nobody blinked! Ellis was a long drink of water from New Orleans, and he was one of the biggest queens I've ever seen in my life. And they all loved him. But they didn't think he was gay for two reasons. First, nobody that obvious could be gay. It was like an Agatha Christie mystery. The one who couldn't have committed the murder -- that's the one who did it. And the other reason is he was a drunk. Well, if you were a drunk you were a man.

Was there much sex between soldiers?
Not that I knew of. I was so terrified. Even if it was in front of me I wouldn't have looked. But I'll tell you, in New York in wartime, everything was rationed -- except sex and alcohol. And it was wonderful.

Obama wants to repeal 'don't ask, don't tell.' Is that a relief?
Obama can't walk a straight line. What side is he on today? They haven't taken the polls, so they don't know.

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