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.
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.
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.
Colin Powell enacted 'don't ask, don't tell,' and Clinton signed it into law.
I think Colin Powell is one of the most shameful figures in American history. He is the man who is most responsible -- next to Bush -- for getting us into Iraq. Presenting what he must have known was false at the U.N. Now he's suddenly a Democrat. I think any gay, Jew, or black who is a Republican is for one reason: They want so much to belong.
Much of your writing has been political. But you haven't been as involved in, say, the Human Rights Campaign. Was that a conscious choice to let your work speak for itself?
I give money to Lambda [Legal], which I really believe in. But the Human Rights Campaign? When La Cage came out, we were attacked for being mealymouthed and all that. And the next year we were honored at the HRC awards. Typical of me, I told the audience what I thought of them. Tom and I have a foundation. We want to give a prize to the best new play by an American on a social theme. To me, that's doing more than a lot of talk.
You mentioned La Cage aux Folles. You directed the original. The show is coming back to Broadway in a stripped-down production that originated at the Menier Chocolate Factory, London's hot theater.
It's in vogue now, this so-called darker side of everything, which I think is just muddy. And cheap. Literally, in both meanings of the word. I saw it in London. I thought the production was homophobic.
There's a line in it about Albin, [the main attraction at the nightclub]. The boy says, 'How can I introduce him to my fianc's parents the way he dresses?' Well, in London he wore a dress and a wig in private life. In New York, he wore a suit with piping. It was effeminate, but this was out and out camp. I didn't see Douglas Hodge, who is a very good actor. But I saw him on YouTube, and he can't sing. And he wore a dress like it belonged to a maiden aunt.
Tell me about the opening night of La Cage in 1983. It was a $4 million musical about two gay men at the height of Reagan's America.
The producer was Alan Carr, who was a cokehead. And he was from the music world. He did the Village People. He did Grease, the movie. For the La Cage opening night party he recreated St. Tropez. I thought they'd gone mad. All the money! Everybody gussied up beyond belief! Fritz Holt was one of the producers. The one thing I remember about that night is Tom saying to me, 'Fritz Holt, he's got swollen glands.' Tom noticed. And we knew he had AIDS. It wasn't called AIDS. But Fritz had it. I don't like opening night parties. I wanted to get out of there anyway. But yes, also because I cared about Fritz. Being gay, living in the West Village, it was terrible because this was really the gay center. And then overnight it was decimated by AIDS.
Let's get in a few quick hits. You famously referred to Broadway as 'Chernobyl.' Have you changed your mind?
No. I dislike Broadway intensely. On Broadway, everybody has an agenda. The excellence of the production is not high on the list. It's money, it's their name -- you've got nine million producers who are not producers.
Will you see Julie Taymor's Spider-Man?
I wouldn't go to see Spider-Man.
Your 2008 production of Gypsy started at City Center -- whose offices you called the 'ninth circle of hell.' How do you feel about the upcoming City Center Encores production of your play, Anyone Can Whistle?
They're doing some cockamamie version of it. I'm just rehearsing how I can say, 'No comment.'
You've directed Gypsy with Ethel Merman, Angela Lansbury, Tyne Daly, and Patti LuPone. Pick your favorite Rose.
Why not take a second to think about it?
I shouldn't have said I like Patti best because they'll get pissed off. But I do.
Why didn't you go to the Tony Awards last year, when West Side was up for best revival?
I never want to go. Because I think it emphasizes something that should not be emphasized. I don't believe in prizes.
You wrote The Way We Were. Why did you call director Sydney Pollack an asshole?
He said to me, 'Everybody in Hollywood is just amazed at you.' I said, 'Why?' He said, 'Well, this is the best love story they've read in years, and they don't know how this homosexual could write it.' You wonder how I feel about the late Mr. Pollack? What else do you say but he's an asshole, dead or alive.
Speaking of movies: Did you see Rob Marshall's Nine?
What did you think?
Did you see A Single Man? You knew Isherwood, yes?
The book has a man sitting on a toilet ruminating. The film has a man sitting on a toilet that is a shot for Vanity Fair. That sums it up, to me.
Would you and Tom have gotten married if it had been legal?
I would have said no until I found out -- I don't know if this figure is accurate, but someone told me there are 1,400 legal advantages to being married.
The figure people throw around is 1,049 federal and state benefits.
And so, that's a reason. Because until then I thought we had an advantage. Because not being tied legally -- the only reason you stayed together was because you wanted to.
Are you still friendly with Larry Kramer?
Not for a moment.
What happened? You'd been friends for so many years.
He's attacked me so much I'm tired of it.
We are' amicable.
Sondheim has an 80th birthday coming up. What kind of advice would you give him?
I wouldn't give him advice about anything. He wouldn't want it. In the last year I've learned an enormous amount. I've learned I've been very foolish about the whole friendship thing.
Don't you ever want to pick up the phone and call him?
What difference would it make?
I ask because you recently wrote a play, Come Back, Come Back, Wherever You Are, which premiered at the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick, N.J. It's a play about dealing with loss -- and the comfort in keeping people around who remember.
I ran into Steve recently at a party at Hal Prince's. We had a wonderful conversation. Great. Enough. Sometimes you have a history and you can't define it in a sentence or a paragraph. There's too much. Since Tom died, I'm very aware of time. And I'm very content to be alone with a book at home. I don't want to waste time in pretend conversation.
When do you think of Tom?
Always. Shirley Knight was in Come Back, Come Back. Her husband died 10 years ago. In a swimming pool. He had an aneurism and he drowned. So I said, 'How do you deal with it?' She said, 'Well, I think of him the first thing in the morning and the last thing at night. And I try not to think of him in between.' That's 10 years.
What will be in this new book you're writing? There's talk you might take back some of the things you've said over the years.
Well, take back means that they're not true. I refer to the whole business about Sam Mendes, which obscured the point I was trying to make -- about the musical being in your bones. That's important. Sam Mendes isn't. If I say I take it back, it's not true. It was true! But it was unnecessary. It was gratuitous. I shouldn't have done it.
At nearly 92, do you think about your own mortality?
I always said I'd never die. And I never thought of death. And then Tom died and I didn't care whether I did or didn't for quite awhile.
And now I'm back to thinking I won't die. I don't know. Part of it is genetic. Part of it is I have a wonderful doctor. He says to me, 'If you get a cough, call me.' He's terrific. He thinks the reason that I am how I am physically is that if you continue to be creative and alive, it affects the organs of your body. And it seems to me, I get stronger. But maybe it's because I don't care much one way or the other. It's all because of Tom.
Besides the book, what's next?
They want to do Gypsy in London. They only want Patti and me.
Will you do it?
How many times can you do it? I don't know. She wants to. And if I did, it would be for her. I can say I'm going to live forever. But if I do Gypsy again, it might cut that short.
Will there be another movie of West Side Story? The time seems ripe for a remake.
Disney wanted to do an animated version -- with cats! They sent a DVD. The black cats and the white cats. It was pure camp. They showed the Maria cat coming down the rope of an ocean liner. She was an illegal immigrant.
Did any part of you think, Let's cash out!
No. No. I still would like another movie -- because I thought the other one was so bad. And, frankly, anti'Puerto Rican. The Sharks wore makeup and had this phony accent and DayGlo costumes. But who would direct it?
Why not you?
No. I don't know enough.
Maybe Sam Mendes?