Sunday, May 08, 2011

RIP, Mr. Laurents

I've been avoiding writing about Arthur Laurents' passing for the past few days. It's been a rough reality, knowing the legacy and what he's left behind in the field I love. Playbill.com's obit can be found here, but here's my one short one-on-one encounter with the 93-year-old Mr. Laurents.

I was fortunate enough to attend the very first preview of Spider-Man Turn Off the Dark on Sunday, November 28, 2010. A wildly innovative and profoundly memorable night of theatre. Three quarters of the way through Act 1, the production was placed in a hold. It was then I looked across the aisle and saw Arthur Laurents sitting a few feet away from me. In the dimly lit hold, I sat nervously motionless as 25 years worth of Gypsy, West Side Story, Rope, Anyone Can Whistle, La Cage, and The Way We Were memories barraged my theatre dork psyche. Act 1 ended and I was left with an Intermission dilemma: do I dare have a brief conversation with the notoriously cantankerous and brutally honest Laurents ... or do I let the moment pass? With 5 minutes left before Act 2's curtain, I mustered up the chutzpah to cross the aisle.

We smiled, exchanged a handshake, and somehow, little me, told him I was a director in Chicago. Surprisingly, 4 years after earning my BFA, this was the very first time I felt accurately comfortable using the phrase "director in Chicago." When he asked what show I was currently working on, I said I was in between projects. A truth, given Reefer Madness! had just closed our our new company was sitting in planning limbo. Without missing a beat (in what I could only assume was pure Arthur fashion), he shook his head and stuck his finger out to shut me up. "No. Always be working." With that, he patted my shoulder and I went back to my seat.Tears welled up as house lights went down, for I (again, little nobody me) had received a small artistic dose of tough Laurents honestly. Blunt honesty I'd heard tell via 60 years of musical theatre lore.

It's a simple mantra from a master: "Always be working." Coming from a writer, a 93-year-old writer no less, it's wonderful being reminded of the bare essentials which bring about a product: work. No, I never worked with Mr. Laurents on a project, nor did his work directly affect my generation of performers, writers, or designers, so maybe that clouds my perception and muddles the truth. Yet, his stamp on the medium I know and love will forever touch future incarnations and interpretations in my field ... and that is an undeniable self truth. Mr. Laurents was a true inspiration.

Finally, OUT Magazine did a wonderful Q and A with the ever-honest Mr. Laurents in March of 2010. Below is the sequence about the original West Side Story's gay production team.

Q) 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 -
A) “I don’t think he’s anything.”
Q) Did the four of you socialize at night?
A) I knew Jerry for years. We were old friends. But we didn’t go out. I didn’t travel in theater circles much.
Q) Why not?
A) 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 (pictured left) lived together, and they were just terrible to him.
Q) Why?
A) Because I had some kind of name and who the hell was he? Much more, he was incredibly good-looking.

Q) How did you feel when Jerome Robbins called Larry Kert a faggot?
A) 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.
Q) Did you ever say to Bernstein, “Come on, Lenny? You’re gay. Stop all this nonsense?”
A) 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.

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