Monday, May 9, 2011

Curtain Down

(Arthur Laurents, who died May 12 at age 93, wrote two the books for two of Broadway's most indelible musicals, "West Side Story" and Gypsy.")

Last week, Arthur Laurents, one of Broadway and Hollywood's most ferocious and erratic craftsman, expired of pneumonia at the age of 93. For any normal human, this would be the expected conclusion of a long life. However, for a man who had a genius for making collaborators into foes and shaping the mundane detritus of existence into blazing confrontation, this is a yawning disappointment. If Laurents had managed to succumb under mysterious circumstances, his long line of show-biz enemies would have made for a whodunit worthy of Agatha Christie.

His output included screenplays for Hitchcock, an Oscar-winning vehicle for Ingrid Bergman and one of Olivia de Havilland's juiciest roles. Alas, they linger in the twilight of semi-oblivion. The Streisand-Redford "The Way We Were" endures mainly due to its title song, plus Laurents claims it as a bastardization of his original political intentions.

(The gym scene from the touring production of "West Side Story" now at PlayhouseSquare.)

The key to the firebrand's immortality is the pact he made with song and dance in the '50s. With two titanic musicals, "West Side Story" and "Gypsy," he formed a holy trinity with Stephen Sondheim and Jerome Robbins, with inspired music by Leonard Bernstein on the first and Jule Styne on the latter. These are the works that will forever keep his name in crossword puzzles.

If there were no Jet-Shark rumbles, macho men would find snapping their fingers to be a hollow gesture. If Laurents had not had the inspiration to turn Gypsy Rose Lee's mother into a Shakespearean gorgon, torturing her offspring to "sing out" and performing musical monologues of filial betrayal, anguished homosexuals would have no role model on which to pin their mishegas.

(A scene from the movie version of "West Side Story.")
Together, these works are the peaks of musical drama. Their book writer spent over half a century clinging to them with a tenacity that would make Mama Rose proud. Every few decades, he would reshape and redirect another revival of "Gypsy," and weeks before his death he was badgering Sondheim to let Streisand star in a third filmed adaptation. His last stage project was to try to put what he thought to be some verisimilitude into "West Side Story" by injecting Spanish into the book and lyrics and making the kids raunchier and less poetic. Due to his pathological possessiveness of his two children, he virulently rejected their film versions, ignoring the superb acting of Rosalind Russell's elegantly rendered Rose and Natalie Woods' luminous Maria and moving Gypsy, dwelling ad nauseum on a particular pair of high-heeled pumps Russell wore while performing "Rose's Turn." Concerning "West Side Story," he did astutely point out that the movie was too pretty and weakened by the gross inadequacies of Richard Beymer's Tony.

(Rosalind Russell showing off those fatal pumps in the 1962 film version of "Gypsy.")
But the years have shown that "West Side Story" is akin to an expensive, perfectly designed sports car that often fails to fire on all cylinders, despite Laurents' complaints that the movie seems to have come closest to bringing the show's virtues to fruition. This is amply demonstrated in the touring production currently playing Cleveland's Palace Theatre. Only Robbins' choreography and the romantic and rhythmic sublimity of Bernstein's music are gloriously intact. Laurents appeared to be laboring under the delusion that such realities as feigned masturbation during "Gee, Officer Krupke," the elimination of the indelible moment when the warring gangs put aside their differences to carry of the dead Tony, and T-shirts with holes will imbue the show with a more up-to-date sensibility. Instead, this spoils the pacing and mars the ideal stylization achieved in 1957.

The ultimate irony is that, at the end of Laurents' life, he was the real Mama Rose, unable to leave his brilliant offspring to flourish on their own.

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