Arthur Laurents dies; playwright and Broadway director

Arthur Laurents in 1984 outside the Broadway theater where "La Cage aux Folles" was staged.
Arthur Laurents in 1984 outside the Broadway theater where “La Cage aux Folles” was staged.
(Oliver Morris / Los Angeles Times)

Arthur Laurents, a Tony Award-winning playwright and director who wrote the books for the classic Broadway musicals “West Side Story” and “Gypsy” and later wrote the hit movies “The Way We Were” and “The Turning Point,” died Thursday. He was believed to be 93.

Laurents died in his sleep at his home in New York City after a short illness, said his agent, Jonathan Lomma.

For his work on Broadway over more than six decades, Laurents won two Tony Awards — in 1968 as author of the book for best musical Tony winner “Hallelujah, Baby!” and in 1984 as best director of a musical for “La Cage aux Folles.”

Photos: Arthur Laurents

But he is best known for writing the books for “West Side Story” and “Gypsy,” both of which were Tony Award nominees for best musical and later were turned into movies.

“West Side Story,” with music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, was a contemporary Romeo and Juliet love story involving rival New York street gangs. It ran on Broadway from 1957 to 1959.

It was followed by “Gypsy,” “a musical fable suggested by” stripper Gypsy Rose Lee’s memoir and focusing on her driven, larger-than-life mother, Rose, played by Ethel Merman. “Gypsy” ran on Broadway from 1959 to 1961.

“The best damn musical I’ve seen in years,” raved New York Herald Tribune theater critic Walter Kerr, who called the musical’s book “a clean knockout.”

“I think the book for ‘Gypsy’ is probably the best book ever written for a Broadway musical,” said Miles Kreuger, president of the Los Angeles-based Institute of the American Musical, echoing a widely held view.

“It has character, it has a flavor of the period of the various theater styles of the time — it’s an amazing book,” Kreuger told The Times in 2009. “You really feel transported back to the world of second-rate vaudeville and burlesque. It’s amazing that the script actually does that. And it was a great, great vehicle for Ethel Merman.”

“Gypsy,” Laurents later said of the show with music by Jule Styne and lyrics by Sondheim, was about “the need for recognition. ... a need everyone has in one way or another.”

The Brooklyn-born Laurents launched his career on Broadway in 1945 with “Home of the Brave,” a World War II drama about anti-Semitism in the military. The short-lived play was turned into a 1949 Stanley Kramer-produced movie of the same name about racism.

Among Laurents’ other plays is “The Time of the Cuckoo,” a 1952 comedy that earned Shirley Booth a Tony Award for best actress in a play. A romantic tale of a lonely American spinster who finds romance in Italy, the play was turned into a 1955 film called “Summertime” starring Katharine Hepburn; and Laurents later adapted his play into the 1965 Broadway musical “Do I Hear a Waltz?”

As a Broadway director, Laurents also received recognition for “I Can Get It for You Wholesale,” a 1962 musical comedy that marked 20-year-old Barbra Streisand’s Broadway debut.

And he received Tony nominations for directing the 1974 Broadway revival of “Gypsy” starring Angela Lansbury and the 2008 revival starring Patti LuPone.

The slightly built writer-director, who was once described as “a smallish, compact man who [looks] like a cross between a Roman senator and a gym instructor,” had a reputation for being “difficult.”

“They say I’m mean,” he acknowledged in a 1984 interview with The Times while enjoying the success of the smash musical “La Cage aux Folles.”

“They say this for two reasons,” he said. “I used to be mean. ... I think too fast and I talk as fast as I think, and I’m often acerbic. But I say mean things as a defense. People who get their feelings hurt don’t realize I have a very developed set of defenses. But also I will not suffer fools and amateurs. What that has cost me is a ... reputation. So?”

The son of a lawyer father and a teacher mother, Laurents was born Arthur Levine — “I changed it to get a job,” he told New York Magazine in 2009 — in Brooklyn on July 14. Historical records list 1917 and 1918 as his birth year.

“My father was a humanitarian, a great man; the anger I got from my mother,” he told The Times in 2000. “She was a socialist atheist until she met my father, then she became a Jew with a vengeance.”

While growing up, Laurents became “wildly stage struck” and knew by the time he was 10 that he wanted to become a writer.

After earning a bachelor’s degree in English at Cornell University in 1937, he wrote scripts for radio shows such as “Lux Radio Theater.”

Drafted into the Army in 1941 before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, he spent his five years in the military writing training films and radio plays for “Armed Service Force Presents.”

As a screenwriter in Hollywood for a few years after his 1945 Broadway debut, Laurents rewrote the troubled screen adaptation of “The Snake Pit,” a 1948 drama about a woman’s mental breakdown starring Olivia de Havilland, but was denied screen credit.

He also wrote the screenplay for the 1948 Alfred Hitchcock thriller “Rope.” Among his other screen credits are “Anastasia” (1956), “Bonjour Tristesse” (1958), “The Way We Were” (1973) and “The Turning Point” (1977).

While in Hollywood in the late `40s, Laurents began an affair with Farley Granger, one of the stars of “Rope.” (Granger died in March at 85.)

In his 2000 memoir “Original Story By: A Memoir of Broadway and Hollywood,” Laurents candidly discussed his homosexuality, his time on the Hollywood blacklist and his personal and working relationships with numerous Hollywood and Broadway legends.

As a writer, Laurents recalled the McCarthy era in “The Way We Were,” the hit 1973 movie starring Streisand and Robert Redford; and in his 1995 play “Jolson Sings Again.”

In 2009, he was back on Broadway as the director of a revival of “Westside Story” (originally directed and choreographed by Jerome Robbins, who also directed the first “Gypsy”) and had his book “Mainly on Directing” published.

Laurents never lost his passion for the theater.

“I still think the most wonderful feeling is walking down the aisle of a theater when the overture starts for the musical and they have a curtain and you can’t wait to see the magic there is behind it,” he told New Jersey’s Asbury Park Press in 1999.

In 1955, Laurents met would-be actor Tom Hatcher when Hatcher was manager of a Beverly Hills men’s shop. They were together until Hatcher’s death from lung cancer in 2006.

“I had the most marvelous life that anybody could have with another person,” Laurents told CBS’ “Sunday Morning” program in 2009. “That, I’m proud of. That’s an achievement. `Cause most people quit on each other. And we never did.”

Photos: Arthur Laurents