Honest Arthur

With his latest production of West Side Story currently on Broadway and a new memoir just published, legendary writer-producer Arthur Laurents tells his good friend Charles Kaiser why he's never been able to tell a lie.

BY Charles Kaiser

May 06 2009 12:00 AM ET

Here's a typical year in the life of Arthur Laurents:

After directing Patti LuPone on Broadway in what was widely hailed as the greatest Gypsy of all time, he immediately started to work on a new, bilingual West Side Story. When it opened, John Lahr wrote in The New Yorker that this West Side is "so exciting it makes you ache with pleasure." In his spare moments he finished his second memoir, Mainly on Directing: Gypsy, West Side Story, and Other Musicals, and completed another new play, New Year's Eve, which opened at the George Street Playhouse in New Jersey less than a month after his new West Side Story made its Broadway debut.

This would be a stupendous degree of productivity for anyone in his 30s or 40s.

But here's the thing: Arthur Laurents is 91.

New Year's Eve is about the ambiguous sexuality of married people and features a married man (played by Keith Carradine) who has an affair late in life with his accountant (Peter Frechette). During an early reading of the play before Broadway glitterati, Laurents realized that the equivocal lives of several of the couples in the audience had been replicated in his play. "It didn't occur to me that one didn't mention these things," Laurents told me. At the end of the reading, Mike Nichols turned to Laurents and declared, "You're the only honest man in New York."

In real life that compulsive honesty has led to some famous blowups between Laurents and everyone from lifelong collaborator Stephen Sondheim (they're barely speaking at the moment) to fellow playwright Larry Kramer (they don't speak at all). When a writer for New York magazine called Laurents's former longtime friend Mary Rodgers to interview her for a profile of the playwright, she was still so angry at him for something he had said to her at a dinner party years ago, her only comment was "Call me back when he's dead."

Last spring Laurents shocked his interviewer on CBS's Sunday Morning by declaring that Katharine Hepburn "had no sense of humor."

"Well," Laurents says to me, "What do you want me to say? 'Kay is a lovely woman, but I think sometimes she doesn't get the joke?' It takes too long."

But when I sat down to talk with him a few days after West Side 's triumphant opening, I found a much mellower version of the man who used to brag to me about how he had made Patti LuPone cry the first time they had lunch together to talk about whether she could play in Gypsy .

In a career that has spanned seven decades, Laurents has written more than two dozen plays and movies, ranging from Rope for Alfred Hitchcock in 1948 to The Way We Were with Robert Redford and Barbra Streisand in 1973. In 1983 he directed the smash-hit Broadway debut of La Cage aux Folles, which won six Tonys, and in 1999 he began a collaboration with David Saint of the George Street Playhouse, where a half dozen of his plays have been produced.

Entering his 10th decade hasn't done anything to slow him down. But when Tom Hatcher, his partner of 52 years, died of lung cancer 2½ years ago, it was a gigantic blow. In the wake of that loss, there is a kinder, gentler Arthur Laurents than most people have known.

Hatcher was an actor working in a men's clothing store when the two of them met in Hollywood in the early 1950s. When they moved in together a few months later, they never made any effort to hide their relationship from their friends, a remarkable thing for a gay couple to do in 1950s America. "When Tom came to live with me, we could have been secretive about it, and we weren't," Laurents says. "It didn't occur to us to pretend otherwise. Tom said when he knew he was gay, he knew he had to get out of Oklahoma. But after that, he wasn't going to make an effort to disguise who he really was."

Tags: Theater

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