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 05 2009 11:00 PM ET

WEST SIDE STORY X390 (T. CHARLES ERICKSON) | ADVOCATE.COM

The admiration is mutual. "What is really great about Arthur is that he has such a vast understanding of humanity and human interaction," Cavenaugh says. "He really cuts to the core, which is very advantageous in a piece like this, when so much of it depends on the emotion underneath. Arthur's great about really wanting to know, Who are you? What unique gifts and traits do you bring to this Tony? He was really terrific about freeing us up from any preconceived ideas that might limit us."

Cavenaugh and Laurents love to meet for dinner at an Italian restaurant in the New York City theater district called Trattoria Trecolori. "Arthur loved the veal there," Cavenaugh says. "So for my opening night present I got him a crystal wineglass engraved with these words: 'To finding each other…and veal.' (When I mention this to Laurents, he says, "I'll have to find that glass! It never reached me.")

Cavenaugh and Laurents are equally enthralled with Cavenaugh's costar, Josefina Scaglione, the 21-year-old Argentine opera singer Laurents found to play Maria. "I'm completely in love with her," Cavenaugh says, "and those feelings translate into extraordinary chemistry between us onstage. My performance is really based on her Maria."

Scaglione says that before leaving Argentina, she was warned that her future director had a fearsome reputation. "You're going to face Arthur Laurents; that's going to be hard," she was told by friends in the theater there. But Laurents put her at ease as soon as they met, she says.

"I think he felt that I wasn't afraid of anything that people had said about him," Scaglione says. "I think that's why he loved me, and I love him so much. I was overwhelmed and surprised because he had so much energy. He is strict with things he says, and I think that's what makes him a great director. When he has something to tell you he won't hesitate -- he's completely honest."

Laurents says the fearful reputation he has from past blowups always helps him when he directs a new cast. "It works wonderfully because they're expecting something they don't get," he says. Instead of the angry oppressor of Broadway legend, the man his actors see is always the most supportive person on the set.

So what is it that keeps the 91-year-old going like he's still 35? Well, there are some daily vitamins, plenty of fish oil, a couple of weeks of skiing in the winter, swimming almost every day on Long Island in the summer, and nine minutes of floor exercises every morning. And, of course, a still very active sex life: "God knows, I'm all for fucking," Laurents says without a trace of irony.

His doctor told him recently he was going to have "a long life," to which Laurents naturally replied, "What do you think this is?"

But the doctor said, "No, I mean really long," because of his genes and because of what lies at the very foundation of his life: "Your creative juices are still flowing, you keep doing what you like doing, and that affects every organ of the body." Which means we can probably expect to see him directing a 60th anniversary production of West Side Story, right around his 100th birthday.

Tags: Theater

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