By Advocate.com Editors
Originally published on Advocate.com May 11 2009 12:00 AM ET
Arthur Laurents: David Saint [artistic director of the George Street Playhouse] is my best friend now. It's the best place I've ever worked. After Tom died I just stayed holed up in Quogue. And when I finally decided I'm OK, I can face the world, I went to George Street, because it's like home. It was the opening night of a new play by Elaine May starring Marlo Thomas. I'd never met Elaine. We just fell in love. We sat at a big table for dinner but we didn't talk to anybody but one another. I'd never seen Marlo Thomas-I was mad for her. And here she is in this place. They're both close to Mike Nichols who has become a good friend.
He wanted to do a movie of Gypsy and we talked about it. Then he came to the opening of the Patti Lupone Gypsy at City Center. And he sent me an e-mail that began, "Oh My God!" He said, I don't think you can do this on the screen. He went to a reading of this play New Year's Eve, and said, 'You're the only honest man in New York.' I love having dinner with him. Just the two of us.
The only homophobia I encountered was from people like Larry Kramer. I can't actually say it's homophobic. But I can't really see one gay man attacking another. I find it very offensive.
Advocate.com: It's the most common thing in the world.
I don't know, it's like betraying the tribe. I think it's awful. He wrote something about me. It began, when we became friends, he was told, no friend ever lasted with me. I did them in. And it ended up, saying nobody liked me and I would die alone. He thought it would be published in an issue about me. Tom said, 'Tell him to have David read to him as though it's about him.' I don't know whether they ever did.
At the very beginning-in the '40s surely; first of all, you were going to a shrink because you were concerned about being gay. Even in Hollywood in the '40s there was no nervousness about being gay? It never appeared in print until Frank [Rich] did it by accident.
I did a play of mine called Jolson Sings Again in Seattle at the Seattle Rep. Frank was out there and he interviewed me on the stage of the Seattle Rep. and he talked about Tom as my "partner." I'd never heard that word before. [Frank Rich wrote in 1995: "At this time of cultural warfare, the liberal, gay Mr. Laurents surely has no shortage of causes. But the one that consumes him most, propelling him back East this week, may be the loneliest and most quixotic of all -- his mission to raise the level of the culture itself by making Broadway, once the birthplace of classics by O'Neill and Williams, safe again for 'the new American play.'"]
You know that analyst really was wonderful.
...Who said as long as you live your life with pride and dignity, what difference does it make. That must have been a kind of light bulb in terms of how you perceived yourself.Oh, it changed my whole life. It really did.
Because this authority, this psychiatric authority figure... because certainly the conventional wisdom among psychiatrists in '47 or '48, the conventional wisdom of psychiatrists and most gay people......Was to go get cured.
Because there's something wrong with you. And here's this guy who says no, not necessarily.Actually he said what I was hoping he'd say.
But you were surprised when he said it, surely.I was moved. Terribly moved. Because it went deeper than just being gay. What he said about living your life with pride and dignity. Because I could have said it's OK to be gay. But when Tom came to live with me we could have been secretive about it, and we weren't.
You never were -- not even at the beginning?No. It didn't occur to us. The psychiatrist had done such a good job on me.
You didn't hold hands in public...No but I don't like that anyway. I'm really suspicious of people who are all over each other in public. Straight or gay. The minute they're all over each other, to me it's, 'Me thinks the lady dost protest too much.' If you really feel it, you don't have to show it. It's like acting. So busy telling when they don't have to.
What's the first play you did with a gay element?The Enclave. It was about a group of friends, grouped around the central character, who's a closet gay. Put music to it and what have you got? Company . Of course he's not gay in Company ...[Laurents smiles.]
Did Stonewall change your life at all? I have a monologue by a 17-year-old kid in Radical Mystique who says he was there with the Judy people -- because her funeral was that day. And he met an older man -- an NYU student-and fell in love.
But did Stonewall change anything for you?Tom was more active than I was -- he went to the meetings of the Gay Activists Alliance at the old firehouse. It was so familiar to me from all the left-wing meetings I had gone to. Point of order and all that. The only thing that was different -- and it's probably true to this day... there were those -- you can't quite call them transvestites. They wore a kind of tunic over jeans and boots. And screamed, "You don't want us showing our faces in the parade." Oh they were angry. There was one named Marcia -- he was the roughest of them all. They were absolutely right. Nobody did want them in the parade. I remember having an argument about gay liberation with a guy who shall be nameless about the trucks. [In the 1970's, there were nearly nightly orgies in empty trucks in a Greenwich Village parking lot]. I don't think that's gay liberation. We fought about it. And it's interesting what happened to him. He went to Israel, lived on a Kibutz and came back an orthodox Jew. Now he teaches at the Harvey Milk School. That's a far cry from fucking in the trucks.
But there was this whole thing in the '70s that somehow fucking as much as possible in as many places as possible was proof of our liberation. This compulsive behavior.God knows I'm all for fucking. But I don't think [what happened in the trucks] that's liberation. I didn't then and I still don't. Some terrible things happened in the trucks. I do know a theatre director who was beaten up while he was in the trucks -- and he said he fell out of the balcony.
Did you encounter a lot of people in the theatre, actors and not actors, who were nervous about being known as gay people? And has that changed?PBS just did a documentary on Jerry Robbins. It must be at least 10 years old, why they suddenly showed it now I don't know. It said that the reason he informed was that Ed Sullivan was going to expose him as a gay. Can you in your right mind think that anyone would think of exposing a person in the ballet as gay. Could it have an effect?
Even in 1954?In the ballet! Nobody thought anybody in the ballet was straight. I remember I did this picture, Turning Point . I swore I was never going to do another movie after The Way We Were. But Nora Kaye, who I had an affair with and who I really loved -- she was married to Herb Ross, of dubious sexuality -- she begged me. I said OK and they said, you can be a producer, and that'll protect you. There was a whole gay subplot, most of which is not in the movie. It was quite obvious. The showdown came. I was living with Herb and Nora in Beverly Hills. We were on their "lanai" when I talked about all this gay stuff disappearing. This in the '70s, and Herb said to me, "Well, nobody in the ballet is gay anymore." I said 'Herb, we've known each other for 20 years now-and we know everything about each other.'
How much of the cast of West Side is gay? Not as many as you think.
Or hope.Matt Cavenaugh is absolutely straight. And I love him. I really love him. He's a lovely guy. I had to unlock him. You know he comes from Arkansas and he's really basically very conventional. And I had to get him to break through himself. And I do love him.
They do all seem to love you.That happens with any company that I direct, because I do love them. And they know I will do anything for them that I can.
All right, you're 91 years old. You don't seem any different to me than the day I met you (in 1995). Give me a typical day. What time do you get up in the morning?Not early. When I'm in Quogue I get up 8:30ish. There is one thing I've done every morning for 30 years. I do floor exercises. Nine minutes by the digital clock. You lie on your back, put your knees up, and you lift your pelvis. Slowly. Not too high. So I do that 30 times. Then I do sit-ups. Then I do push-ups. I since added things to stretch the hamstrings. I ski in the winter and I swim all summer, so what more do I need.
Anyway, it gets down to why am I ninety-one, and not crawling.
What do you know about directing now that you didn't know 30 years ago?A lot. Nobody ever directed a musical the way I directed Gypsy . It's because I didn't have any money. And they were only going to give me two weeks of rehearsal before opening at City Center. So I bargained for three by saying I was only going to use four principals. But I managed to wrangle nine. I really only did it because Tom told me because he didn't like the previous one. He said you can't leave New York with that taste. And only you can do it. And for another reason -- I didn't know it but he knew. He was going to die and he wanted me to be busy. So I had nine actors. I couldn't stage one scene with them, because there was always somebody missing. So we sat around the table, the way you do with a play, and began examining the play, including the lyrics. That suddenly brought out things in Gypsy that I wrote and I hadn't known were there. And it's a totally different approach. The same thing is true of West Side . The world has changed certainly since the late '50s. But the theatre has changed more. Things you did in musicals in the late '50s you can't do today. In Gypsy and in West Side Story there are numbers that are put in to jazz up the audience and stop the show. They have nothing to do with it. Like "Krupke" in West Side. Like in Gypsy , "Gimmick" and "Together", which is the stars having a good time. "If Mama Gets Married" is a lovely song, but what's the point? These two girls who don't know each other are suddenly going into a mad Viennese Waltz. So that pushed me to get those into the show. Well what it basically is -- musicals had always been about singing and dancing -- never about acting. With both this Gypsy and this West Side Story , the most important element is acting. Well you never had that before. And it made it very exciting for me, and for the company. Because there was no chorus, no ensemble anymore. I said to all these kids, even if you have no line, you have to know who you are. Actually, I had done that before when I directed La Cage . There are all these so-called Cagelles. I want every one of you to know why you are in a drag company on the Riviera. And it pays off. It really pays off. Because they enjoy what they're doing.
How much did you change the book in West Side ?I had invented this language, which was OK in 1957. In 2009 it's a little forced, a little cute. So I had to trim it. Also, the characters in Gypsy are much richer than they are in West Side. They're not written with much depth in West Side , because it was really all about the music and dance. In the rumble, Tony, our hero is pushed around, and he has nothing to say. So he comes out weak. So I thought, 'Well, I have to do something about that.' First of all I changed the way it was acted, but I gave him three words that made an enormous difference. When they're pushing him around, Riff starts to intervene but Tony says, 'I'll handle this.' That makes him in command. He knows what he's doing, and he's the leader, not just some pretty little boy. Matt responded to all that.
The funny part of it is, you don't know all the people who said, 'You can't change it: leave it the way it is.' Until now they were always doing a replica of the original scenery. This time it's all new. Jim Youmans-oh he's wonderful. When that highway comes out, the audience applauds. I kept working on it, up to the last minute. It's very delicate when you get a piece of Americana.
Because everyone has a huge personal investment in it -- in my case, since the age of six.
And they all think they saw what they didn't. One guy came up to me and said, 'Why'd you take the four letter words out.' 'They were never in.' "'Yes they were, I saw it.'
They never were.