West Side Story writer Arthur Laurents dies

Arthur Laurents, the director, playwright and screenwriter who wrote such enduring stage musicals as West Side Story and Gypsy, has died at the age of 93.
Director Arthur Laurents, centre, is flanked by actress Chita Rivera, left, and actress Karen Olivo while visiting 'West Side Story' At Palace Theater On Broadway on February 26, 2009 in New York City. (Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images)

Arthur Laurents, the director, playwright and screenwriter who wrote such enduring stage musicals as West Side Story and Gypsy, as well as the movie classics Rope and The Way We Were, died Thursday. He was 93.

Laurents died at his home in Manhattan from complications of pneumonia, said his agent, Jonathan Lomma.

Laurents had an extensive career in radio and in Hollywood, but it was on Broadway where he had his biggest successes — particularly with two musicals many consider to be among the finest ever written. And Laurents provided the book, or story, for both of them.

West Side Story, which opened on Broadway in 1957, transformed Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet into musical theater. It had pulsating, jazz-flecked music by Leonard Bernstein and galvanizing direction and choreography by Jerome Robbins.

Robbins also directed and choreographed Gypsy, based on the memoirs of stripper Gypsy Rose Lee. The 1959 musical, with a score by Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim, told the story of Rose, a domineering stage mother who pushed her daughter into show business. As Rose, Ethel Merman had the greatest triumph of her career.

Gypsy has been successfully revived four times on Broadway, first in 1974 with Angela Lansbury as Rose, then with Tyne Daly in 1989 (Laurents directed both of them) and Bernadette Peters in 2003.

Laurents was back as director for the 2008 Broadway version, with Patti LuPone as Rose. The production won Tonys for LuPone and two featured, or supporting, performers. Laurents was nominated for best director but did not win.

In 2009, Laurents directed a revised version of West Side Story, giving the show a new dose of realism by having much of the dialogue in Spanish.

His credits as a stage director also include I Can Get It For You Wholesale, best remembered as the musical which introduced a 19-year-old Barbra Streisand to Broadway in 1962, and La Cage Aux Folles (1983), the smash Jerry Herman musical that ran for four years.

Laurents was a short, compact man with a trim fighter's build and a direct manner of speaking. He was known for saying exactly what was on his mind.

Laurents was born in Brooklyn, the son of an attorney. He attended Cornell University and after graduation began writing radio plays including scripts for such popular series as Dr. Christian and The Thin Man.

While serving in the army during World War II, Laurents wrote military training films as well scripts for such radio programs as Army Service Forces Present and Assignment Home.

His wartime experiences led to his first Broadway play, Home of the Brave, which opened in December 1945. The military drama, which dealt with anti-Semitism, had a short run but later was made into a well-received movie in which the theme was changed to racial rather than religious prejudice.

In Hollywood after the war, Laurents wrote or co-wrote scripts for such films as Rope (1948), Alfred Hitchcock's masterful take on the Leopold-Loeb murder case; an uncredited contribution toThe Snake Pit (1948), a look at mental illness underlined by Olivia de Havilland's harrowing lead performance; Caught (1949), Max Ophuls' love triangle melodrama starring James Mason, Barbara Bel Geddes and Robert Ryan, and Anna Lucasta, (1949) an all-white version of the black stage hit about a Brooklyn prostitute.

Laurents returned to the New York theater in 1950 with The Bird Cage, a drama about a nightclub owner. It quickly flopped despite a cast that included Melvyn Douglas and Maureen Stapleton.

Composer Richard Rodgers, at the piano, his new collaborator, lyricist Stephen Sondheim, right, and playwright Arthur Laurents are shown in this Dec. 28, 1964 photo as they begin work on the new musical Do I Hear a Waltz? ((Associated Press))

Two years later, Laurents had one of his biggest successes, The Time of the Cuckoo, a rueful comedy about a lonely spinster who finds romance in Venice with an already married Italian shopkeeper. Cuckoo" provided Shirley Booth with one of her best stage roles and was later made into the movie Summertime, starring Katharine Hepburn.

In 1966, Laurents reworked Cuckoo as a musical. Retitled Do I Hear A Waltz?, it had music by Richard Rodgers and lyrics by Sondheim. The following year, he wrote the book for the musical Hallelujah, Baby! The show, starring Leslie Uggams and with a score by Styne, Betty Comden and Adolph Green, won the best-musical Tony Award in 1968.

Laurents' biggest film successes occurred in the 1970s, first as screenwriter for The Way We Were, the 1973 movie starring Streisand and Robert Redford who played lovers pulled apart by the ideological conflicts of the McCarthy period of the late 1940s and `50s.