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Laurents, Arthur (1917-2011)  
 
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Playwright, librettist, screenwriter, and director, Arthur Laurents brought an independent sensibility to some of the most important works of stage and screen in the post-World War II era.

He dared to live openly with a male lover in Hollywood when the studios insisted upon the appearance of sexual conformity. And, in a prime example of what theorist Wayne Koestenbaum has termed "male double writing," Laurents collaborated with such major gay talents as Stephen Sondheim, Leonard Bernstein, Jerry Herman, Harvey Fierstein, and Jerome Robbins on musicals that challenged audiences to accept an unorthodoxy that goes against the grain of the American success myth.

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Asked by a judgmental American spinster to justify the dishonesty required for his extramarital affairs, the courtly Renato Di Rossi in Laurents' The Time of the Cuckoo (1952) replies simply, "I am in approval of living." So was Laurents.

Laurents was born July 14, 1917 in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn to middle-class Jewish parents from whom he inherited socialist leanings.

Following graduation from Cornell University, Laurents served during World War II in an army film production unit in Astoria where he wrote scripts designed to educate servicemen going overseas, as well as radio plays intended to foster civilian support for the war.

The success of Laurents' first commercially produced play, Home of the Brave (1945)--written in nine days and critically applauded for addressing the issue of anti-Semitism in the armed forces--encouraged him to move to Hollywood, then in its heyday.

In the film industry, Laurents quickly became known for his deftness with psychological themes. He wrote the scripts for The Snake Pit (1948), the story of a woman's emotional collapse and recovery, set in a mental asylum with scenes considered shockingly realistic at the time; and for Alfred Hitchcock's Rope (1948), a psychological thriller with a powerful homosexual subtext, which starred Laurents' then-lover, Farley Granger.

Although Laurents was never blacklisted himself, his opposition to the studio heads' support of the communist witch-hunts weakened his status in Hollywood.

He returned to New York where he enjoyed success as a playwright (Time of the Cuckoo, 1952; A Clearing in the Woods, 1957; Jolson Sings Again, 1999), librettist (West Side Story, 1957; Gypsy, 1959; Anyone Can Whistle, 1964; Do I Hear a Waltz?, 1965; Hallejulah, Baby!, 1967; Nick and Nora, 1992), and director (I Can Get It for You Wholesale, 1962; the 1973 London premiere and 1989 Broadway revival of Gypsy; La Cage aux Folles, 1983; West Side Story, 2009).

Although he returned to Hollywood to work on such films as The Way We Were (1973) and The Turning Point (1977), he lived contentedly with his lover, Tom Hatcher, on a beachfront property in Quogue, Long Island, from 1955 until Hatcher's death in 2006.

Laurents' experience of discrimination as both a Jew and a gay man--intensified by his experience during the Hollywood blacklist period--infuses his work with a strong social conscience.

In The Way We Were, Katie Morosky is marginalized both by her Jewish ethnicity and by her unflagging pursuit of social justice; her tragedy is to fall in love with Hubbell Gardner, a WASP who assimilates social norms so effortlessly that, finally, he has no principles.

Laurents also treated the subject of blacklisting in Jolson Sings Again, which dramatizes the sacrifices of life and integrity made to the McCarthyite drive to root out possible subversives.

Laurents' musical Hallelujah, Baby!, written for his good friend Lena Horne, looks at sixty years of race relations in America and was advertised as a "civil rights musical."

While Laurents followed the basic plot of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet in his book for West Side Story, he made two significant changes in the story. Rather than chance, it is the racial prejudice of the Jets/Montagues that prevents Anita/the messenger from delivering to Tony/Romeo the assurance that Maria/Juliet is still alive; and Maria/Juliet lives to confront the survivors with the evidence of what their hatred has cost the community.

Laurents suggested the "Officer Krupke" scene in West Side Story, which comically analyzes society's inability to deal with the juvenile delinquents who have been created by the mainstream's own misguided values.

Laurents' willingness to challenge social conventions made him particularly interested in the relative values of madness and sanity. The relativity of normalcy is clear in Time of the Cuckoo, where Laurents satirizes American tourists in Venice who are unimaginative, insensitive, and self-centered, yet certain of their own superiority to the supposedly childlike, sexually undisciplined, immoral--yet clearly happier--Italians.

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