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 (May 5, 2011). He was 93.
The marquees of all Broadway theaters were to be dimmed Friday at 8 p.m. in honor of Mr. Laurents. He died in his sleep at his home in Manhattan from complications of pneumonia, said his agent, Jonathan Lomma.
Mr. Laurents had an extensive career in radio and in Hollywood, but it was on Broadway that the three-time Tony Award winner had his biggest successes, particularly with two musicals that many consider to be among the finest ever written. And Mr. Laurents provided the book — or story — for both. He transformed Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet into a story about rival New York gangs and followed it up by turning the story of a stripper into the quintessential American musical.
"Rest easy, if doing anything the easy way is possible for you, Arthur," tweeted actor and playwright Harvey Fierstein. "Hell, you couldn't even just slide down a hill. You had to make sport."
Mr. Laurents' West Side Story, which opened on Broadway in 1957, substitutes the Jets and the Sharks for the Montagues and the Capulets to thrilling effect, thanks in part to Jerome Robbins' choreography, music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by a young Stephen Sondheim.
Two years later, Mr. Laurents and Robbins teamed up again for Gypsy, based on the memoirs of stripper Gypsy Rose Lee. The musical, with a score by Jule Styne and Sondheim, tells the story of Rose, a domineering stage mother who pushes her daughters into show business. As Rose, Ethel Merman had the greatest triumph of her career.
"His name is synonymous with the great Broadway musicals and plays of our time," Charlotte St. Martin, executive director of the Broadway League, said Friday.
Mr. 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.
Mr. Laurents was born in Brooklyn, the son of a lawyer. He attended Cornell University and after graduation began writing radio plays. While serving in the Army during World War II, he wrote military training films.
In Hollywood after the war, Mr. Laurents wrote or co-wrote scripts for such films as Rope (1948), Alfred Hitchcock's masterful take on the Leopold-Loeb case in which two young intellectuals try to prove their superiority by committing the "perfect murder."
Mr. Laurents' biggest film successes occurred in the 1970s, beginning with his screenplay for The Way We Were, the weepy 1973 movie starring Barbra Streisand and Robert Redford, who played lovers pulled apart by the ideological conflicts and anti-communist hysteria of the late 1940s and 1950s.
In recent weeks, Mr. Laurents had finished work on a new play and had reportedly concluded negotiations with a major studio for a new feature film version of Gypsy that might have Streisand in the lead.