Original Story By: A Memoir of Broadway and Hollywood, by Arthur Laurents; Alfred A. Knopf; 436 pages; $30.00.
Though it would be wrong to attribute the artists' gayness (or Jewishness) to this show's success, the fact remains that West Side Story, like all Broadway, is largely the work of men who were or are outside America's religious and sexual mainstream. (Larry Kert, who played Tony in this original production, was also gay.)
Both Bernstein (who was married) and Robbins died without ever discussing their homosexuality. Sondheim, who only came to terms with his gayness late in life, is equally reticent about discussing his sexuality, though he collaborated with Meryle Secrest's largely-honest biography.
Writer Arthur Laurents, on the other hand, is the exception to the rule. Though he did not "officially" come out until the last decade, Laurents has long been comfortable with himself--thanks to Dr. Judd Marmor, who "put [my life] on the right track"--and honest about his sexual orientation. His long-time relationship with Tom Hatcher--now in its fifth decade--is one of our community's most enduring partnerships. Kaiser was right when he called Laurents one of his "spiritual fathers" and role models.
Who else but Laurents would tell us that Gypsy Rose Lee's mother - the formidable Madam Rose - was a lesbian, or that Ethel Merman had "the fear someone might think she was Jewish"? We also read about George Cukor's "casual dress" dinners "with a . . . cast of just four: me to converse with George, an old queen to reminisce with George, and a hustler to fuck with George. The old queen and I would be kicked out at 10 sharp." "Original Story By" is full of such anecdotes.
Born in 1917, Laurents was a Marxist during his college years at Cornell, and remains an unabashed liberal--like this critic--till this day. A man of strong opinions, Laurents lets his politics get in the way of his recollections, and not always for the best.
Not one to drop a grudge, Laurents has never forgiven Robbins or Elia Kazan for being "Friendly Witnesses" before the House Un-American Activities Committee, and giving testimony which ruined many lives. (Laurents himself survived.) Happily, Laurents did not let his personal feelings for Robbins get in the way of working with him, not only in West Side Story but in the equally-wonderful Gypsy.(1959).
Original Story By rambles back and forth, careless of chronology. Thus, for example, we read about the personal politics behind The Way We Were (1973) before we get to the making of West Side Story (1957) and Gypsy (1959). Laurents gives himself too much credit sometimes, as when he tells us that he "jump-started" Barbra Streisand's career. (Laurents is not the only one who claims to be a stepping-stone on Babs's road to stardom.) But Laurents is such a wonderful raconteur that we almost forgive him.
Though now in his 80's, Laurents remains active; directing a London revival of West Side Story (1998), speaking at meetings of SAGE, giving to gay causes through the Laurents Foundation, and of course writing this book.
As the last of his generation, Laurents mourns his lost friends, though this is something that many of us younger gays can relate to, in this age of AIDS: "They're all dead, all gone; only I am left." Even so, Laurents remains upbeat about his golden years: "I'm the last but very much alive and flourishing. I have begun a new play, of course, and I am still with the man I met that day the moon came out." Here is a healthy man!