May Madness: Was Arthur Laurents a Genius?


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May is a mad month. A month of random musings about various topics related to musical theatre. Feel free to share your thoughts on each topic in the comment box below.

Was Arthur Laurents a Genius?

Since Arthur Laurents died yesterday, the word genius has been thrown around a lot. It made me reflect on the man’s career and, while I know some people aren’t going to like what I have to say, this is what I think.

The career of Arthur Laurents was bookended by the same two great shows, each of which owes least to his particular contributions. His work in between was of varying consistency. As a legitimate and legendary writer, his career was over many years ago, and his choices as a director were sometimes misguided. So his brilliance, his genius, is inconsistent, unlike his ability to hurt people one would assume to be his colleagues and friends, which seems to gave been remarkably consistent over the years. It’s not for nothing that half of New York is singing “Ding dong the witch is dead” even as other proclaim his genius.

In short, yes I am grateful for what he gave to the theatre and I respect his work on the books of West Side Story and Gypsy. Do I think he is worthy of theatrical martyrdom? Do I think his work is unmatched or irreplaceable? Sorry, but no.

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21 Responses to May Madness: Was Arthur Laurents a Genius?

  1. Nick Morrison says:

    I hope and expect that Laurents will go down in history as the author of the greatest musical ever written.

  2. Elliott Folds says:

    Yeah, I mean, Laurents was, put bluntly, a major douchebag. But his contributions to the art form (including the libretto to what is considered one of the best musicals ever written) should be enough to overlook his more assholish tendencies. Either way, he’s been dead for more than a week.

  3. I’m sorry did you know him personally? No? Then shut up!

    Tons of people that did know him personally have said that he was very critical but not without cause. Everyone publicized his negative comments because people love to make him some big monster yet people don’t publicize his passion for art and for the theatre as a whole. He cared about what he did and only wanted it to become better. People like him are always harder on themselves then they are on others. And if him saying the things he did got the results it did then he’s a very intelligent man.

    There are a number of other directors in theatre that use psychology to get the best out of there actors and collaborators. Michael Bennett was a big one.

    So how about you don’t sit there and disrespect the man since you didn’t know him personally?

  4. I knew him personally. He was a prick. A very critical, overbearing prick. Harder on himself than others? I can tell you personally that he thought far better of himself than he ever did of anyone else. The only one he accorded as much time, love, and respect was Tom, and when Tom died, the one person who made him close to human was gone. Disrespect is the polite word for what I feel for him. But damn if I don’t admire the work that douchebag brought to life.

  5. David Fick says:


    I don’t need to have known Arthur Laurents personally to understand that only a vile person would burst out laughing when hearing the news that Tony Perkins died of an AIDS related disease, only to explain this as a reaction to what he perceived as the apparent irony of the situation, that it was the “gay disease” that got Perkins in the end when Perkins had spent so much time and energy trying to remain in the closet during the latter part of his life. For him to laugh was bad enough, but to imply that it was some kind of punishment or an ironic twist of fate was unconscionable.

    People who did know him personally have been asked for comments since his death and while many have said something about his work, relatively few have expressed any kind of fondness for the man. That is very telling.

    Yes, Laurents cared about what he did, but often it seems as though he wanted only what he contributed to a show to be seen in a better light, hence his edits to the contributions of that his other collaborators made in the recent revivals of <emWest Side Story and Gypsy . It doesn’t take a genius to see that his books for West Side Story, Anyone Can Whistle and Do I Hear a Waltz? are the weakest contributions by a collaborator in each respective show. Even his masterpiece, Gypsy, is second to its score, albeit only minimally. And his direction of the revivals of both of those shows piggybacked on the work of Jerome Robbins. I mean, are all the people who criticised the decision to include Spanish into West Side Story going to change their minds now that Laurents has died? What about those who lament the ridiculous editing of the “Somewhere” ballet? Or those who understand that the cutting of the “Small People” reprise in Gypsy was the deletion of a moment achieved in that show in song that is never equaled in his book?

    Something makes me doubt that, as you say, Laurents was as hard on himself as others. Just look at his public derogatory comments about the male chorus in the 1980 revival of West Side Story or the way he treated Harvey Fierstein for using the word “fruit” in a private conversation at a restaurant that happened to be overheard by a waiter. When was Laurents ever as hard on himself as he was on them?

    As for your citing of Michael Bennett – now there was a true genius and one often hears how deeply people loved him. One sometimes hears people’s admiration for Laurents, but never or, at the most, very rarely hears about anyone having any kind of profound love for the man.

    So – how about you don’t sit there in your state of self-righteousness and ignorance, since you don’t seem to know very much about Laurents at all. That’s the only reason to offer the man such unqualified martyrdom simply because he is dead.

  6. Nick Morrison says:

    Is this some weird attempt to come to the defence of those Laurents victimised or do you just like to be morally superior? The only experience 99% of us have is his incredible work for musical theatre. Should we not remember that, focus on that, praise that? Who is benefiting from your second-hand gossip and bitching?

    Otherwise, remember Rule 5: ‘Alright, we get it.’

  7. And how did you know him personally, Gibson?

    I think it’s ridiculous that you feel the need to be such petty people to the man. He helped create some great musical history. So be respectful of that. I’m not condoning his comments but don’t sit there and lambast the man’s work.

  8. We had several mutual friends and, when I was 17, I served as an uncredited consultant and dramaturg on the West Side Story revival after begging like hell to get on it. (First announced in 2007, pre-production work continued until its actual opening, with and without me.) Most of my ideas weren’t used; those that were used were horribly misconstrued from their original milieu. There was a lot to like and a lot to dislike about the final production, and a lot to just plain dislike about Mr. Laurents. May he rest in peace.

  9. David Fick says:


    In response to your accusations about us being ridiculous and petty, I think it is ridiculous that you need to pretend that he was a greater person and artist than he was simply because he died. People say goodbye in different ways. I’m not rejoicing in his death like some people are – but I am remembering everything I know about him, not selectively remembering those things that make him seem like something more than he was. I am respectful of the work that he did that was great. The work that he did that was mediocre is mediocre and the work that he did that was poor is poor; this does not change because he is dead.


    If you offering a blanket argument that all of the musicals on which Laurents worked are wonderful, you must be familiar with only a fraction of his musical theatre work and be jumping to conclusions about the rest of it based on your experience of those couple of shows. To imply not only his work was uniformly incredible but also that he was an untouched genius, as many have done after his death when they never would have done so while he was alive, is simply incongruous with what his body of musical theatre work was when viewed as a whole.

    Furthermore, if you’re so concerned about my stories being second-hand stories, go do a bit of reading and research and you can get the stories first hand from things that Laurents said and wrote himself, from the other people involved in these situations or from others who present when these things were said. It isn’t so difficult if you track down a couple of books and interviews.

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