Playwright and screenwriter who wrote the book for West Side Story
Arthur Laurents in 1984. He updated Romeo and Juliet to the streets of New York.
The playwright, screenwriter and director Arthur Laurents has died aged 93. If he was not as well known as some of his collaborators, Laurents was nevertheless intrinsic to the success of the stage musicals West Side Story (1957), Gypsy (1959) and La Cage aux Folles (1983), and the films Rope (1948) and The Way We Were (1973).
Laurents wrote the book for West Side Story, which updated Romeo and Juliet to the streets of New York, with gangs called the Jets and the Sharks replacing the houses of Montague and Capulet. The production was directed and choreographed by Jerome Robbins, with music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. "The book is the shortest on record," said Laurents of his contribution, "yet the last third doesn't have one musical number, neither song nor dance ... The monologue was intended to be an aria sung by Maria. The speech I wrote for her was a dummy lyric. But Lenny [Bernstein] never found music that satisfied him and so to this day, West Side Story innovatively ends with a speech that is a dummy lyric."
The musical was revived several times on Broadway including, most recently, in a bilingual version masterminded by Laurents, in which the Latino Sharks spoke and sang in Spanish. The production, also directed by Laurents, opened on Broadway in March 2009 and ran for more than 700 performances.
Laurents, Sondheim and Robbins worked together again on Gypsy, which explored the relationship between the stripper Gypsy Rose Lee and her mother, Rose (played by Ethel Merman). In the musical, Rose tells her daughter: "You are going to be a star!" Laurents said that when Merman spoke the line, he knew how she had managed to become a star, as "her determination was naked, frightening and gallant". Laurents resisted Robbins's attempt to turn this complex psychology – the human desire for recognition – into a "panorama of vaudeville" (the jugglers and acrobats were turfed out).
Both West Side Story and Gypsy were nominated for a Tony award for best musical. Laurents eventually won the award for the less well-known Hallelujah, Baby! (1967), for which he wrote the book. He won another Tony for directing the farcical La Cage aux Folles, about a gay nightclub owner's disastrous encounter with the strait-laced family of his son's fiancee. "I never thought it would get off the ground," Laurents said. "It was a smash from the first preview, the biggest hit I'd ever been associated with."
Laurents was born Arthur Levine in Flatbush, in Brooklyn, New York, to middle-class Jewish parents. He soon asserted his own agnosticism. Precocious signs of his future career were evident when he helped his mother redraft speeches which his father had written for her to address local women's groups.
Broadway trips with an aunt encouraged his love of theatre. He attended various local schools and went to Cornell University, New York, in 1934. He began to read plays with a teacher. "That's almost all I did one whole year ... We both learned it was much easier to be a critic than a playwright."
While selling towels at Bloomingdale's department store, in 1938, he took an evening course in writing at New York University. Told that a radio play should not open with a telephone ringing, he promptly did just that, and CBS Radio took his script Now Playing Tomorrow, about a clairvoyant, for a Sunday-evening slot. More script commissions followed. "A good plot depends on character," he said. "Then economy, which is best learned on radio because radio time, unlike stage or screen time, is not flexible."
He was drafted for second world war service in 1941 but was never posted abroad, instead writing training films and plays for army radio. This work brought him a greater range of characters to draw upon: a photograph of soldiers beside a comrade's body in the jungle inspired his play Home of the Brave, about antisemitism, staged on Broadway in 1945. Its Hollywood sale heralded a fractious relationship with the movie industry. The 1949 film adaptation, with a screenplay by Carl Foreman, replaced the Jewish protagonist with an African American one.
Rope, Alfred Hitchcock's thriller about two gay students who plot to murder a friend, brought Laurents a sustained affair with its star, Farley Granger. The film was originally inspired by Patrick Hamilton's play. Laurents then adapted novels for the screenplays Caught (1949) and Bonjour Tristesse (1958), and wrote the script for Anastasia (1956), starring Ingrid Bergman. His own romantic play The Time of the Cuckoo (1952), set in Venice, was turned into the film Summertime (1955), with Katharine Hepburn taking the role created on stage by Shirley Booth. The play, which had been inspired by Laurents and Granger's European retreat from Senator Joseph McCarthy's anti-communist witch-hunts in Hollywood, also became a misbegotten musical, Do I Hear a Waltz? (1965).
In 1962 Laurents directed a musical for the first time, I Can Get it for You Wholesale, starring an emergent Barbra Streisand. He and Streisand worked together again on the film The Way We Were. His screenplay was based on politics at Cornell and McCarthyism. Despite Streisand's efforts, the director Sydney Pollack diluted the script's politics and played up the love affair.
He directed and wrote the book for the musical Nick & Nora (1991), based on the characters in Dashiell Hammett's The Thin Man, which after disastrous previews spent only a week on Broadway. Longer-lasting were the several revivals of Gypsy, the most recent of which starred Patti LuPone and closed in January 2009.
Laurents's autobiography, Original Story By, was published in 2000. He also wrote the memoir Mainly On Directing (2009). In both books, he reflected on his relationship with his partner of more than 50 years, Tom Hatcher, who died in 2006. "Tom and theatre, that's what my life has been," he wrote.
• Arthur Laurents (Arthur Levine), playwright, screenwriter and director, born 14 July 1917; died 5 May 2011