Arthur Laurents is a smart guy. He tricked me into buying his book, “Mainly on Directing“, as I thought it would focus, well, mainly on directing. Specifically, directing two of the best musicals ever, Gypsy and West Side Story — two shows for which he also wrote the book.
But after ten pages or so, exhaustion set in. “Mainly on Directing” wasn’t a book on directing. Not by a long shot. Instead “Mainly on Directing” was about the amazing Arthur Laurents, and his struggles and frustration as an under-appreciated director in a town where only a handful of people (himself included) are really equipped to direct musicals — it’s “in their bones”, as he says. In his book, Laurents comes off as someone campaigning for martyrdom for his struggles in saving Broadway single-handedly while directing Gypsy and West Side Story as they should have always been done (aka directed by him).
Oh, he has unkind things to say about nearly everyone, including Sondheim, Jerome Robbins, Sam Mendes, Hal Prince, Ethel Merman. You name it. I’m just glad that he didn’t bash Bernadette Peters. She got one of his back-handed compliments that seem his trademark.
Now don’t get me wrong — I appreciate candor and straight talkin’. However, Laurents seems to have an excuse and a finger to point for every misstep in his career. As much as he talks about the importance of a director to be accountable for the show, he seems to have no accountability for messes like “Anyone Can Whistle,” a show that features an unintelligible book (that he wrote) injected with a great Sondheim score. However, he blames the show’s failure on Sondheim for not wanting to do a smaller, grittier production as suggested by famed producer David Merrick. Which would have solved the show, apparently. Oh, you dumb, arrogant Sondheim!
He also reveals the highly insecure mess that is Patti LuPone. According to Laurents, she phoned him up constantly asking about the potential of a Broadway transfer for Gypsy, and then when they got one, she didn’t want an opening night — for fear of what the critics would say. She also seemed to cry a lot in her dealings with him. He also noted that Patti calls her concert engagements as her “pay off the debts tour,” or something to that effect. Which says a lot about the effort she’s put into performing the last few times I’ve caught her solo acts. I do, however, love that Patti said this when struggling with Laurents’ direction of her Rose:
“I’m not dumb, I’m just slow.”
– Patti LuPone
It was an interesting, if painful, read. The man is a genius and highly influential in the world of modern musical theatre, so it’s interesting to get his point of view on things. I do agree that “ya either got it, or ya ain’t” when it comes to understanding the language of directing and performing in a musical. And Laurents has it. However, I’d like to think that a little more joy goes into the the magic of the American musical than what Laurents thinks drives it: himself.
Laura Benanti, Laurents, LuPone, and Boyd Gaines at the 2008 Tony Awards