Original Story By
by Arthur Laurents
Published by Knopf
436 pages, 2000
Buy it online
Reviewed by Sienna Powers
Alternately catty and witty, warm and distantly damning, playwright, director and screenwriter Arthur Laurents' autobiography, Original Story By, sums up as one of those pesky insider tell-alls. Though, this time, it is in fact an inside job executed by an expert pen.
Laurents' Broadway and Hollywood credits are a couple of arms long and include some of the most successful and prestigious productions ever staged or produced. They include work on West Side Story, The Way We Were, Gypsy, the direction of La Cage aux Folles on Broadway and the writing and direction of I Can Get it For You Wholesale, with which he claims he jump-started Barbra Streisand's career. The Streisand stuff seems worthy of a book in itself.
As Laurents tells it in Original Story By, Streisand came in to audition for I Can Get it For You Wholesale and "there was no part for her." The only role still open was a 50-year-old spinster named Miss Marmelstein. Barbra was just 19.
True, with her bird's nest of scraggly hair and her gawky, disorganized body, she was a poster girl for Spinster Incarnate. Equally true was the debit side: thrift shop clothes which proclaimed eccentricity, behavior which was calculated spontaneity.... When she sang, she was simple; when she sang, she was vulnerable; when she sang, she was moving, funny, mesmerizing, anything she wanted to be. The authors were beaming, the producer wasn't thrilled but if Barbra Streisand's agent could have read my mind, he would have asked a fortune for her to play Miss Marmelstein.
On reflection, this particular bit of text is a perfect sampling of Original Story By. Laurents can be bitchy and he can be sunny and sometimes he manages to be both in the same sentence. It's a pretty neat trick and the only thing that keeps it from being fully annoying is that he's just got so darned many interesting stories to tell. Another classic example is Irene Selznick's snubbing of Laurents in Philadelphia in 1946 after he asked her to close Heartsong -- which he'd written and which Selznick produced -- before it had a chance to bomb in New York. "The snub did score, though. It reminded me that the theatre was a business and business is first about success and I had failed. Failure is not welcome at the table. Moreover, I might be contagious."
What makes Laurents' final assessment of the Heartsong situation a little hard to swallow is that, in the preceding pages, he's carefully give us a blow-by-blow of events as they transpired. Selznick, the then-wife of movie guru David O., had poured a pile of her own money into the play. "No playwright could have asked for a more comprehensive out-of-town tryout than Irene gave me: New Haven, Boston, and Philadelphia." Laurents dragged his feet on rewrites, or alternately rewrote "too quickly, as was my habit." Selznick had ideas about what was wrong with the play and told Laurents who listened, but, "unfortunately, she talked so much, she was hard to hear."
Thus Original Story By is full of flavorful contradictions. Laurents offers his experiences with seeming candor and many snipes then concludes -- when conclusions are called for -- with logic-defying analyses that mostly end up with him on the side of right and good.
As all of this might lead you to believe, Original Story By is interesting reading. We deal with Laurents' own coming to terms with his homosexuality; his run-in with the House Un-American Activities Committee that resulted in his spending several productive years in Europe. It follows him through many affairs of the heart: on both sides of the gender table; through his many professional successes and the friendships that developed partly through them. In this regard, Original Story By reads like a Hollywood who's who. Laurents drops names with the best of them: Eddie Albert, Lauren Bacall (whom he refers to as "Betty." Of course.), Josephine Baker, Ingrid Bergman, Leonard Bernstein, Shirley Booth, Charlie Chaplin, Greta Garbo and -- oh! -- so many more all have a mention or more in Laurents' book.
While it might not be a bad idea to read Original Story By with a grain or two of salt nearby, it's really a very good -- fun, interesting, informative and infotaining -- book. After all, Laurents is a writer first and it shows in this work. He knows how to tell a story or 40 and it's hard not to feel pleased at being taken along on this ride. | June 2000
Sienna Powers is a transplanted Calgarian who lives and works in Vancouver, B.C. She is a writer and conceptual artist.