In the 1950s, the silver age of the American musical, the prolific dramatist Arthur Laurents was on the scene at some interesting moments. In 1957, he wrote the book for West Side Story. This book was not so vital a contribution as that of Jerome Robbins (conception, choreography, direction) or Leonard Bernstein (music) or Stephen Sondheim (lyrics). Indeed, the book limps; what survives in West Side Story is the street energy already present in Robbins’s Fancy Free and Bernstein’s On the Town, both of 1944. But Laurents was there.

And too, in 1959, Laurents wrote the book for Gypsy, a savage picture of backstage life dominated by a Medea-like stage mother. The Stephen Sondheim-Jule Styne score made Gypsy, but Laurents’s book served them well. In 1949 Laurents had written, for the German director Max Ophuls, a movie called Caught, in which he created a...

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