November 6, 2012

The late Arthur Laurents was a truth teller. The plays he wrote portrayed his honest view of life. The productions he directed sought to find the truth in the plays they performed. His book Mainly On Directing focused on the importance of truth in the theater. His autobiography, Original Story By, was filled to overflowing with the truth as he saw it about many famous people who were bound not to like what he said about them. His personal style fit the term he probably hated as inelegant – “Tell it like it is.”

I have to do some truth telling of my own. I found his final book, his follow up to the autobiography, to be a poorly-written, rambling, un-focused and rarely interesting bore. The Rest of the Story: A Life Completed misses the mark he set for himself over his 93 years of life by such a large margin that it is a shame.

The earlier autobiography had included material for which he rightly apologizes in this volume. He apologizes to those hurt by the over-exposure – especially the sexual revelations about famous people whose personal reputations were harmed. But he also admits that the emphasis on sex was a disservice to his readers too.

If you enjoyed Original Story By because of its raunchiness, and turn to The Rest of the Story for more of the same, you will be disappointed. It wasn’t the lack of specifics on the bedroom antics of the rich and famous of Hollywood and Broadway that disappointed me, however. It was the lack of stories that help illuminate truths about the world of the theater.

The book has many black and white photos, most of which are candid snapshots as opposed to professionally posed portraits. The editor of the book, the director David Saint who Laurents called his “best friend” at the end of his life, provides captions which, once you have figured out who wrote them, do help explain who the people are and where and when the pictures were taken.

Apparently Laurents went back over his draft and added details or asides. These are in italics. It would have helped if Saint had explained that in his Introduction. The first few times you run into italicized comments, you don’t know where they came from or even who wrote them. Even when you get used to them, they can be highly confusing.

For example, while discussing appearing on a talk show to plug his book on directing he tells how he deflected some questions he didn’t want to answer. The type face abruptly changes to italics for the comment “Would I do it today? I don’t think so, but this book isn’t finished, let alone published. Obama promised so much in his campaign.” Now where in the world did that come from?

The one time the book fascinated me was when, on pages 128, 129 and 130, Laurents reprints the hand-typed script of a tribute Stephen Sondheim wrote for Laurents’ eightieth birthday with new lyrics to songs from Gypsy. Sondheim played the piano while Peter Jones did an Ethel Merman imitation delivering lines like (from “Everything’s Coming Up Roses”) “You look swell, You look great / Shit, you hardly look seventy-eight” and (from “Some People”) “Some playwrights can be content / Making pageants or faking Rent. / That’s peachy for some playwrights / for some, numb, dumb playwrights, and their shows. / Well they can stay and rot / Or write prose.”

The story of that eightieth birthday celebration makes an amusing anecdote, and there are a few others here. But the book doesn’t teach any lessons that most frequent theater goers don’t already know.

Some of those lessons we learned from a younger Arthur Laurents. We learned them by watching quality productions of musicals for which he wrote the book – West Side Story, Gypsy, Anyone Can Whistle, Do I Hear A Waltz, Hallelujah, Baby!, Nick & Nora, The Madwoman of Central Park West. (To tell the truth, I never saw a quality production of that last one, so strike it from the list.)

We learned them from the brutally honest plays he wrote – Home of the Brave, The Bird Cage, The Time of the Cuckoo, A Clearing in the Woods, Invitation to a March.

When possible, we learned his view of truth from the productions he directed including the recent revival of West Side Story with the Sharks speaking (and singing in) Spanish, the revival of Gypsy staring Bernadette Peters (who wrote the foreword for this book) and the Arena Stage remounting of Hallelujah, Baby!

After all that, the expectations for this posthumously published addition to his autobiography were high. Instead, it turns out to be a book only for the few completists who, having read Original Story By, feel a need to read his final 190 pages.

The Rest of the Story: A Life Completed
Applause Theatre and Cinema Books
207 pages including an index
56 black and white illustrations
ISBN-13: 978-1557838285
List price $24.99

The Rest of the Story: A Life Completed