Tyne Daly had gracefully dipped her final curtsy of the evening. The 1989 revival of Gypsy pushed past one more preview performance at The St. James Theater. My new boyfriend and I had a night off from the drudgery that was a labored production of La Cage Aux Folles at Bucks County Playhouse. Standing in the right rear orchestra of the St. James’ we turned to leave and strode up the outer aisle then shuffled with the crowd along the back of the orchestra’s last row. We came to the next aisle break. I peered down. A wallet lay under the last aisle seat.
I picked up the slender black leather billfold– searched for identification. A driver’s license? None. I pulled at one of the plastic credit cards; American Express. As fellow audience members brushed past me I looked at the name under the card’s brand. I was stunned by the raised, molded moniker pressed into the plastic; Arthur Laurents. I quickly pulled at the other credit cards in the wallet just to make certain I hadn’t imagined my discovery. Upon one piece of plastic after another was the name; Arthur Laurents, Arthur Laurents, Arthur Laurents.
I turned to my boyfriend. With shock I gibbered I’d just found Arthur Laurents’ wallet. He dully replied, “Who’s Arthur Laurents?”
Was I really dating an actor who was currently in an Arthur Laurents’ musical that limped weekly at a weary summer stock in New Hope, PA? And who had just witnessed for two hours a legendary musical co-written and directed by the same man? Yepper. And would this be the same boyfriend who would go on to become a talent agency owner and my partner? For better or worse… yes. (Oh I should have recognized then what that spoken ignorance of “Who’s Arthur Laurents?” would lead to.)
Trembling I rushed backstage to return the wallet to its owner. The doorman seemed perplexed until I displayed the credit cards bearing Mr. Laurents’ name. I and the boyfriend were escorted into the privileged depths of the St. James. This was my first time ever venturing back stage at a Broadway house. We were told to wait at the bottom of a stairwell that led up to the dressing rooms. What would unknowingly become years later commonplace in my life, milling about the tight back stage passages of Broadway, felt at that moment like a fantasy realized only once. I was witnessing the elite behind-the-scenes world and participants of Broadway.
There was composer Jule Styne pressed against an upper wall. Adolph Green and Betty Comden were emerging from Tyne Daly’s dressing room. Was that Sondheim sheepishly breezing past? Possibly, my eyes were focused above on the other Broadway luminaries in the cramped stairwell. Jonathan Hadary, who played Herbie, ventured out from his dressing room to greet a perky, national, morning talk-show host. Surreal would be my response if at that moment I was informed that in the next decade I as a casting person would be chatting and calming Mr. Hadary as he readied to enter an 890 Broadway audition studio for the first national tour of Angels in America.
The doorman interrupted my reverie. Standing aside him was a short, compact man with a passionate fire in his eyes. He was introduced to me.
“Arthur,” the doorman grumbled, “this is the guy.”
Arthur Laurents asked for my name. He shook my hand repeatedly and expressed great gratitude. He then proposed a question I wasn’t expecting, “What can I do for you?”
“Nothing,” I gushed.
I wasn’t anticipating anything. This brief glimpse into a fanciful world I’d never witnessed before was more than reward enough. And why would I require a reward? I was just rightfully returning one man’s property. We chatted briefly. He again thanked me and instructed that I contact him if I needed anything.
Driving back to the dreariness of the dilapidated Bucks County Playhouse I was giddy. Upon return the boyfriend and I shared our experience with fellow cast mates. When informed about Arthur asking me if there was something he could do for me and I revealed that I replied ‘nothing’, many of the actors became bitter and angered.
“Why didn’t you ask to be in his show? Or for an audition?” came repeated admonishments.
I told the leverage-every-encounter thespians that requesting such didn’t seem proper. The only request I could foolishly think of, in retrospect, was to ask Mr. Laurents if he could arrange a dinner between me and Stephen Sondheim. (I don’t think that would have played very well.)
For the next twenty-four hours cast members castigated me for not seizing this ‘golden opportunity’. Young, confused and peer pressured I acquiesced and announced that I would drive back up to New York the next day and deliver my headshot and resume to the stage door of the St. James. The boyfriend insisted I deliver his P&R as well. I reluctantly accepted his headshot and stashed it under the front seat of my Honda where it would remain for months until the car’s next cleaning. I felt dirty enough delivering my headshot to Arthur Laurents. I didn’t fancy being a headshot mule for others.
When I met the doorman at the St. James he mentioned that Arthur had announced to the cast my name and wallet return during notes. Supposedly Arthur asked of the cast if anyone knew me. The doorman told me that several people responded ‘yes’. (They must have had me confused with some other Paul Russell. I was way under their level at the time.) With hesitance I handed the doorman the manila envelope holding my headshot to be given to Mr. Laurents. I can’t recall but I hope I wrote and included a kind and respectful letter.
For days after I felt like an exploitative dope.
Arthur responded within a week via a gracious note; ‘should the opportunity to audition ever come up…” and so on. Plus he offered return tickets to Gypsy which I happily utilized when Linda Lavin took over the role of Mama Rose.
In the years that followed Arthur and I wrote each other. His correspondence rests in one of my desk drawers alongside letters from two of his colleagues; Hal Prince and Stephen Sondheim. When I ventured into casting Arthur unknowingly became a champion of some of my work. I next encountered him when he personally brought Stephen Sondheim to see a play that I cast. They had an interest in musicalizing the hot property. I chatted with both gentlemen. Thanked them for coming. Reminded Arthur I was the guy who found his wallet. To which he cheered, “You’re the guy!” He turned to Sondheim and re-told the story of how we first met. I then profusely apologized for my headshot submission. Arthur was very kind in his return remarks.
We would encounter each other again over the years. One of those times was at the George Street Playhouse. My partner had a client in a new play written and directed by Arthur. (Arthur had seen the actress in one of my prior castings and insisted she be cast in his production without an audition. At first she declined— the tale of her initial short-sightedness is in ACTING: Make It Your Business.) When the partner and I bumped into Arthur at the opening night gala he immediately thanked me again for finding and returning his wallet many years prior. He’d always do that whenever we met.
I’m grateful to Arthur for his kindness. His compassion. His support of the works I played part in as casting director. I never witnessed Arthur’s infamous irascible behavior. If I had I would have told others as I do now; Arthur Laurents had a right to fight. The man, while having a great many successes, was also the same man our government unjustly black-listed as a communist during the McCarthy era. His journey, while often appearing to glide smoothly over pristine pavement, had its share of pot holes. Yet the man always ventured forward. He never relented.
Now that he has passed; I’ll miss bumping into him and hearing, “You’re that guy.” Our community has lost a champion.
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Paul Russell’s career as a casting director, director, acting teacher and former actor has spanned nearly thirty years. He has worked on projects for major film studios, television networks, and Broadway. Paul has taught the business of acting and audition technique at NYU and has spoken at universities including Yale, Temple and the University of the Arts. He writes a column for Back Stage and is the author of ACTING: Make It Your Business – How to Avoid Mistakes and Achieve Success as a Working Actor. For more information, please visit www.PaulRussell.net.
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