Magazine article The Sondheim Review

Jumping In

Magazine article The Sondheim Review

Jumping In

Article excerpt

Lapine and Sondheim have brought differing styles to their collaborations

In June 1982 Stephen Sondheim met James Lapine, a photographer and graphics designer 20 years his junior who'd only recently tried his hand at theatre writing and directing. Between March 1979 and December 1981 Lapine had three noteworthy projects: Table Settings and March of the Falsettos at Playwrights Horizons and Twelve Dreams at The Public Theater.

During those same months Sondheim and Hal Prince went from enjoying the success of Sweeney Todd to the swift closure of Merrily We Roll Along, an experience so painful Prince suggested they take a break from working together and Sondheim considered giving up the theatre to write mystery novels.

Sondheim had admired Twelve Dreams and even wondered whether Lapine might be interested in working with him. But it was producer Lewis Allen who introduced them. Sondheim turned down a suggestion to adapt Nathaniel West's novel A Cool Million with Lapine, but continued meeting to brainstorm other ideas. A year later their first show, Sunday in the Park with George, had a 25-performance run in a tiny off-Broadway theatre.

The development process for the Lapine-Sondheim shows was a departure from the traditional model of out-of-town tryouts culminating in a Broadway opening. As that became too expensive (or in the case of Sweeney Todd, too unwieldy) shows began to preview in New York City, sometimes, as with Merrily, drawing unwelcome scrutiny.

Sondheim found himself doing staged readings and preliminary workshops under the auspices of Andre Bishop and Ira Weitzman (first at Playwrights Horizons and later Lincoln Center) and even heading to San Diego to get Into the Woods on its feet at South Coast Rep months before any Broadway debut.

Today, nearly 15 year after Passion, Lapine and Sondheim will join forces again to realize Lapine's vision of a multimedia revue tracing the history of Sondheim's career. When I spoke with Lapine on the phone in September 2009, he told me that Sondheim on Sondheim with Barbara Cook is slated for a Roundabout production in spring 2010.

The Sondheim Review. What were your first meetings like?

James Lapine: I didn't really know Steve's work, which I know sounds kind of ridiculous, but I came from a whole other world. I'd only done three other shows - one a musical. It took a little while for me to figure out who he was and what he did. We talked a lot about what we liked, what we didn't like, what interested us. I was somebody just coming into the theatre, more knowledgeable about avant-garde and fringe theatre and less mainstream Broadway. So Sunday was born from that.

TSR: Is it true that you were well along before Sondheim started writing?

JL: Well, he wrote the opening chords [laughs] by the time I finished the first act. That was it. I was thinking, "Is this guy ever going to write a song?" But, you know, the way Steve works, he was taking notes and thinking a lot about songs. He just wasn't writing them. When he started, he knew exactly what he was doing and where he was going. It takes him a long time to write a song because, as he says, he doesn't want to write the wrong song.

TSR: At what point did it become clear that you would also direct?

JL: I pretty much had never done anything else - the few things I'd done - so it was never a discussion we had. One of the nice things about our collaboration is there's only the two of us. It's been very intimate. We haven't had to wrestle with more than two personalities in the room. I look back now and realize both with him and Bill Finn what a great comfort that is.

TSR: Is there a huge difference in the way you work with Finn vs. Sondheim?

JL: Totally, completely, couldn't be more opposite of one another. Bill kind of bangs it all out and then refines it down the line. Well, they're both great. I mean you get a little spoiled as a writer working with Steve because he's so exact. …

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