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While he may not be a household name in Hollywood, on Broadway, James Lapine has achieved near-deity status, due in large part to two collaborations with another theater giant, Stephen Sondheim. Their 1987 musical, Into the Woods (Lapine wrote the book and Sondheim the music and lyrics), is their best known work, having been adapted into a big-budget Disney film starring Meryl Streep and Emily Blunt in 2014.
But their first collaboration, 1984’s Sunday in the Park with George, is widely considered their creative apex — an imaginative (and fictional) telling of the making of a George Seurat pointillist masterpiece. The play had a highly successful revival in 2017, with Jake Gyllenhaal and Annaleigh Ashford taking on the roles of artist and muse originated by Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters.
It was that revival that inspired Lapine to undertake a retelling of how that show came to be. The result, Putting It Together: How Stephen Sondheim and I Created ‘Sunday in the Park with George’ (Farrar, Straus and Giroux; on sale Aug. 3) is a frank and captivating account of the creative process — and a particularly rocky one at that.
Ahead of that book’s release, Lapine, 72, talked to The Hollywood Reporter about his “romantic relationship” with Sondheim (not literally — Lapine is married to Sarah Kernochan, the screenwriter of films like 9 1/2 Weeks and What Lies Beneath) and his close calls in getting Hollywood to green light a film version of Sunday in the Park with George.
You know, when Into the Woods first became available to get the rights and do amateur versions, I was in the first one ever done in Canada. And I played the Baker.
Oh, I love that story. That’s fantastic. Were you a good Baker?
I think I was one of the best Bakers of all time. I don’t know how other people feel.
It’s funny how that show has touched so many people. It’s kind of thrilling in my old age to know that.
Well, it’s such a work of genius.
Thank you. It wasn’t universally received as such, so it’s very nice to hear it now.
It seems like that’s a theme here. I didn’t realize sort of how negatively Sunday in the Park with George was received at the time.
Oh my God. Yeah. It was pretty brutal. Well, it was polarized, shall we say. Some people writing about it just really didn’t like it. For some reason, it raised their hackles. And other people were maybe overboard about how much they like it.
What I love most about the book is how intimately you and Stephen describe your creative partnership. It’s almost like a romantic relationship.
Well, you know what? It was a romantic relationship. It wasn’t a sexual relationship, but it definitely was romantic. I mean, when you meet someone and connect on that level, week after week after week, it does grow into an intimate relationship. And it’s like being married and you go through life, and you face certain obstacles and this and that. I mean, it’s of course, truncated into a two year period, but it was intimate. And I kind of wanted to express that, because I don’t think people are quite aware of what that’s like, to partner. Well, I guess people in business, or whatever field, where they have partners, but it is a marriage of sorts.
And it seems like you were in the perfect spot, in that you were aware of how important he was, but you weren’t a fan boy.
Definitely, I was not a fan boy. So I think that that helped things in a way. And Steve is a pedant. He likes to teach. He would be an extraordinary teacher, and he is an extraordinary teacher. And he enjoys exposing people to things and teaching them things. And so, it was perfect, because I knew so little and he knew so much.
I had always just assumed that Bernadette Peters was just one of Sondheim’s muses and that she was always in his universe. But in fact, that wasn’t the case, that their partnership only started with Sunday.
She was very young. I don’t think she, at the end of the day, had done very many musicals. I wasn’t really up on all of that at the time. But yes, it’s true. She didn’t know much about his work until this began.
And it was your idea to cast her?
Yeah. I just thought, she’s so 19th century, Bernadette.
You talk a lot in the book about the play’s second-act problems. Were you just making it up as you went along?
The second act was mapped out. It wasn’t like it wasn’t fully formed in our heads as to what we wanted it to be. We just hadn’t achieved writing it until the last minute, particularly Steve. It took a long time. The irony of it was, when we did this recent revival of it, I can’t tell you how many people said, “Oh, I never liked the second act, but now I think it’s better than the first.”
I saw that revival, and I thought it was pretty impressive. I really enjoyed it. I don’t know how different it was from the original, but I thought Jake Gyllenhaal had a really good singing voice. I was really impressed.
I think he was terrific. And I love Annaleigh. She was my idea as well, and I think she’s fantastic, too. Yeah. I think that was exciting to see the show hold up that way, after all those years.
Has anyone ever discussed making a film out of it?
I had always wanted to make a film out of it. When we did the show, a producer, Irwin Winkler, was mad for it, took Steve and I out to dinner, and said he wanted to make a film of it, with Mandy and Bernadette, and me directing. That was my dream. I’d always wanted to make a movie. And I thought, “Fantastic.”
And as Steve and I walked out of the restaurant, he said, “I don’t want to do it.” I said, “Why?” He said, “Because I want to write another show with you. And if you direct this movie, you’re going to go off and direct a movie, and you’re going to be gone. And I really want to write another show.” And I’m 20 years his junior year, and I felt so unbelievably grateful to him, that we didn’t do it.
And so that gave us Into the Woods.
Right. And then flash forward to Irwin Winkler, coming out of the woodwork 20 years later and wanting me to work on something he was producing. And I didn’t want to do it, but I said, “I really, really always wanted to do Sunday.” So he said, “Let’s do it.” And I sat down and wrote a screenplay. And that’s when I called Jake Gyllenhaal and said, “I think this is the perfect part for you.”
That’s how that [the Broadway revival] came about. And then we tried to get a film made of it, and we haven’t succeeded.
Did Jake express interest in playing the character in the film?
Oh, yeah. And we went out and pitched it to several people, many people in LA, and nobody bit.
What was their reasoning?
That’s an interesting question. I don’t know. And I had asked Meryl Streep, and she agreed to be in it. So we had Jake and Meryl. I thought, “Well, this will go.” It was before all these movies and streaming shows that are musicals. So I think maybe our timing was really, really bad.
I don’t think the story is yet over.
I hope you’re right. I have to say, I’m not very good at pitching things. It’s never been my forte. And actually, the script is quite exciting. It’s very different than the stage piece. I think it’s very cool, because it starts in the present. It doesn’t start in the past. I think it’s very cool. But who knows? Maybe somebody one day will make it. That would be really a delight.
And what can we look forward to next?
I have the Broadway musical that’s going to come out and hopefully open in December, which is a really cool, if may say so, piece. I’m really excited about it. Very LA-centric.
Is that Flying Over Sunset? What can you tell me about that? It sounds very cool.
Oh, it is very cool. It took place in the ’50s, and it’s about LSD, when LSD was legal. And the three main characters are Cary Grant, Aldous Huxley, both of whom were Californians, and Clare Booth Luce. She was a congresswoman, and she wrote the play, The Women. She was ambassador to Italy. She married Henry Luce, the publisher of Time and Life, a pretty rabid arch-conservative, but did a lot of LSD. And Cary Grant did LSD every week, at his psychiatrist’s office. And Aldous Huxley of course, was the first one to kind of bring LSD into the zeitgeist. And they were all connected to each other. The first act is each of their first experiences with LSD. And then they end up coming together and deciding to do LSD together. And that’s the second act.
Did that really happen?
Well, in my mind, it happened. And by the way, I can make a case for it because they all knew each other and crossed paths. So it’s not out of the realm of possibility.
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