“Putting It Together: How Stephen Sondheim and I Created Sunday in the Park with George” by James Lapine is a gem of a book, a most untraditional memoir, an intimate view into the artistic process of transforming a bigger-than-life 19th-century French pointillist painting into a Broadway hit. Lapine says in a recent email about its origin, “The publisher of Farrar, Straus and Giroux suggested I write a memoir. I didn’t feel I wanted to do that but sometime after we spoke, I had this idea of writing a first-hand account of what goes into making a piece of theater.”
Lapine was a young, newly experienced playwright and director when he met the legendary and esteemed Broadway composer and lyricist Sondheim, who was 19 years his senior, when the two took the enormous leap of creating a musical about George Seurat’s imagined two-year journey of creating his iconic painting “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte,” 1884-1886. So little is known about Seurat’s personal life that the duo essentially had a “blank canvas” from which to start. “We didn’t know how lucky we were by picking this painting. The painting is brilliant, because it’s endlessly inspirational,” said Lapine in one of the conversations he had with Sondheim.
While the musical is about Seurat’s creation, the through theme is the immensely moving though unhappy relationship between the main characters — Seurat himself and the most prominent woman in the painting, his model known in the show as “Dot.” The others also come from the painting. Lapine said to Sondheim about their creation, “I thought a lot about how the characters were portrayed visually — where in the painting, their scale in relationship to everyone else, etc.”
Lapine has constructed a brilliant structure to take us from the musical’s conception to it winning a Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Rather than a straight narrative, he uses his own reflections to tell the story through interviews with much of the cast and production team, reproductions of script notes by him and music/lyric notes by Sondheim, sheet music, and personal and professional photographs. His skillful interweaving grabs your attention and keeps you wanting to turn the page. Reflecting about the structure, Lapine says, “I worked chronologically in the storytelling with occasional sidebars about different aspects of what goes into getting a Broadway musical on the stage. Because this was my first Broadway show, there was a big learning curve for me at the time. I was able to share that with the reader.”
What comes out, whether you ever saw the show or not, are keen insights into the fascinating, complicated, collaborative process behind getting the show from conception to final production. (You can find a video with the original cast on YouTube.) Lapine brings out how essential each person’s role was. Clearly, it takes a village. Not just the cast but the costume, sound, and set designers; musical director; orchestrator; musicians; producer; general and stage managers; casting director; his lawyer and agent; among others. But at the heart of the book are the tremendously revealing conversations throughout between him and Sondheim about their personal creative process. We come away with a clear understanding of how these two immensely talented men approached their work, both together and individually. Lapine reflects, “Having never written a traditional book for a musical before ‘Sunday’ — and having seen few musicals — working with Sondheim became my education. I learned as I went along, pretty much writing in order without an outline, and figuring out the show in tandem with my composer-lyricist. It’s a real shift for a playwright to suddenly be in a collaboration with another writer. Finding that common voice is a challenge.”
Lapine gained new insights for himself while writing the book. “It was a wonderful experience to go back in time and visit a moment with the other people who were there. I learned a lot about my younger self from their perspective.”
An interesting recurring theme from so many of the folks was their sense of vulnerability and being a bit (or a lot) intimidated. Even Sondheim, apparently. Lapine writes in “Putting it Together,” “Steve was vulnerable and maybe a little insecure, like the rest of us. As we now know, those feelings don’t go away, no matter how old you are or who you are or what your accomplishments have been — you’re putting a piece of yourself out into the world, and you wouldn’t be human if you didn’t manifest some vulnerability.”
Asked what he would like us to walk away with from the book, Lapine says, “I hope readers will find the book entertaining and also informative. At the end of the day this is the story of what goes into the process of making a piece of theater — but anyone who ‘makes’ anything will find it informative and entertaining. It has a cast of interesting characters, none more so than the great composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim. I also hope that the book will become useful to those who are embarking on a career in the theater. One reason I wrote it was because I didn’t have a book like this to read when I was starting out. It would have been very helpful!”
“Putting It Together: How Stephen Sondheim and I created Sunday in the Park with George,” James Lapine. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $40. Available at Bunch of Grapes in Vineyard Haven, Edgartown Books, and online.
James Lapine will give a Zoom author talk with the Edgartown library on Thursday, August 12, at 7 pm. Visit bit.ly/2VgAoFH to register for the event.