James Lapine talks collaborations, inspirations and “Putting It Together”

Courtesy of James Lapine

If ever there was a meta memoir —  a biographical book about the artistic process behind another artistic process about a work of art — it would be graphic designer, playwright and director James Lapine’s newly published “Putting It Together: How Stephen Sondheim And I Created ‘Sunday In The Park With George.’”

The handsomely-appointed volume not only features self-revelations about the nuances of a theatrical partnership, interviews with his collaborators (co-writing /composing legend Stephen Sondheim, “Sunday in the Park” stars Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters), and a sort-of instruction manual for young theater makers. “Putting It Together” also happens to be the subject of a talk at the Free Library of Philadelphia Main Branch on Vine Street between Lapine and locally-born Broadway composer Benj Pasek (“Dear Evan Hansen”) on Tuesday, Aug. 10, as well as the topic of a streaming program through TownHall.org, featuring Lapine, Sondheim, Patinkin, Peters and actor Christine Baranski.

“Wouldn’t you want to go back, and check out a moment in your life that was important to you,” quizzes Lapine from his home in New York City, before traveling to Philadelphia. “Who wouldn’t want to look back on something they recalled so fondly, especially since my first time out on such a massive scale also happened to be such a huge success. That’s been the fun part of all of this, the most pleasurable aspect. The constructive aspect of it comes in that young theater makers can learn how a relatively large shows makes it way from the page onto the stage.”

Lapine was already successful as a purveyor of avant-garde theater with his Gertrude Stein-based stage show, “Photograph,” a 1977 work that also included an image from pointillism avatar, painter Georges Seurat.

“I was hardly an avatar of the avante-garde,” laughs Lapine. “I smoked a little dope, did a weird show that caught on, and got some credibility, that by chance, got picked up on by the New York Times, and was successful.”

Provided

From 1884 to 1886, the little-known Seurat obsessively put together “A Sunday Afternoon On The Island Of La Grande Jatte,” dot by dot. “I was just gob-smacked by that painting when I saw it as a teen in Chicago,” says Lapine. “I honestly don’t know why it had so an effect, or hold, over me other than that it was so cool.”

One hundred years later, Lapine – maintaining something of an obsession with Seurat’s obsessiveness—contacted Sondheim, famed for musicals such as “West Side Story,” “Sweeney Todd” and “Assassins,” started a collaboration, and spent two Seurat-like years creating their “Sunday in The Park with George.”

“One of the pleasures in doing this show in the first place was to find out why that painting held such sway over me, as well as finding out something about the painter himself.”

Legendarily, little was known, then, about Seurat before Lapine and Sondheim set pen to paper, a boon to any writer or theater maker as one could let their imagination run wild with such a blank canvas.

“You have a lot of license to connect the dots, so to speak,” notes Lapine. “Plus, as Sondheim said, Seurat wasn’t the type of artist to cut off his ear. When we finally did find his diaries, we found out that Seurat was a little bit humorless, the type of guy who would spend two years obsessively and compulsively putting together dots. Because he was so secretive and recessive, we had to create an outer life, tell his story through those around him.”

But first, before any blank canvases got stretched or filled in, Lapine had to get to know the famously inscrutable Sondheim. New to the theater, still, at age 28 (he met Sondheim at 31), Lapine first went to songwriter Randy Newman with another idea, before meeting Sondheim through acquaintances and finding the legendary Broadway composer’s quirks compelling.

“He invited me to his apartment, we smoked a joint right away, and I realized that his coffee table was filled with these great old interesting objects and puzzles. Same with his walls – puzzles and vintage board games everywhere. Seeing all these antique games gave me a vision of who he was. A collector of curious objects. Someone who was unique visually.”

Frank, and polite in the “Putting It Together” book about how the hard decisions were made between them, Lapine states now that neither man was too dogmatic about any of their ideas – something that allowed the pair to continue on, further, with additional contemporary stage classics such as “Into the Woods.”

“A good collaboration is like a marriage,” says Lapine. “You have to meet in the middle. You want to work with someone who has opinions, as strong as mine. We never had a contentious relationship, Having someone ask why, makes you defend your decisions and opens you up to new possibilities.”

A virtual discussion between James Lapine and Benj Pasek will be hosted by the Free Library of Philadelphia on Tuesday, Aug. 10 at 7 p.m. The event is free. For information or to register, visit https://libwww.freelibrary.org/calendar/event/107281

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