James Lapine: Putting It Together (2021) | featured image

Playwright and Director James Lapine Puts It Together with Composer Stephen Sondheim

Wouldn’t you like to read a marvelous story about the creation of the fabled musical, Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s ‘Sunday in the Park with George’?

Putting It Together: How Stephen Sondheim and I Created "Sunday in the Park with George"
James Lapine
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
August 2021

Bit by bit, putting it together/
Piece by piece, only way to make a work of art/
Every moment makes a contribution/
Every little detail plays a part/
Having just a vision’s no solution/
Everything depends on execution/
Putting it together/
That’s what counts!
– “Putting It Together”

Putting It Together is the fascinating and entertaining story behind the making of Sunday in the Park with George, the classic Stephen Sondheim musical. James Lapine, the man behind the musical’s book as well as its director, puts together an enjoyable tome that is part memoir, part oral history, part behind-the-scenes tour of what goes behind the creation of a musical with outsized personalities that include Mandy Patinkin, Bernadette Peters, Kelsey Grammer, Christine Baranski, and Sondheim himself, among others.

Lapine includes passages where he reports on the genesis of the play and its inspiration – improbably A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte by Georges Seurat – as well as its progress from the writing of the book and songs, to casting, rehearsals, and workshops before eventually opening night. But the most compelling parts of the book are when Lapine’s colleagues give their accounts, which results in delightful debate and give-and-take. When Lapine interacts with his colleagues and friends, Putting It Together becomes an interesting tale of creativity and imagination.

“I just felt you hated me, or were taking out whatever frustration you were feeling on me,” Lapine confides to Patinkin, “I can’t say that I was wildly fond of you.” Though the group of artists would band together to create something special, much of the recollections of the book’s participants are candid about their frustration with the difficult birth of the musical, particularly with how seemingly overwhelmed Lapine appeared. The tension depicted in Putting It Together perfectly reflects how challenging it is to mount an ambitious production like Sunday in the Park with George.

Importantly, the candor has been tempered by the kind of good humor that comes from the distance and perspective of time as well as the genuine affection of close friends. The dialogue captured shows how daunting putting on a show can be – it’s nothing like the jolly improvised chaos of a Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland film where everyone shouts merrily, “Let’s put on a show!” – it’s hard work with lots of stress.

And yes, Lapin is the storyteller, but Sondheim, a musical theatre giant, is the dominant presence in the story behind Sunday in the Park with George. His genius is unimpeachable – he’s one of the most brilliant and intellectual tunesmiths on Broadway – but still he’s disarmingly honest and vulnerable when talking with Lapine about putting together the enduring score. Even though his public persona is that of a successful and deeply popular figure in musical theatre, Sondheim does reveal his worries and fears when crafting the classic tunes. “I was nervous,” Sondheim admits to Lapine about their first meetings, “as I always am with a collaborator.” This towering titan of Broadway charms readers with his frequent admissions of fright and insecurity.

Putting It Together is the story of constructing a popular musical, but it’s also about musical theatre, with juicy anecdotes from Broadway players and showbiz figures. The book isn’t a salacious tell-all à la Julia Phillips’ You’ll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again (1991), but the interview subjects don’t hold back when recounting moments of angst. Lapine’s at-times strained and prickly relationships with his actors often highlighted the kind of anxiety that comes with directing a show. Lapine repeatedly cops to being difficult at times, given the Herculean task of pulling together this exacting project, yet he also shares his passion for the work.

From Lapine’s early introduction to musical theatre in his native Ohio (he discovered that the lyricist of Bye Bye Birdie – Lee Adams – was from his hometown, Mansfield, Ohio) to Tony Awards night, in which Sunday in the Park with George was up for ten Tonys, including a nod for Lapine himself, Putting It Together tells an exciting story of how a community of creatives worked together for a common goal. Backstage skirmishes and bruised egos are displayed but it doesn’t take away from how remarkable this journey was for Lapine, Sondheim, and the rest of the Sunday gang.

When one listens to the classic, Grammy-winning soundtrack of the 1984 production, all of the struggle, strife, and stress is invisible. The talented individuals who banded together to make this once-in-a-lifetime production created a thoroughly enjoyable show.

Lapine tells a marvelous story of the creation of a fabled musical, one that was inspired by the legendary work of another great artist, Seurat. “Sometimes I would wonder what Georges Seurat would have made of our show,” Lapine muses in his book. He hopes that Seurat would’ve been happy that his masterpiece would be accessible to a whole new – and gigantic – audience.

Lapine guesses that the painter knew “his work would inspire others to think about art in a new way long after he was gone.”  Because that is what Sunday in the Park with George and Putting It Together is all about: art and the creation of art.

RATING 8 / 10
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