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Putting It Together: How Stephen Sondheim and I Created
"Sunday in the Park with George"

by James Lapine

Book Review by Wendy Caster

Art isn't easy. James Lapine's fascinating memoir/oral history, Putting It Together: How Stephen Sondheim and I Created "Sunday in the Park with George", proves it. Lapine and the people he interviewed vividly depict the ecstatic ups and many downs of going from a postcard of Georges Seurat's A Sunday on La Grande Jatte to the Pulitzer Prize-winning, much-beloved-but-not-by-everybody musical.

Lapine and Sondheim were an odd couple. Lapine was relatively new to directing, with just one musical under his belt (March of the Falsettos) and no Broadway credits. Sondheim was The Guy, with four Tonys, a slew of other awards, and a string of brilliant musicals to his credit, e.g., A Little Night Music, Sweeney Todd, and Follies. Lapine was experimental, Sondheim traditional. But, following the critical response to Merrily We Roll Along, Sondheim was ready for a change. He found the people of New York theatre to be "hostile and mean-spirited." After seeing Lapine's Twelve Dreams, a play inspired by Man and His Symbols by Carl Jung, Sondheim decided that working with Lapine could be the change he was looking for.

At their first meeting, Sondheim greeted Lapine with joint in hand, putting him "right at ease." They soon started tossing around ideas. After many discussions and possibilities, they focused on A Sunday on La Grande Jatte. Sondheim says,

And as we were talking, you [Lapine] said the magical thing. You said, "The main character is missing." I said, "Who?" And you said, "The artist." Boing! All the lights went on.

The next years would bring brilliant insights, awkward mistakes, a workshop of the first act, going to Broadway with an incomplete show, and weeks of audience members fleeing at intermission. "Finishing the Hat" was not put into the show until the week before the workshop opened! If you know the show, you know the importance of this song—it gives George dimension and a heart—and it's gorgeous beside. If you don't know the show, well it's unlikely you're reading this review. But if you don't know the show, (1) the entire libretto is included in Putting It Together: How Stephen Sondheim and I Created "Sunday in the Park with George"; and (2) there exists a wonderful original cast DVD.

Stress levels only increased on Broadway, with "Move On" not put in until the last week of rehearsal and "Children and Art" and "Lesson #8" added weeks after that, during previews. Also, as Lapine and Sondheim realized the need to focus on the main characters, they had to keep taking music and dialogue away from other performers, which was tough for everyone involved. And the audience response was not helpful. The book is full of great/horrible anecdotes about people hating the show. As just one example, Ann Hould-Ward, co-costume designer with Patricia Zipprodt, says that at one performance, "There were so many people leaving during the second act that Bernie Jacobs [one of the producers] got out of his seat, came up the aisle, and held the door open for them because it was squeaking every time someone left."

As the show finally coalesced, the stress lessened, and the creatives, cast and crew were better able to appreciate and enjoy what they had wrought. Sunday won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, numerous Drama Desk Awards, and Olivier Awards in both 1991 and 2007; has been revived many times; and is now considered by many people to be a masterpiece. On the other hand, critical reception was mixed, the show failed to make money, and it won only two of the many Tony Awards for which it was nominated. What matters most, however, is that Sondheim and Lapine succeeded in making the show they wanted to make.

Putting It Together: How Stephen Sondheim and I Created "Sunday in the Park with George" combines James Lapine's memories and analysis along with extensive quotes from seemingly everyone involved in the original show. I would wish that the book had been either entirely written with quotations interweaved as in standard nonfiction/memoir, or entirely oral history, in which the story grows bit by bit, putting it together. That Lapine did the interviews himself and then presents them in oral history form becomes odd, as people are constantly talking to him while talking about him ("you did this," "you did that"). I have to wonder how much people censored themselves. After all, in many cases he was a friend, and in all cases he was/is a potential employer. Not to say that people weren't critical—Lapine's many mistakes as a director are discussed at length—but I still wish the interviewer had been a disinterested person.

I grew to like Lapine as he copped to his weaknesses and lessons learned, but he can be self-satisfied and tone deaf in his writing. For example, he explains that he went to grad school because it was the Vietnam era and "I was in no mood to be drafted." Considering the nearly 60,000 Americans without his options who died in Vietnam, he might have chosen less flippant verbiage. Similarly, he compares one of his apartments to "Anne Frank's hiding place." Really?

Whatever its weaknesses, this book is a must-read for Sondheim fans, Lapine fans, musical fans, theatre fans, and anyone who is interested in how art is created.

And oh, the stories. Everyone was frequently frustrated and not infrequently terrified. Sondheim and Lapine took suggestions from both John Guare and Michael Bennett. Paul Gemignani and Jonathan Tunick didn't get along. The stage manager told the crew that they were not allowed to drop a sandbag on Mandy Patinkin's head.

My favorite anecdote centers on Patinkin, because it is oh-so-Mandy but also oh-so-all-of-us. Mandy storms out of rehearsal (he explains that he was terrified). Lapine, not knowing what to do, calls Patinkin's wife Kathryn Grody. And she says, "Just tell him you love him."

While I wish there were similarly detailed, educational, and gossipy books on all of Sondheim's work, the development of Sunday was unique in many ways, and therefore this book is particularly valuable. Nowadays, shows may be workshopped to death before going to Broadway, if they ever make it there. (When was the last time Sondheim had a completely new show on Broadway? 1996.) Plus, before early reviews and internet chatter, Lapine and Sondheim et al. had the freedom to fail and learn and fail and learn and fail and succeed. And they needed that freedom. After all, art isn't easy.

Putting It Together: How Stephen Sondheim and I Created "Sunday in the Park with George"
By James Lapine
416 Pages
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication Date August 3, 2021
ISBN: 978-0374200091
Available in Hardcover, Kindle Edition, and Audible Audiobook