By Don Leavitt
It’s hard to imagine a more unlikely pairing in American musical theatre than Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine. When you consider some of the names that have shaped the modern American musical—Rodgers and Hammerstein, Rodgers and Hart, Lerner and Loewe, for example—well, “Sondheim and Lapine” just doesn’t have the same ring to it.
Rarely have two people of such vastly different backgrounds, temperaments, and levels of experience joined forces so successfully, nor left such an indelible impression. There is no question that the collaboration between Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine has been successful—together, the duo created two of the most successful plays in Broadway history, and, between them, their work has been awarded more than a dozen times. Their success is that much more remarkable when considered in the context of their differences: Lapine’s Midwestern, public school upbringing compared with Sondheim’s life as the only child of wealthy parents in New York; Lapine’s personable, gregarious personality compared to the introverted Sondheim’s self-described melancholic nature; Lapine’s almost accidental foray into theatre compared to Sondheim’s position as a master of the genre.
The way the two met is something of a Broadway legend. It was 1982, and Sondheim had just suffered a failure with his musical Merrily We Roll Along, a sixteen-performance flop that greatly affected the composer. Sondheim has said he was ready to quit theatre and create video games or write mysteries: “I wanted to find something to satisfy myself that does not involve Broadway,” Sondheim said (Gottfried, Martin, Sondheim [New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1993] 153).
Sondheim attended a performance of the play Twelve Dreams, written and directed by James Lapine, at the Public Theatre in New York, and was so impressed with the production he asked to meet with Lapine after the show. “I was discouraged, and I don’t know what would have happened if I hadn’t discovered Twelve Dreams at the Public Theatre,” Sondheim said (Wolf, Matt, “Stephen Sondheim: An audience with a theatre legend” [The Independent, April, 2013]).
As a result of that meeting, the pair would go on to create three musicals, books by Lapine, music and lyrics by Sondheim. They first collaborated in 1984 on Sunday in the Park with George, which received fairly mixed reviews but was nonetheless a commercial success and one of the few Broadway musicals to be awarded a Pulitzer Prize. This was followed in 1987 by Into the Woods, a retelling of classic Grimms’ fairy tales that was both critically and commercially successful. Their final production together was 1994’s Passion, a critically acclaimed play that holds the distinction for having the shortest Broadway run of any other winner of the Tony Award for Best Musical. In addition, the duo’s work has spawned several revivals and countless regional performances; a big screen version of Into the Woods is currently in production and is scheduled for a December 2014 release.
Lapine is often overshadowed by the sheer depth of Sondheim’s career, and it’s a pity because his grasp of story and his taste for visually-oriented theatre is quite extraordinary. Sondheim has said that Lapine’s production of Twelve Dreams gave him a sense of “renewed hope” for theatre, and he is quick to praise Lapine for coming up with the central idea of Sunday in the Park with George. According to Time Out London writer Jane Edwardes, Sondheim and Lapine visited the Art Institute of Chicago to view the painting by Georges Seurat on which the play is based. “We discussed the fact that nobody in the painting was looking at anybody else and we started to fantasise [sic] about that and the fact that it looks like a stage set. And then James said, ‘The main character is missing,’ and I said, ‘Who?’ and he said, ‘The artist.’ Once that was spoken, it immediately became a play” (http://www.timeout.com/london/theatre/stephen-sondheim-interview).
Born in Mansfield, Ohio, in 1949, Lapine attended public school before graduating from Pennsylvania’s Franklin and Marshall College with a degree in history; he received an MFA in design from the California Institute of Arts and moved to New York City, where he worked as a freelance photographer and graphic designer. His freelance work on Yale/Theater, the magazine of the Yale School of Drama, brought him to the attention of Robert Brustein, dean of the school who offered Lapine a full-time job designing marketing materials and a faculty position teaching a course in advertising design (http://jameslapine.com/biography).
At the urging of his students, Lapine directed the Gertrude Stein play Photograph, and the director Lee Breuer helped arrange for a three-week run of the production at a small performance space in Soho; the run was wildly successful, and in 1977 Lapine won an Obie award for direction. Lapine recognized the opportunity and left graphic arts entirely to write and direct off-Broadway plays, including March of the Falsettos and Twelve Dreams; in addition to his work with Sondheim, Lapine also wrote the musical Luck, Pluck and Virtue; and the play Fran’s Bed. He has directed eighteen productions, including Sondheim on Sondheim, which he also wrote, and the 2012 revival of Annie; he also directed the 1991 film Impromptu, which was written by his wife, Sarah Kernochan. He has received four Drama Desk awards for outstanding book and outstanding direction, and three Tony awards for Best Book of a Musical; in 2010, Lapine was inducted into the American Theatre Hall of Fame.
While Lapine discovered his theatre career late in life, Sondheim’s career was a pursuit that began at the young age of eleven. Born in New York in 1930, Sondheim was the only child of a successful dress maker and his designer wife. His father left the family when Sondheim was ten, and his mother moved them to Pennsylvania, where he became good friends with the son of Oscar Hammerstein. Looking back, Sondheim has said that Hammerstein became a mentor and surrogate father; if Hammerstein had been a geologist, “I probably would have been a geologist,” Sondheim said (Mick Brown, “Still Cutting It at 80: Stephen Sondheim Interview [http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/music/8022755/Still-cutting-it-at-80-Stephen-Sondheim-interview.html]).
Sondheim wrote his first play at fifteen, a musical about life at a Quaker boarding school. He studied theatre at Williams College in Massachusetts and went on to study composition with composer Milton Babbitt. While working briefly as a television scriptwriter, he composed the musical Saturday Night, which was not produced but did attract the attention of Leonard Bernstein, who hired Sondheim to write the lyrics for West Side Story in 1957; he wrote the lyrics for Gypsy (1959) and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1962) before suffering his first major failure with Anyone Can Whistle (1964). In 1970, Sondheim wrote Company, and has said it was the first musical in which he “began to hear my own voice loud and clear” (Brown).
Though he has not always been a critical favorite, Sondheim has nevertheless won more awards for theatre than most people know even exist. His catalog of awards includes Grammies, Tonys and Obies; Drama Desk awards and several Laurence Olivier awards. Telegraph reporter Mick Brown writes, “He is, by universal acknowledgement, the man who revolutionised American musical theatre, and the last survivor of a form that is all but extinct, swept away in the deluge of ‘jukebox musicals’, overblown crowd pleasers and ‘theme-park’ spectacles that now dominate the Broadway stage” (Brown).
Sondheim appreciates the sentiment but recognizes that his time may have passed. He has produced only one new play in the last nineteen years, and at age eighty-three, wonders if there is a place for him in modern theater. In the Telegraph interview, Sondheim says, “I don’t know that there is an audience now for the kind of shows I would want to write. . . . The fact is if I had something I really wanted to write, I would write it. But I don’t. . . . I don’t have to prove anything to myself. I don’t have to prove anything to the world. I’m venerable now.”