Book Review: Putting It Together: How Stephen Sondheim and I Created “Sunday in the Park with George”

“Putting It Together: How Stephen Sondheim and I Created ‘Sunday in the Park with George’(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 416 pages) is an eccentric, valuable and entertaining book, which author James Lapine describes early on as “a mixed salad: one part memoir, one part oral history, one part how a musical gets written and produced.’” It also includes the full script of Lapine and Sondheim’s 1984 Broadway musical, which imagines the story behind French artist George Seurat’s creation of the painting “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte,” and conjures up the challenges facing his (fictitious) great-grandson, also an artist named George, a century later. The script, which takes up the second half of the book, makes no distinction between  the dialogue and the lyrics (there are no song titles inserted, for example; the lyrics aren’t italicized), making it harder to read while listening to the cast album.   This is annoying enough that one is tempted to interpret it as Lapine’s act of ego, since it is safe to say that Sondheim’s songs, not Lapine’s dialogue, are what make the work (literally) noteworthy. To be fair, though, both Lapine and Sondheim won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for the work, the only time Sondheim has received this honor.

I doubt the formatting of the script was a deliberate assertion of pride, because it would be in sharp contrast with the first half of the book, in which Lapine can seem modest to a fault. The memoir part of “Putting It Together” is too skimpy, offering just a few tantalizing glimpses of Lapine’s illustrious career as a theater director, playwright and librettist (including two more collaborations with Sondheim, “Into the Woods” and “Passion”) — a career all the more remarkable because he just fell into it. He had studied to be a photographer, and became a graphic designer. It was only after he was hired to do graphics for the Yale School of Drama that one thing led to another.

When he was invited to visit Sondheim in his townhouse for the first time,  on June 12th, 1982, the composer, then in his fifties, had already won four Tony Awards and had a string of successes with Harold Prince, but was smarting in the aftermath of the reception for “Merrily We Roll Along” and was thinking of getting out of the theater entirely. Lapine, two decades younger, had only written and directed a handful of visually oriented, avant-garde shows. But Sondheim had seen two of them. One of their first acts together was to smoke a joint. They hit it off.  Looking for something on which they could collaborate, they eventually landed on the idea of making a musical about Seurat’s painting, which Lapine considered one of his favorite works of art, and which he had already used in the very first theatrical production he had directed, an avant-garde play by Gertrude Stein entitled “Photograph.”

At a later meeting, when Sondheim’s manservant Luis served them lunch on an elegant tray with fine china, it reminded Lapine of a similar scene in Moss Hart’s memoir “Act One” during Hart’s meeting with George S. Kaufman. That eventually inspired Lapine to write and direct a dramatization of “Act One” for Lincoln Center.

Lapine recounts these meetings in one of the many conversations with Sondheim featured in the book – so many that they more than justify the unsubtle marketing of Sondheim’s name in the subtitle;  enough surely to satisfy the most avid Sondheimites out there.  Sondheim’s comments are extensive and wide-ranging.  Throughout the book, he shares  memories with Lapine of their years-long collaborative process on the musical,  which is presented more or less chronologically from conception to reception.  But he also offers choice anecdotes and candid attitudes – bitter, snarky, witty — about his career (“I was dismissed, ignored. The first time I ever got a good review I was forty years old, on my sixth show, Company”) and about the theater in general: When Lapine remembers being shocked that people were walking out of preview performances of “Sunday” on Broadway, Sondheim said that’s because he’d only worked Off Broadway, “where nobody ever walks out, because the weirder or more boring the show is, the happier they are to be there.” (It feels like poetic justice when we learn that the crew during the early, struggling previews of “Sunday in the Park with George” had nicknamed it “Sunday in the Dark and Bored.”) Sondheim assesses the temperament of his various collaborators; offers insights about the way he works in general that are both technical and practical (He uses the rhyming dictionary written by Clement Wood in the 1930s, which he prefers because the entries are vertical, forcing him to linger on them); and explains his approach to, and strategies in, this particular musical. Asked why the opening number was a kind of funny musical comedy number, Sondheim said: “Because it is an arty show and we need to tell people they can relax and laugh during it.”

That last quote does not come directly from Sondheim, but is Michael Starobin’s recollection for Lapine of the answer to the only question Starobin had asked Sondheim at the time he was hired to be the orchestrator for “Sunday,” which marked Starobin’s Broadway debut (the first of some three dozen Broadway musicals he’s gone on to orchestrate.) As fascinating as the conversations with Sondheim are, “Putting It Together” is at its most delightful – and oddest – as an oral history involving some 40 other people Lapine interviewed. All of them had been involved in the making of “Sunday in the Park with George” in one way or another, from producers to designers to cast to crew, to Kathryn Grody, the wife of the show’s star Mandy Patinkin, whom Lapine had enlisted to help get her husband to be less difficult.

There are some drawbacks to the interviewer being your old boss. Remak Ramsay, we are told, quit the show after a week, in a note to Sondheim complaining that Lapine didn’t know what he was doing. “…I thought him a fine actor,” Lapine writes. “He was invited to participate in this book but didn’t respond.”

But other participants in the book also had conflicts with Lapine or at least had reached similar conclusions about him. Kelsey Grammer, who was in the pre-Broadway workshop at Playwrights Horizons, tells Lapine: “…you asked me to move downstage but you were pointing upstage…”

“Oh, God” Lapine replies. “It was a strange dyslexia I had for years. Same with remembering stage left and right.”

Lapine says to Brent Spiner: “It was pretty clear you weren’t too fond of me.” Spiner offers some reasons: “I remember saying to you, ‘I don’t have a character. Where is my character?’ And you said, ‘You’re not a character, you’re a color.’ And I said, ‘Oh, well, would you mind telling me what color?’”

“Oh, God, it’s so painful to hear this now,” Lapine replies, launching into a lengthy explanation of what he meant and saying in effect he’s a better director now.

Andre Bishop, then the artistic director of Playwrights Horizon (now of Lincoln Center Theater), explains why he gave “Sunday” its first workshop: “Even then Sondheim was a god to people like me, so of course I said yes. Shortly thereafter, I came down to your place on Ann Street with all my original cast albums because you – if I may say this – didn’t really have  a firm grasp of the American musical. I don’t think I ever got those recordings back, by the way.”   This surely reveals more about Lapine than had Bishop been speaking to a journalist, but I’m not sure what I learned from it about the making of a musical…or even about this specific musical.

Indeed, while reading this book, “Sunday in the Park with George” stayed out of focus in its details for what felt like the longest time, omitting even basic information of the sort you get right away in the “Sunday in the Park with George” sections of both Sondheim’s “Look, I Made a Hat” and especially Rick Pender’s The Stephen Sondheim Encyclopedia. This was maddening until I realized: That’s how it must have felt during the creation of the show, which slowly came into focus — just as Seurat’s painting surely must have taken time to come into focus for him. The book is not just about the show; it echoes its themes about what it’s like to be an artist. It’s bracing how many times the people who were involved with “Sunday” utter the word “intimidated” or “intimidating” in their conversations with Lapine. It may be unsurprising that working with Sondheim intimidated some people, but the orchestrator was also intimidated by the music director. Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio was intimidated by Lapine at her audition. Christine Baranski found having to sing “beyond intimidating,”   Producer Emanuel Azenberg thought  the whole show “intimidating and baffling.”

“Then why did you get involved”? Lapine asks.

Azenberg: “Because I thought ‘Finishing the Hat’ was really good. I didn’t get the show until I heard that song. You don’t really know if you can maintain some sort of a balance between your taste and your ignorance and know that there’s something past your ignorance that might be good. You go with that.”

Lapine: “Why did you have any confidence in me — a neophyte who’d never worked on Broadway?”

Azenberg: “We didn’t. We didn’t know who you were. You were a graphic artist or something like that. From Cleveland.”

Lapine: “I wish. Mansfield.”

Azenberg: “Whatever… But you were Sondheim’s choice.”

There are ultimately plenty of conversations in “Putting It Together” that shed light on specific aspects of the show, from budgets and contracts to music and design choices to theatrical craft, some of it so technical that non-experts will occasionally feel lost. (On the other hand, the technical information is not methodical or thorough enough for “Putting It Together” to be mistaken for a textbook.) Yet you need not be an aspiring theater artist, nor a fan of “Sunday in the Park With George” — believe it or not, you need not even have ever seen the show — to find many of the book’s interactions and recollections engaging. The conversations serve as quasi-therapy sessions, most obviously for Lapine, but also for many of those with whom he converses (and maybe, by extension, for some of us.) These are aware, creative people recalling their art, and their lives, their “anger issues” and their inexperience, some 40 years after their involvement in a show that is about creative characters’ art and lives. They reminisce and review what it was like to discover that, as George puts it in the musical, “Art isn’t easy.” 

 

Author: New York Theaterh

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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