Reading the Theatre review: Putting It Together

James Lapine, Putting It Together (2021)

I think that putting on a theatrical production, particularly a musical, is one of the most remarkable things we human beings can do. It requires an almost unequalled level of cooperation and working together, with manifold roles that each have to be precisely and skillfully done while serving the whole, a collaboration of strong and sometimes clashing egos that must somehow be brought into harmony. The work is intense and demanding, with absolutely no guarantee that it will pay off with success, financial or otherwise. Each show is a leap of faith, a venture into the darkness, and when the players believe in what they are doing, an act of love. But love and good work can still be cruelly disappointed, when the final test comes. What motivates people to keep doing these crazy projects?

This question must have come up for many participants in the course of the creation of Sunday in the Park with George, the 1984 musical by James Lapine and Stephen Sondheim, which has since become a landmark work of musical theatre and one of only a handful of American musicals to win the Pulitzer Prize for drama. But when it opened, it was an even bet as to whether it would close on opening night. For weeks of a prolonged preview period, audiences had been groaning, walking out, calling it Sunday in the Dark and Bored. How did this apparent turkey learn to fly?

In Putting It Together, James Lapine goes back to his own memories and those of as many cast and crew members as he could assemble, telling the story of the show from germinal idea to opening night. Lapine was almost completely inexperienced at the time, with only a couple of off-Broadway shows to his credit and a background as a graphic designer, not a director. This inexperience showed in some of his behavior during the course of the production, and many of his cast and crew members were not pleased about it. In his interviews and reminiscences, Lapine shows quite a remarkable willingness to explore those failures and hard feelings, showing the tensions and difficulties that went on behind the scenes. (Of course, it’s helpful that he’s now famous and successful and doesn’t need to prove himself, but I still find it quite laudable that he’s willing to give space to some very unflattering thoughts.)

Study for ‘Sunday Afternoon,” Georges Seurat, 1884-1886

On the other hand, his collaborator, Sondheim, seems to have believed in him from start to finish. Coming off a bruising failure himself, the ignominious flop Merrily We Roll Along, Sondheim could have quit writing altogether or chosen to do something safe and surefire, but instead he took this chance on a first-time Broadway writer/director and his scrap of an idea, to base a musical on the character of the painter Georges Seurat and his painting Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. It was an uncommercial, arty notion, and the project remained uncommercial and arty throughout, even after the Shubert organization picked it up as producers. They trusted Sondheim, though, and stuck to that trust through the many ups and downs (and further downs) of the production process. And in fact, the show lost money in the end; the payoff was not primarily commercial.

Of the many fascinating details to be gleaned from this exhaustive account is the impact of the final two songs that Sondheim wrote for the show, which went into the problematic second act. Literally inserted at the eleventh hour, composed in the last week of previews and finalized just in time for opening night, they stopped audiences walking out by giving them the missing pieces which made the story flow and make sense. Suddenly, the picture snapped into place.

It’s not unlike the way each tiny dot in a Seurat painting is integral to the whole, the painstaking details that one does not see individually but that must be there for the whole thing to shimmer and glow. This analogy underlies the whole production, which is not just about painting but about art in general, about its madness and its glory, its taxing of human relationships and its potential to make us more human. The magnificent song that George sings at the center of the first act, “Finishing the Hat,” was also a landmark, defining moment when it went into the show; it captures, more clearly than any other of his works, Sondheim’s personal credo. “Look, I made a hat … where there never was a hat.” It’s a declaration that the human being is at heart a maker, not a destroyer, and the show lifts our hearts by making us co-producers of that vision.

Original Broadway production

The spectator, after all, is required to complete the artist’s work. There can be no theatre without an audience. Seurat had almost no such audience during his lifetime, so the dedicating of a show to him is by implication a message to artists and human beings not to give up in the face of failure, to take the longer view, to have trust in the work itself. Lapine tells another story in the book of a later time in his life when he was discouraged and uninspired about a project, and by chance happened to hear some lines from Sunday being sung as if directly to him. He called Sondheim, who was having artistic troubles of his own, in excitement over this message they had sent to themselves in the future.

Putting It Together includes the complete script and lyrics of the show at the end, which is nice, but of course this is only a skeleton; one has to see and hear a complete production to appreciate it. Fortunately a recording of the original production was made with most of the original cast including Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters, who were an integral part of the creation. (George was originally thought of as a baritone, for example; Sondheim rewrote his music to suit Patinkin’s tenor.)

I had never watched the show before, and it was a wonderful thing to see it while knowing so much of what had gone into its creation, from costumes to lighting to orchestration, casting choices and scenic design, each line of dialogue and every song coming out of an arduous, hard-won, but ultimately rewarding process. For anyone remotely interested in the theatre, or even perhaps in art in general, this book is a treasure. Along with Moss Hart’s Act One (which, suitably enough, was dramatized not long ago by Lapine), it’s one of the best windows into the process of theatrical creation that I know, while also being a powerful testament to what is most enduring and life-enhancing in the human spirit. I’ll never tire of finding new versions of that story.

James Lapine, Putting It Together: How Stephen Sondheim and I Created “Sunday in the Park with George” (Farrar, Straus, and Girous, 2021).

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10 thoughts on “Reading the Theatre review: Putting It Together

  1. Wowsers, I’ve never watched this though I’ve heard so much about it, and now I know so much more, thanks! Mandy Patinkin I only knew of from The Princess Bride – of course! – so that’s another link to fit into the chain, along with Sondheim’s “appearance” in Tick, Tick … Boom!

    1. The show drew many people’s lives together, it was so interesting to read about them, those with well-known names and those who are more in the background of the theatre world.

  2. That’s interesting, that George was originally written for a baritone! I have this book at my house, where my son has left it, for now. I should look through it.

    1. Not the whole score, just the bits that Sondheim wrote before Patinkin was cast. The show was largely developed in an off-Broadway workshop (another interesting point that I neglected to mention) so a lot of it was worked out with and by him.

  3. I have an aversion to musicals unfortunately. One of my worst experiences was being taken to see Evita on Broadway; I was desperate for the thing to end but it just kept going on and on and on……
    But your point about the collaborative effort it takes to bring a show to fruition applies equally to drama on stage – some friends of mine have a small amateur production company so I see at close quarters how much stress it can cause when the cast just doesn’t get what the director wants them to do: )

    1. Haha, my son is in agreement with you — he groans and protests whenever I try to get him to watch a musical. I adore them but it’s a taste some never acquire. I was never interested in Evita, though, seemed boring.

      There is so much dramatic potential within a theatre company, as your friends well know — I think that’s why so many books have that as a setting.

  4. My nephew was in this in middle school – we thought it an odd choice as the kids did not really appreciate it. NY schools often put on shows that seem too ambitious for various reasons.

    In Take a Bow, set at a prestigious performing arts high school, likely inspired by La Guardia, the protagonists are composers/singers (and one actor) and there is an interesting moment when they are reminded they have to do duty as orchestra in a school musical. It was a good reminder that while performing in a show is a great experience and can bring people together who might not know each other otherwise, to the behind the scenes participants it may just be a job or other obligation.

    https://perfectretort.blogspot.com/2022/04/take-bow-by-elizabeth-eulberg-set-at.html

    1. I would not think it a good choice for middle school! High schoolers might enjoy it if they were into the art scene and loved the Sondheim score, which is remarkable but not your ordinary set of musical numbers.

      The point about the show being a passion project for some and just a job for others really came through in the book. Some of the crew would be drunk or simply not at all invested in the work, pointless as they thought it was. That’s something you don’t often hear about.

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