Review: For Theater Buffs, 'Putting It Together: How Stephen Sondheim and I Created "Sunday In The Park With George" ' is a Must-Read

by Lewis Whittington

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Monday September 27, 2021

Review: For Theater Buffs, 'Putting It Together: How Stephen Sondheim and I Created "Sunday In The Park With George" ' is a Must-Read

Playwright James Lapine's "Putting It Together: How Stephen Sondheim and I Created 'Sunday in the Park with George' " is an illuminating and completely entertaining book about a legendary Broadway musical that goes beyond backstage lore. Lapine was the writer-director who collaborated with composer Stephen Sondheim in creating the 1984 Pulitzer Prize-winning musical.

Lapine writes in the book's introduction that while attending the 2017 Broadway revival of "Sunday," about 20 minutes in he wondered, "Who wrote this peculiar musical. Who were Sondheim and I in 1982?" Lapine also wonders why so many audiences loved it, then and now, while others, he admits, "not so much."

To document the creative history of the show, Lapine interviewed 40 people who worked on it, including stars Bernadette Peters, Mandy Patinkin, Christine Baranski, Kelsey Grammer, and Brent Spiner. Other interviewees include musical director Paul Gemignani and the producers who put up the money on the high-risk show. And, most admirably, Lapine gives equal time in the book to the musicians, set and costume designers, and tech and stage crews.

Sondheim stepped out of his own Broadway comfort zone (working exclusively with director Harold Prince on a string of hits) in choosing Lapine, who had previously directed off-Broadway, as collaborator on the show. "Sunday" would be a complete departure from Sondheim's usual process, which had resulted in his biggest Broadway shows, including "Company," "Follies" "A Little Night Music," and "Sweeney Todd," among others.

Lapine's methods of development of show, character, and designs were different from the commercial world of finished scripts handed to the composer and actors rehearsing scenes with the songs in place. Sondheim's method up till then was to hand the director an all but completed music and lyric score; in a first, he previewed unfinished songs to Lapine during the development of the show's development.

In his dialogues with Lapine for the book, Sondheim is at his most charming, technical, and frank about his own struggles in developing the score and lyrics while Lapine was still writing the book.

Lapine reports that during the creative process he was filled with self-doubt about his abilities, moving from the non-profit, Playwrights Horizon to the high-stakes, bottom-line arena of Broadway. As a result, he came across to some cast members as remote and preoccupied. He asks his actors their impressions of him, and, specifically, actors who found the director hard to work with.

The book documents the premiere Broadway opening that met with dismissive and hostile reviews, and even though "Sunday" was nominated for several Tony Awards (including best musical, which it lost to Jerry Hermann's "La Cage Aux Folles") is all part of the show's legend. Of course, it went on to win the New York City Critic's Circle Award and other accolades, including The Pulitzer Prize.

This documentation of personal remembrances of the show's past is the stuff that theater dreams are made of. For musical students and performers on a professional track, this book is essential reading. For fans of musical theater, it is a trove of behind-the-scenes remembrances of a legendary show.

The collective different perspectives, recounted side by side, create a fascinating mosaic of a shared theatrical experience among theater artists.

"Putting It Together: How Stephen Sondheim and I Created 'Sunday in the Park with George'," by James Lapine, is available in hardcover from Farrar, Straus & Giroux for $40.00

Lewis Whittington writes about the performing arts and gay politics for several publications.