Interview with Frank Rich and James Lapine
I remember as a theater student seeing Sunday in the Park with George and the impact it had on me, in terms of how different and experimental it seemed for a commercial Broadway musical. What is it about Sondheim that makes him such a talent?
Frank Rich: What makes Steve distinctive throughout his career — and Sunday in the Park is a particular landmark — is his talent, of course. But also, he always wants to do something new, to keep moving forward as an artist, and also for the sake of musical theater as an art form. In the case of Sunday in the Park, Steve made a decision, after the Broadway failure of Merrily Roll Along, to work off Broadway, where commercial pressures are less intense and artistic freedom is greater. For someone who is a self described “Broadway baby” — Steve began his career with West Side Story in 1957 — that was a real change, to move off-Broadway almost 30 years later and to seek out and work with a writer-director like James Lapine, who was not a traditional theater person. Sunday in the Park was very controversial at the time. It is now considered a classic. But working then as a New York Times drama critic, I liked it and praised it and was stunned, even from afar, at how much hostility arose around a show that took as its subject, in part, art; that jumped a century between the first act and second act, and told two complementary but different stories; that tried to reproduce some of the techniques of an avant garde painter, George Seurat, in both the writing of the book that James did and the writing of the music and lyrics that Steve did. And indeed, right down to the production design, which, of course, James, had a huge role in.
Sunday wasn’t Oliver or Hello, Dolly! or even Cabaret. It felt radically different from the work of other mainstream musical theater composers.
Frank Rich: Steve would be the first to say the American musical theater has produced a number of great songwriters. But the thing that makes Steve unique — and shows his evolution — is his willingness to write songs that are completely in service of the characters he is writing for. So he is not sitting around saying, “Gee, can I write a hit song for Follies or for A Little Night Music or for Sunday in the Park?” He is writing and inhabiting these characters. That’s an aesthetical artistic goal that is totally different from what had often been the tradition of Broadway, of serving the characters, but also writing a song that might have a lot of cover versions, like Louis Armstrong doing Hello Dolly! And he learned this from his mentor, Oscar Hammerstein. Hammerstein isn’t thought of this way now, but he was experimental in his own way, in his own time. And what separated [Richard ] Rodgers and Hammerstein from their peers was that they would write serious scripts that dealt with serious issues, in shows like Oklahoma!, Carousel, and The King and I. Steve is a very explicit fan of all Rodgers and Hammerstein shows. And the show that Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote after Carousel was a show that was failed, called Allegro. And Stephen was Hammerstein’s assistant on that show. And he learned a lot about experimentation and the value of doing it.
One of the more revealing moments in the film is Sondheim talking about his complicated relationship to his mother. Do you think that fed his work in some way?
James Lapine: You know, when you grow up, you don’t realize that your parents are any different than anybody else’s. And their behavior — you have nothing to compare it to. So that is what normal is, even if it’s abnormal. And then you get older, you begin to realize what the effect is of a lot of that behavior. So it’s an interesting, complicated thing that isn’t easy to define. Steve probably wrestled with that a lot. He is somebody who has spent a lot of time in psychotherapy. And in many ways it can feed the work…subconsciously, anyway.
What do you hope audiences take away from the film?
James Lapine: One of the things we tried to do is make a movie that was as much for people who love Sondheim and know about him, as for people who don’t know anything about him and create something that’s entertaining and dramatic without having to be a musical theater fan and without having to be a Sondheim fan.