A leading playwright and stage director, James Lapine briefly shifted his attentions to film in the early 1990s, but after two well-crafted features that earned modest box office takes, he returned to the theater.
The Ohio native trained at CalArts as a photographer and graphic designer and spent several years plying those trades on the West Coast. Eventually, Lapine headed East when he accepted a position teaching design at the Yale School of Drama. With encouragement from some of his students, he adapted and staged Gertrude Stein’s play “Photograph,” which caught the attention of a producer who moved the show to Off-Broadway in 1977. Flush from winning an special OBIE, Lapine staged his “Twelve Dreams,” inspired by a case study of Carl Jung, as a work in progress. Two years later, he garnered attention and acclaim for his breakthrough stage comedy “Table Settings,” about a zany Jewish-American family. Lapine subsequently collaborated with composer William Finn on “March of the Falsettos,” a sort of sequel to Finn’s earlier “In Trousers.” Centered on Marvin, a divorced father who has “come out” as a gay man, the musical tackled darker themes than the typical stage fare. From its opening number (“Four Jews in a Room Bitching”) through to the poignant closing number (“Father to Son”), the show ultimately explored what makes a family. While Lapine went on to other fruitful collaborations, he and Finn revisited the characters of Marvin, his neurotic wife Trina, his son Jason, the psychiatrist Mendel, and Marvin’s lover Whizzer in a sequel “Falsettoland” (1990). This time the creators opted to introduce the more serious specter of AIDS. A moving and powerful study of love as well as a paean to family, “Falsettoland” won a strong following.
- "Into the Woods"
- "Sunday in the Park with George"
- Mandy Patinkin
- Bernadette Peters
- Stephen Sondheim
Director-choreographer Graciela Daniele hit on the idea of combining the two relatively short shows into one evening marking the birth of “Falsettos.” Lapine and Finn reworked the material slightly and with some of the same cast (Michael Rupert, Stephen Bogardus, Chip Zien) from the earlier productions, took the show to Broadway in 1992, where it won Tony Awards for its book and score. In between these productions, Lapine also struck up an artistically profitable association with composer Stephen Sondheim. Beginning in 1983, the duo began work on “Sunday in the Park with George,” a project that found its inspiration in the unusual, Georges Seraut’s pointillistic masterpiece “A Sunday on the Island of La Grand Jatte-1884.” The collaborators fashioned a piece that spanned some 100 years, with act one culminating in a recreation of the famous painting and act two a contemporary send-up of the art world. “Sunday in the Park with George” was not a crowd-pleasing show in the vein of its contemporary “La Cage aux Folles” as it challenged audiences to examine the creation and nature of art as well as its acceptance by the masses. Cited by the Pulitzer committee for the award in drama in 1985, the show proved only a modest success, although it was preserved in a TV production that aired originally on Showtime and later PBS.
Lapine and Sondheim again turned to odd material for their next collaboration “Into the Woods” (1987). Although seemingly inspired by fairy tales, the show owed much to Bruno Bettleheim’s THE USES OF ENCHANTMENT as the musical explored the darker territories of responsibility for one’s actions that lay behind the “happily ever after” ideal. Effectively mounted by Lapine and well-cast with actor-singers, “Into the Woods” proved to be the pair’s most successful collaboration (to date), earning the Best Book and Best Score Tony Awards. It too was filmed (this time with Lapine at the helm) for airing on PBS’ AMERICAN PLAYHOUSE in 1991.
As a follow-up Sondheim and Lapine originally intended to produce to separate one-act musicals, which would serve as commentary on society’s preoccupation with beauty. “Muscle” was to focus on bodybuilders while “Passion,” based on a Ettore Scola’s “Passione d’Amore,” which in turn was an adaptation of an obscure Italian novel, would deal with the obsessive love of an unattractive woman. As the work progressed, however, Sondheim and Lapine found their focus drawn to “Passion,” which evolved into a full-length intermissionless show about the many faces of love. In his staging, Lapine stripped the material to its bare essentials but brought a painter’s eye to the details. Featuring a star-making performance by Donna Murphy, “Passion” received strong reviews and several accolades including the Best Musical Tony, but ultimately proved too cerebral and remote for audiences more accustomed to the spectacles of British imports like “Cats” and “Miss Saigon” or the live-action version of Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast.” (Ironically, Lapine was tapped to direct the stage version of another Disney animated feature “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” in 1999.)
In addition to his work in the musical theater, Lapine became a noted stager of dramatic works, including Shakespeare. He enjoyed a spectacular success with a 1982 production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” starring William Hurt as Oberon. (The production was telecast on PBS.) He also reteamed with Mandy Patinkin for “The Winter’s Tale” in 1989, and undertook the staging of the revised version of “The Diary of Anne Frank” in 1997. While he stumbled with the Broadway production of David Henry Hwang’s “Golden Child” the following year, he was back in top form as co-conceiver and director of “Dirty Blonde” (1999), a comedy-drama that was part biography of Mae West and a mediation on fame and fandom. When the show moved to Broadway in May 2000, the reviews were nearly all raves.
Like many stage directors, Lapine ventured into the realm of filmmaking. In 1991, working from a script by his wife Sarah Kernochan, he helmed IMPROMPTU, a romantic romp set in the 19th-century and featuring a roundelay of relationships among such figures as George Sand, Franz Liszt, and Eugene Delacroix. The film inverted some of the conventions of period pieces and proved a pleasurable debut. Lapine’s follow-up also demonstrated his flair with actors and his ability to mix drama and comedy. LIFE WITH MIKEY (1993) was a comedy vehicle for TV star Michael J. Fox, who portrayed a struggling talent agent whose attempt to turn a pickpocket into a child star reinvigorates his love for his work. Although he guided TV productions of INTO THE WOODS and PASSION, Lapine did not tackle a full-out feature-length project again until 1999’s made-for-cable EARTHLY POSSESSIONS (HBO), which again showed his flair for handling actors.
Source: Excerpted from Baseline. BaselineStudioSystems — A Hollywood Media Corp. Company.
Photo credits: Photofest and Martha Swope