"Putting It Together": An ode to the art of making art
It began with a painting: George Seurat's 1886 pointillist masterpiece, "A Sunday on La Grand Jatte." It was the inspiration for 1984's groundbreaking Broadway musical, "Sunday in the Park with George," which starred Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters, and was co-written by James Lapine and the late Stephen Sondheim
Seurat's finished work, composed entirely of tiny painted dots, hangs in the Art Institute of Chicago.
At New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, Lapin, Peters, Patinkin, and correspondent Mo Rocca visited a smaller study, done by the artist two years earlier.
"The monkey always remains the mystery," Lapine said."
"In the big painting, my bustle was higher. Also, I put on a few pounds in the big painting!" Peters laughed.
"But the idea that this would be a study?" said Lapine. "I mean, in and of itself, it's a great painting."
Back in 1982, Lapine was a graphic designer with experience only in experimental theater, who visited Sondheim – already a legend – with a postcard image of the painting. "We were sitting on the floor," Lapine recalled. "And we probably had smoked a joint and we were just staring at it. And then we started breaking it down."
Seurat himself died at thirty-one, having never sold a major work, his own life something of a blank canvas. Into that void Lapine and Sondheim imagined an artist struggling mightily to create, and the figure in the foreground as his mistress named (what else?) Dot, a woman asking for more of Seurat than he can give.
Now, Lapine, who also directed the show, has written a book, "Putting It Together" (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), about the making of the musical, beginning with the concept.
Patinkin recalled, "James came over to the house. He said, 'I know this is gonna sound pretentious, but Steve and I sat down and we talked about making a work of art based on a work of art.' I didn't think it was pretentious, but I thought, 'Oh, okay. That sounds interesting.'"
"No, I think you thought it was pretentious," Lapin laughed.
"Oh, did I? But you apologized for the pretentious possibility – "
"After you said, 'That's pretty pretentious!'"
Next came the casting…
"I saw this lovely woman to my left, Bernadette Peters, in 'Pennies from Heaven,' the film," said Lapine. "I kind of fell in love with her. I also thought that she just looked like she was from the 19th century. Mandy, I thought, was terrific in the 'Evita' commercial."
"You didn't see the show?" asked Peters. "That's hysterical!"
Patinkin had just won a Tony for his performance as a fiery revolutionary in "Evita."
"I never saw the show," Lapine laughed. "I saw him in the commercial and I said, 'Yeah, he looks intense, and he sings great, and he looks like George Seurat."
Rocca said, "The commercial was great. It really was a great commercial!"
[And here is the proof:]
The original Off-Broadway cast also included future stars Brent Spiner, Christine Baranski, and Kelsey Grammer. But putting the show together was no walk in the park.
Rocca asked, "Kelsey Grammer yelled at you? Tell me about that."
"He yelled at me in front of the company," Lapine said. "Apparently, I had no style in giving notes, and was fairly blunt with people. I'm very fond of him. And he was terrific in the show. But at that point I really didn't have my people skills together. We were kinda kids puttin' on a show."
The pressure was even greater on Patinkin, whose part was still being written even as opening night approached. "You walked out at one point, stormed down the street," asked Rocca.
"I was terrified," Patinkin said. "And people were coming. And I just said, 'I don't know how to do this.' I was just in a state of terror."
Lapine called Patinkin's wife, Kathryn Grody, for advice: "She said, 'Just tell Mandy you love him.' And I just said to her, 'You got the wrong guy!'" he laughed.
"But he found a way to tell me that," said Patinkin. "I mean, he makes fun of himself, he says what he says. But he found his way to tell me he loved me. It became one of the, you know, moments of my life."
But Peters, who'd been appearing on New York stages since the age of ten, never panicked: "Steve and James, they're so specific. So, I knew there were two great people at the helm. And I knew that the ship was going to go forward."
"You could just tell that based on your experience?" Rocca asked.
"Oh, yes, because in other shows, there were people at the helm, but there were so many other people talking in their ears, that they would get confused. But these two guys were so clear where they were going with the show, that I just felt secure."
Bernadette Peters and Mandy Patinkin perform "We Do Not Belong Together":
Still, the forecast for "Sunday in the Park" was bleak. The show's own stage crew nicknamed it "Sunday in the Dark and Bored." Preview audiences were leaving in droves.
Rocca asked, "Isn't it true one of the producers at one point actually held the door?"
"Yeah," said Lapine. "He finally got up and went to the door that people were walking out of and just held it open for people, 'cause it squeaked every time that somebody walked out."
On the night critics were to see the show, the same day the final two songs were added, Lapine gathered the cast.
Patinkin said, "James stood at the foot of that stage, and we all got in that semi-circle. And he spoke to us in a kind of clear, yet see-through code, which was, 'Believe in this. You've done this. You know this piece. Please, put away every doubt you have. Just forget about it.' It was a kind of silent prayer in-between his words."
Peters said, "It was from his heart."
"Was it like you were handing your baby over?" asked Rocca.
"I have no recollection of this," Lapine replied. Part of the wonder of the book was discovering these things that I really didn't remember, to tell you the truth."
"We went out there like a team," Patinkin said, "and we honored his request."
The show won the Pulitzer Prize, and has become a classic – Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's ode to the art of making art.
Rocca asked, "What's it like to read or sing a great piece of writing for the first time?"
"It's everything, when it's written so beautifully, especially Steve," Peters replied. "It helps you express you. It gets what's inside of you out. And I think everybody would love to have what's inside of them come out and express themselves."
For more info:
- "Putting It Together: How Stephen Sondheim and I Created 'Sunday in the Park with George'" by James Lapine (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), in Hardcover, eBook and Audio formats, available via Amazon and Indiebound
- "Sunday in the Park with George" (Music Theatre International)
- Follow Bernadette Peters on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook
- Follow Mandy Patinkin on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook
Story produced by Kay Lim. Editor: George Pozderec.
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