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Finishing 'Sunday In The Park': Behind-The-Scenes Stories Of Working With Sondheim


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. The musicals "Sunday In The Park With George," "Into The Woods" and "Passion" are usually called Stephen Sondheim musicals. And, of course, Sondheim is widely acknowledged as the most innovative and brilliant Broadway composer and lyricist of our time. But there's someone else who is essential in the creation of those three shows. And he is my guest, James Lapine. He wrote the books for each of those musicals and directed the original Broadway productions. "Sunday In The Park With George" won a Pulitzer Prize for drama. Lapine won a Tony for the book of "Into The Woods." Lapine also co-wrote the book with William Finn for "Falsettos."

The book of a musical is like a libretto. It's the part that's spoken, not sung. But some of Sondheim's songs were inspired by or borrowed from lines written by Lapine for the show's books. Now Lapine has written a book book, the kind that you read. It's called "Putting It Together: How Stephen Sondheim And I Created 'Sunday In The Park With George.'" It's a fascinating behind-the-scenes account featuring Lapine's reminiscences and his interviews with many people who worked on the show, including Sondheim, the show's stars, Bernadette Peters and Mandy Patinkin, as well as other cast members, producers, orchestrators, set designers and more.

James Lapine, welcome to FRESH AIR. I love the shows that you did with Sondheim, and it is just a pleasure to have you on the show.

JAMES LAPINE: Well, thank you so much. It's a pleasure to be here.

GROSS: "Sunday In The Park" is a work of art about a work of art. For people unfamiliar with the show, just describe the premise.

LAPINE: Well, it was inspired by a painting by Georges Seurat in 1884 to 1886, that he - two years it took for him to paint "A Sunday Afternoon On The Island Of La Grande Jatte." And it employed his methodology of pointillism in creating art. And it was ironic because we were, 100 years later, ending up writing a show about the making of that painting. And it took Seurat two years to paint the painting, and it took us two years to write the show.

GROSS: The initial idea for the show was sparked by you bringing in some images to look at with Sondheim, which strikes me as a very strange way to start a musical...


GROSS: ...To look at pictures. But you used to be a graphic designer and did graphic design and posters for the Yale School of - well, for Yale Repertory Theatre, I should say. So - and one of the images you brought in was a postcard of the painting that inspired the show. So you put the postcard down. You and Sondheim gazed at this postcard of the painting by Seurat. And how did that lead to "Sunday In The Park"?

LAPINE: Well, we - it was an image that I used in the very first thing I did in the theater, which was a very abstract show by Gertrude Stein called "Photograph." And in that, I used several famous images, one of which was this painting. So I was pretty familiar with it. And when we sat down to look at it together, along with other images that I brought in, Steve immediately said it looks like a stage set. And from there, we just sat and talked about it and realized all the strange details that are in the painting, the peculiar perspective of the painting, that the characters were not looking at one another and so forth. And why is there a monkey there (laughter)? And I don't know. Somehow, I blurted out, well, there's one person missing. And he said, who? And I said, the artist. And somehow, that just sparked an idea that this could somehow be a theatrical venture. And we took it from there.

GROSS: So you realize that the character missing in this painting was the artist himself, and he became the main character in the show, along with his muse and model, the character played by Bernadette Peters. So what did you want to say about artists and what it's like to be an artist's muse or model or mistress, girlfriend? - mistress the language of then.


LAPINE: I have to say, when we look back, we didn't really talk a lot about theme. We talked a lot about story and a lot about where and how music could engage in the storytelling. And Sondheim took the idea of pointillism as a kind of inspiration for the kind of music he was going to write. And to some degree, I did, as well in terms of the writing of the book, stylistically, that is. And I - we're very, very different. I tend to jump into the deep end of things and figure out how to swim. And Steve is very analytical and doesn't start writing until he knows exactly where he's going.

GROSS: I think it was your suggestion that there needed to be an opening song. The show needed to open with a song. And that song is "Sunday In The Park."

LAPINE: Right. That was - excuse me - that was Steve's suggestion. I didn't - when I initially - I initially went off after looking at the image with him and came back maybe a week later with six pages that I wrote for the beginning of the show. And it was he who read the six pages. And then as I sat there, this is, you know, pre-Internet, precomputer. And he said, I'm going to read this again. And I sat there thinking, what is this guy going to make of this? And then he said, I think there should be an opening number here. And he pointed to - I don't know - somewhere in the middle of the second page. And I said, oh, why? And he said, well, this is really arty. So I think we need an opening number that will put the audience at ease. And that's how we came out of the gate.

GROSS: It's interesting that the opening song is from the point of view of the Bernadette Peters character, the model who is in the sun, very hot, very uncomfortable in modeling for the genius painter (laughter) Georges Seurat. But in the meantime, she's just kind of, like, suffering and bearing it.

LAPINE: Well, I think, first of all, he was - he may have been a genius, and she may have known that at the time, but the one thing Seurat never was a success. He never actually even sold a painting in his lifetime. He died very young. And I think looking back at it - and a lot of writing is unconscious - I think it was a smart move for us to learn about the artist Georges from another point of view and particularly, you know, his mistress, with whom he was, you know, so intimately involved. And it immediately set up the dilemma of life and art and what you give up when you dedicate yourself to any aspect of art or work and how it impacts on your private life. And that song, which I totally, you know, tip my hat to Steve on, did a lot of things dramatologically (ph) that helped us get out of the gate in telling our story.

GROSS: So why don't we hear "Sunday In The Park," the opening song from "Sunday In The Park With George"?


BERNADETTE PETERS: (As Dot) George, why is it you always get to sit in the shade while I have to stand in the sun? Hello, George. There is someone in this dress. (Singing) A trickle of sweat, the back of the head. He always does this. Now the foot is dead. Sunday in the park with George. One more - the collar is damp, beginning to pinch. The bustle's slipping. I won't budge one inch. Who was at the zoo, George? Who was at the zoo? The monkey and who, George? The monkeys and who?

MANDY PATINKIN: (As George) Don't move.

PETERS: (As Dot, singing) Artists are bizarre, fixed, cold. That's you, George. You're bizarre, fixed, cold. I like that in a man - fixed, cold. God, it's hot out here. Well, there are worse things than staring at the water on a Sunday. There are worse things than staring at the water as you're posing for a picture being painted by your lover in the middle of the summer on an island in the river on a Sunday.

GROSS: That's the opening song from "Sunday In The Park With George," music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, and the book for the show written by my guest, James Lapine, who also directed the show. And now he has a new book called "Putting It Together: How Stephen Sondheim And I Created 'Sunday In The Park With George.'" So in what you had written - correct me if I'm wrong here - You had written the words like for her character, a dribble of sweat. And Sondheim said, no, no, no, I can't use dribble. And he changed it to trickle. So tell me what you think of that. What went through your mind when he said, not dribble, trickle?

LAPINE: You know, I had only done one musical prior to this. In fact, I was fairly new to the theater in general, having really come to it quite late in my 20s. And I was just fascinated working with him at every turn to learn how he did what he did and why he did what he did. I had no judgments about anything. I just thought, oh, well, that's interesting. And then he - then I would learn the, you know, the genius that goes behind setting words to music and rhyming and all the intricacies that go in into creating a song.

So I was just delighted to see Steve every week and give him whatever I could give him to help create the music. And then finally, he, working on this opening song, would read me couplets that he was writing or, you know, lyrics that he was thinking might go into that song. And it was kind of like being cross-examined by a lawyer, you know, which of these do you like best? You know, OK, you like this one best. Why do you like this one best? And would she say this, would she say that? And it was really, looking back at it, a process where he was really trying to get into my head to sort out who these characters were so that he could know them intimately before he could write anything for them.

GROSS: It's interesting that he saw the characters as living in your head as opposed to in his head.

LAPINE: Yeah, well, I think...

GROSS: Or maybe eventually they lived in his head, too.

LAPINE: Well, exactly. I think they did. But, you know, Steve is someone who comes off of the libretto, the book of a show. And, you know, if you look at some of his other shows, some of them were originals. Some of them were based on on movies or other sources. And I think in the musical theater, that's why so often shows are based on underlying material, because it's very easy then for collaborators to all have a central piece of writing to relate to and talk about. But when you're writing a new show and you're writing it from scratch and you don't know where it's going, you know, you do have to, together, find who these characters are and what their story's going to be. So that was the nature of this process.

GROSS: OK. Let's take a break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is James Lapine. His new book is called "Putting It Together: How Stephen Sondheim And I Created 'Sunday In The Park With George.'" And Sondheim and Lapine also collaborated on "Into The Woods" and "Passion." Lapine wrote the books for those, as well as "Sunday In The Park With George." And he directed all three original Broadway productions. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with James Lapine. He wrote the book and directed the original Broadway productions of three Stephen Sondheim musicals - "Sunday In The Park With George," "Into The Woods" and "Passion." Now Lapine's written a new book about their collaboration on "Sunday In The Park." It's called "Putting It Together: How Stephen Sondheim And I Created 'Sunday In The Park With George.'"

As you've said, Sondheim is a very slow writer when it comes to writing songs. Did you worry - once it was a sure thing that you were going to do this show together, did you worry that he wouldn't finish in time? And are there things you would try to do to kind of nudge him to work a little faster?

LAPINE: You know, he used to say to me some - I don't remember when - one day he said to me, look, James, do you want a Tuesday or do you want it good? And of course, I think I said I want a Tuesday and I wanted good. But this - the anxiety was there certainly when we got to the second act of the show on Broadway with people paying money to see it. And one of the revelations of writing this book - I could not understand why it took him so long. And when I interviewed Steve about it lo these many years later, he couldn't really explain why it took him so long and whether it was a psychological issue or whatever.

But what I did in writing this book was dive into all of his paperwork on the show. And I realized that these two songs, one of which ended up being very, very short, he had done pages and pages and pages of writing lyrics and lyric ideas and - on these two songs. And it wasn't like he was sitting around at home having an anxiety attack. He was working and sorting out and being who he is, which is a perfectionist, and wanting them to be perfect and perfect for the show. And once I saw that, you know, in - when I was writing this book, I realized, oh, you know, it wasn't a psychological issue at all. It was just, he knew the importance of these two numbers, and he didn't want to let go of them 'til he thought they were perfect.

GROSS: Which were those songs?

LAPINE: One was called "Children And Art." And both songs come towards the end of the second act, and so, of course, carried a lot of importance. And this was a song between the second-act George's character and his grandmother as they are staring at the painting. And she's singing about the painting. But really, what she's trying to do is sing to him about his own life and give him advice.

And the second song is very short, called "Lesson #8." And that's that second-act George at the end of the show, who is reading a primer that was left behind from his great-grandmother - and becomes so interestingly a song about himself and what he's lacking in his understanding of what he needs in his life. And by doing that, he, in a sense, summons the 19th century for his - and the painting, in a way, as a guidepost for himself.

So they were both crucial songs to pulling the show together. And as I said, oddly enough, to Steve, you know, the first song was, to me, the linchpin to explaining what the show was about, and the second song was explaining who this character was about, which, oddly enough, he laughed. He thought, oh, that's really good. This is, of course, 40 years later...


LAPINE: ...We had this conversation

GROSS: And I should explain, second-act George is the great-grandson of Georges Seurat, and second-act George, the great-grandson, is a performance artist. So he's doing this kind of, like, light show type of art. And it's, like, a whole different kind of art than anything that existed in Georges Seurat's time.

LAPINE: Well, he was - actually, I like to think of him as a sculptor as well as a performance artist in a way. And he was sculpting with light. And that was, of course, what Seurat was trying to do in painting. He was trying to create a sense of light by doing all this pointillist painting, giving a vibration and a kind of sense for the viewer that they were breaking down light into these little colors so that when you stood far away from the painting, you saw one thing, and as you got closer, you saw something else. And so they're connected that way in their art, oddly enough.

GROSS: So let's hear "Lesson #8" from "Sunday In The Park With George."


PATINKIN: (As George, singing) Charles has a book. Charles shows them his crayons. Marie has the ball of Charles. Good for Marie. Charles misses his ball.

(As George, singing) George misses Marie. George misses a lot. George is alone.

(As George, singing) George looks around. He sees the park. It is depressing. George looks ahead. George sees the dark. George feels afraid. Where are the people out strolling on Sunday?

(As George, singing) George looks within. George is adrift. George goes by guessing. George looks behind. He had a gift. When did it fade? You wanted people out strolling on Sunday - sorry, Marie.

(As George, singing) See George remember how George used to be, stretching his vision in every direction. See George attempting to see a connection, when all he can see is maybe a tree - the family tree - sorry, Marie.

GROSS: That's "Lesson #8" from the musical "Sunday In The Park With George," with the music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and the book by my guest, James Lapine, who also directed the original Broadway production. He's written a new book called "Putting It Together: How Stephen Sondheim And I Created 'Sunday In The Park With George.'"

We'll be right back. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with James Lapine. He wrote the new book "Putting It Together: How Stephen Sondheim And I Created 'Sunday In The Park With George.'" Lapine wrote the book for "Sunday In The Park With George." He also wrote the book for two other Stephen Sondheim musicals, "Into The Woods" and "Passion." He directed all three original Broadway productions. And he also wrote the adaptation of the film version of "Into The Woods."

You know, you write that Sondheim was in a bad place when you first met because "Merrily We Roll Along" had just closed after a short run. It didn't get great reviews. And he was even thinking about leaving theater because he thought theater was just too cruel. I'm wondering what it was like for you to meet him when he was feeling so discouraged. And you were just starting your career in theater.

LAPINE: You know, I said something so profoundly stupid to him at that first meeting when he was kind of painting a very dark picture of how he was feeling about the theater and particularly the show that had closed. And I said, well, I'm sure if you wanted to sit here and think of a very commercial idea, you know, we could. And we could write, you know, a successful show. And he just looked at me. And he said, I would never do that (laughter).

GROSS: Yeah. And he probably wouldn't know how to do that. I mean, he writes what he writes, and it's brilliant.

LAPINE: Exactly, because...

GROSS: Wait. I'm going to take that back. That - he probably could do that because in so many of his shows, there are, like, songs in the manner of Harold Arlen or Gershwin or Berlin. Like, he knows how to write in different voices and how to incorporate that in his shows. And it brings a certain, like, period meeting. Or it's just an interesting tribute. Or - you know, so he probably could do that. But I'm sure he wouldn't.

LAPINE: Well, he sort of did, and it was called "Into The Woods." I mean...

GROSS: Oh, really? Do you think of that as, like, an intentionally commercial show?

LAPINE: No. But as we were working on it, he said, you know, this - I don't remember his exact words. But he did realize as he was writing it that it had commercial value - let's put it that way - because we were working with fairy tales. And we were working with a subject that was kind of universal to people. No...

GROSS: Oh, and it's the only Sondheim show that you'd go, hey, bring the kids.


LAPINE: Just to the first act, yeah.

GROSS: Yeah.

LAPINE: I think - I don't know. It was funny because we - that collaboration was incredibly different than the first one. And the same with "Passion" - it was different than the other two. So they were all very individual in the way they got written. And I think, frankly, in the back of my head, I was thinking kind of commercially about "Into The Woods." I had just had a kid. And...


LAPINE: ...You know? And I was fascinated with fairy tales. And I guess when I say commercial, I think what we're really saying is very accessible, you know, a show that would be very accessible to people in the way that "Sunday" - you know, you had to work a little bit if you came to see "Sunday In The Park With George."

GROSS: Can you think of a revelation that came to you from something Sondheim said that you may not have realized or thought of without him?

LAPINE: I think what I learned most from him is the marriage of music to spoken word. And the one maybe major thing he said to me was, let me take care of theme. I can put things in a song that no one will blanch at that you put in a scene and it will scream out as being thematic. It will be cliche if you're trying to say something about, you know, beauty or whatever. And it was wonderful to - you know, that's why no one knows who book writers are, because if it's a good musical, you know the music. And that's why you go to see it. And your job as a book writer ostensibly is to tell a story and connect it song to song. But what people don't realize in the way Steve works is - and why he didn't write a song until the first act was finished is because he melds the two. He robs from his book writers. And it's a back-and-forth conversation as to what the character and what the theme of the show is and how it's expressed. And mostly, a lot of that is expressed in music.

GROSS: OK. So that's really interesting. Can you think of one of Sondheim's songs that you and he agreed should be an emotion or a thematic point that was expressed in the show but would sound too corny or sentimental or on the nose if it was actually spoken as opposed to sung?

LAPINE: I would say "Finishing The Hat" is a perfect example of that, of a song that comes at a perfect place in the act, that lets an audience see this kind of cold, distant character and allows us to understand what he's going through and what his process is and who he is and the pain he feels. But I think what Steve's genius is also on what I guess I would call spotting, spotting a musical, you know? He had the first act. But he was often the one to know where there needed to be a song and what that song needed to be about.

GROSS: And part of what this song is about is how difficult it is to create a work of art, but when you've created it, there's something there that had never been there before. You created something that didn't exist before. And if you made that in a speech, it might sound like a little much,

LAPINE: Yeah. Corny, corny city.

GROSS: Yeah.

LAPINE: Well, also, there's another level to that song, which is him examining what he's given up to make something, you know, what the choices are, what you do with your time and your passion and how you have to distance yourself from other temptations to keep your focus entirely on this vision that you have that you have to bring to fruition.

GROSS: OK. Well, let's hear it. So this is from "Sunday In The Park With George."


PATINKIN: (As George, singing) Finishing the hat how you have to finish the hat, how you watch the rest of the world from a window while you finish the hat. Mapping out a sky, what you feel like planning a sky - what you feel when voices that come through the window go until they distance and die, until there's nothing but sky - and how you're always turning back too late from the grass or the stick or the dog or the light, how the kind of woman willing to wait's not the kind that you want to find waiting to return you to the night, dizzy from the height. Coming from the hat, studying the hat...

GROSS: That's a song from "Sunday In The Park With George." And my guest, James Lapine, wrote the book and directed the original Broadway production of the musical - and the music and lyrics, of course, by Stephen Sondheim. And Lapine has written a new book called "Putting It Together: How Stephen Sondheim And I Created 'Sunday In The Park With George.'"

We'll be right back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with James Lapine. He collaborated with Stephen Sondheim on three musicals - "Sunday In The Park With George," "Into The Woods" and "Passion." Sondheim wrote the music and lyrics. Lapine wrote the book for each of those musicals and directed the original Broadway productions. Now Lapine has written a book that's part memoir, part interviews with people who worked on the original production of "Sunday In The Park With George." And it's called "Putting It Together: How Stephen Sondheim And I Created 'Sunday In The Park With George.'"

I want to talk with you a little bit about "Into The Woods," another really, like, beloved show. I think the idea was yours to do a musical based on fairy tales, and it's a kind of mash-up of several fairy tales. Can you talk about the genesis of the idea?

LAPINE: Yeah. Well, Steve and I met to write another show, and it was interesting because we had an opportunity to make a film of "Sunday In The Park" after the Broadway run. And I was kind of excited at that idea 'cause I always wanted to direct a film, but he really wanted to write a show. And so we decided to put our energy into that.

And we just sat together and kind of discussed ideas. And he was kind of interested in like a quest - a quest musical in which people were - you know, he was, oddly enough, very into video games at the time. And I was kind of interested in writing a fairy tale. And, you know, I kind of had a whole Jungian kind of period of my life. And Steve's knowledge of fairy tales was strictly the Disney cartoons.

And so I said, well, I'm going to try to - you know, I'm going to try to write a fairy tale and see if we can make a musical of it. And I did sit down and started writing a fairy tale. And I realized, oh, fairy tales are very short. You know, you read the Grimm brothers; you read Perrault - they're not very long. They're just a few pages long. And I realized, oh, they're really not meant to be, you know, fleshed out in a way. They're kind of shorthand. And often, the plot turns on a dime.

And - so then I guess the idea of having an original fairy tale along with existing fairy tales came to be. And that's how we started. And it was the complete opposite of the "Sunday" process. I sat down and wrote this opening scene that involved, you know, like, four different fairy tale and fairy tale characters. And I handed it to him, and I said, there's no way (laughter) you can make this an opening number. And of course, in retrospect, I realize that's the exact way to get Sondheim to do something...

GROSS: (Laughter).

LAPINE: ...Is tell him it can't be done. (Laughter) And lo and behold, he musicalized the whole thing, and we were off to the races.

GROSS: Yeah. So this is the prologue to "Into The Woods." And in the Broadway production, there is a narrator, too, kind of stitching it together.

LAPINE: Correct, which, you know, I'm not particularly proud of as a writer. I wish there had been a way to do it without a narrator. But then I had to - that narrator, you know, became a character in the show, and there were many versions of it and odd things that happened in versions that we did of it. And we tried this show out in San Diego, which was a good move, instead of going straight to Broadway without a second act. So that (laughter) - that helped the development of that show a lot.

GROSS: So let's hear some of the prologue from "Into The Woods."


TOM ALDREDGE: (As Narrator) Once upon a time...

KIM CROSBY: (As Cinderella, singing) I wish...

ALDREDGE: (As Narrator) ...In a far off kingdom...

CROSBY: (As Cinderella, singing) ...More than anything...

ALDREDGE: (As Narrator) ...Lived a fair maiden...

CROSBY: (As Cinderella, singing) ...More than life...

ALDREDGE: (As Narrator) ...A sad young lad...

CROSBY: (As Cinderella, singing) ...More than jewels.

BEN WRIGHT: (As Jack, singing) I wish...

ALDREDGE: (As Narrator) ...And a childless baker...

WRIGHT: (As Jack, singing) ...More than life.

CHIP ZIEN AND JOANNA GLEASON: (As Baker and Baker's Wife, singing) I wish.

ALDREDGE: (As Narrator) ...With his wife.

WRIGHT: (As Jack, singing) ...More than anything.

ZIEN AND GLEASON: (As Baker and Baker's Wife, singing) More than the moon.

JOANNA GLEASON: (As Baker's Wife, singing) I wish...

CROSBY: (As Cinderella, singing) The king is giving a festival.

CHIP ZIEN: (As Baker, singing) More than life.

WRIGHT: (As Jack, singing) I wish.

CROSBY: (As Cinderella, singing) I wish to go to the festival...

ZIEN: (As Baker, singing) More than riches.

CROSBY: (As Cinderella, singing) ...And the ball...

WRIGHT: (As Jack, singing) I wish my cow would give us some milk.

CROSBY: (As Cinderella, singing) ...More than anything.

ZIEN: (As Baker, singing) I wish we had a child.

WRIGHT: (As Jack, singing) Please, pal.

GLEASON: (As Baker's Wife, singing) I want a child.

WRIGHT: (As Jack, singing) Squeeze, pal.

CROSBY: (As Cinderella, singing) I wish to go to the festival.

WRIGHT: (As Jack, singing) I wish you'd give us some milk or even cheese.

BEN WRIGHT, KIM CROSBY AND JOANNA GLEASON: (As Jack, Cinderella and Baker's Wife) I wish...

JOY FRANZ: (As Cinderella's Stepmother) You wish to go to the festival?

ALDREDGE: (As Narrator) The poor girl's mother had died.

FRANZ: (As Cinderella's Stepmother) You, Cinderella, the festival?

KAY MCCLELLAND: (As Florinda) What, you, Cinderella?

JOY FRANZ, LAUREN MITCHELL AND KAY MCCLELLAND: (As Cinderella's Stepmother, Lucinda and Florinda) You wish to go to the festival? The festival? The king's festival?

ALDREDGE: (As Narrator) And her father had taken for his new wife...

FRANZ: (As Cinderella's Stepmother) The festival.

ALDREDGE: (As Narrator) ...A woman with two daughters of her own.

MCCLELLAND: (As Florinda, singing) Look at your nails.

LAUREN MITCHELL: (As Lucinda, singing) Look at your dress.

FRANZ: (As Cinderella's Stepmother, singing) People would laugh at you.

CROSBY: (As Cinderella, singing) Nevertheless. I still want to go to the festival and dance before the prince.

FRANZ, MITCHELL AND MCCLELLAND: (As Cinderella's Stepmother, Lucinda and Florinda, singing) She still wants to go to the festival and dance before the prince.


ALDREDGE: (As Narrator) All three were beautiful of face, but vile and black of heart. Jack, on the other hand, had no father, and his mother...

BARBARA BRYNE: (As Jack's Mother, singing) I wish...

ALDREDGE: (As Narrator) ...Well, she was not quite beautiful.

BRYNE: (As Jack's Mother, singing) I wish my son...

GROSS: That's an excerpt of the prologue from "Into The Woods." And my guest, James Lapine, wrote the book for the musical and directed the original Broadway production. He also adapted the book for the film version of it.

We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with James Lapine. He wrote the book for three musicals with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim - "Sunday In The Park With George," "Into The Woods" and "Passion." And now Lapine has written a new book about working with Sondheim on "Sunday In The Park," and it's called "Putting It Together."

And now I want to ask you about "Passion." And "Passion" is a musical that is adapted from a movie and from the book the movie is based on. And to give us the shortest version, it's about a soldier who's having a passionate affair with a beautiful woman who's sent to a remote outpost where the cousin of the commander is a very sickly - I mean, she's very ill - woman who is considered very ugly by the other soldiers there. And she basically lives in books. She reads to live. And by the end, the main character, the soldier, gets sick, too. And they actually develop a loving relationship. She's fallen in love with him much earlier, and he's done everything in his power to reject her earlier in the musical.

So what is - can you choose a song from that that you feel really connected to - in terms of contributing to it, where you contributed some lines or it was based on a monologue that you wrote?

LAPINE: Well, there's a song that was the last one that came in - again, another kind of beautiful short song that Steve wrote called "Loving You." And we were having a horrible time in previews. The audience was just not buying the fact that this gorgeous guy is going to fall in love with this sickly and unpleasant woman, really. And I realized in previews that we had to tell the audience literally what it was that made him fall in love with her. And we have a scene on a train. She follows him as he's going back to Rome to visit his mistress. And she follows him. And she explains for the first time what love is for her. And she realizes that love is not throwing herself at his feet, but just being there.

And in this scene, which was written there - maybe a little underwritten by me - we realized we needed a musical moment for her to explain herself and for us to help let the audience understand why this is a possibility. And so she sings a song about what it means to love. And for the first time, in the dialogue as well, she says to him, well, your mistress, was she going to leave her husband for you? How much does she love you? And she's in a sense saying, well, I love you so much, I would die for you. And she turns his head around about what love is. And a simple little song when it came into the show really dramatically helped us bring the audience along on this kind of far-fetched tale.

GROSS: So let's say hear "Loving You" from the musical "Passion." And this is Donna Murphy.


DONNA MURPHY: (As Fosca, singing) Loving you is not a choice. It's who I am. Loving you is not a choice and not much reason to rejoice, but it gives me purpose, gives me voice to say to the world this is why I live. You are why I live. Loving you is why I do the things I do. Loving you is not in my control. But loving you, I have a goal for what's left of my life. I will live, and I would die for you.

GROSS: That was Donna Murphy singing "Loving You" from the musical "Passion" with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. The book for the show was written by my guest, James Lapine, who has a new book that's kind of a memoir and interviews with people about working with Sondheim on "Sunday In The Park With George," for which Lapine also wrote the book and directed the original Broadway production. And that book is called "Putting It Together."

The musical "Passion" has so much to do about the world of the sick compared to the world of the well, and the world of those who are considered ugly compared to the world of those who are considered beautiful. Is that a theme that you related to either of those about being sickly or being considered, you know, not attractive?

LAPINE: I would say on the surface, no, but I do think I'm very aware of that. And I'm not sure why in the world we live in and how beauty is so extolled as opposed to the world of the mind and falling in love with someone for who's who they are under the surface of what they look like. But I don't - you know, I think that show - and I would say this for Steve too - it somehow struck us on such a deep level that we couldn't even articulate why. It just moved us. And it created a really interesting challenge for us to hold an audience's attention on that kind of a theme because it's threatening to people. I remember sitting in the audience, and there were a lot of married couples around me. And the show starts, of course, with these two naked, gorgeous people making love. And the guys in the audience in particular are like, yeah, this is the show for me, you know.


LAPINE: And then the show starts, and about 30 minutes in, they're squirming in their seats. And, you know, 40 minutes in, they're trying to poke their wives and get the hell out of there. But it asks a lot of us to question what love is and question, you know, are we just interested in the surface of people and not actually what their heart and brain is? And I could feel married couples questioning themselves about, are we still in love? Is this passion? Is it love? Whatever. It raises a lot of questions for people, this show.

GROSS: Are you and Sondheim still good friends?

LAPINE: Oh, my God, yeah. I consider him one of my absolute closest friends.

GROSS: I'm glad to hear that (laughter).

LAPINE: I'm very lucky. And, I mean, when you go through what we went through on those three shows, you know, you are joined at the hip for life.

GROSS: How did you decide not to collaborate anymore?

LAPINE: That's an interesting question and one I ask myself and one I've asked him, too (laughter). I don't know why we didn't do more work together. We certainly tried. I had projects that I was interested in doing. And he had projects that he was interested in doing. And neither gelled for the other. And I tried my hand at some of the things he wanted to do. And it just was an odd thing. And particularly the last show I have written, which is about LSD, which I thought he could have done just an incredible - created something incredible for that, but for whatever reason, he couldn't relate to it and and didn't choose to do it.

So, you know, we - you know, I did the musical revue "Sondheim On Sondheim." And I did a documentary on him - "Six By Sondheim." Because I didn't want to - I wanted to be involved with him even if I didn't get to write a show. So to that end, here I've written a book about him, too. So, you know, in a way, I feel he's never left my life. We just haven't been able to really find a show together to do.

GROSS: Why don't we end with a song? Is there a song from any of the shows that you worked on with Sondheim that you feel just kind of speaks to the moment we're in now?

LAPINE: I definitely think the song "No One Is Alone" from "Into the Woods" is one that we should all be listening to.

GROSS: Well, let's end with that. James Lapine, it's been such a pleasure to talk with you. Thank you so much. And thank you for your work.

LAPINE: Oh, my gosh. And thank you for yours. And thanks for taking the time to talk to me.

GROSS: It's been a pleasure, James Lapine. Thank you.

James Lapine's new book is called "Putting It Together: How Stephen Sondheim And I Created 'Sunday In The Park With George.'"


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character, singing) Mother cannot guide you. Now you're on your own, only me beside you. Still, you're not alone. No one is alone, truly. No one is alone. Sometimes people leave you halfway through the wood. Others may deceive you. You decide what's good. You decide alone. But no one is alone. I wish. I know.

GROSS: Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, as the 20th anniversary of 9/11 approaches, we speak with Peter Bergen, one of the world's foremost authorities on al-Qaida. He has a new biography of Osama bin Laden. Bergen says he wanted to understand why bin Laden created an organization dedicated to mass murder. I hope you'll join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley, Kayla Lattimore and Joel Wolfram. Our producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.