Fifty years ago this month, the Stonewall uprisings put the gay liberation movement on America’s radar. But hostilities between New York City police and residents of Greenwich Village didn’t register with James Lapine, a straight kid from Ohio attending Franklin & Marshall College in southeastern Pennsylvania.
“There was no gay culture at Franklin & Marshall, and I don’t think I knew anybody who was gay,” says Lapine, who majored in history. “I may have known them and thought they were gay, but they were not out of the closet. I’d led a very sheltered life.”
He had no idea he’d direct and then co-write the most famous series of gay-themed musicals of the 1980s and ’90s, culminating in a Tony Award with William Finn for the book of “Falsettos” in 1992. Or that he’d go on to a five-show collaboration with Stephen Sondheim, earning Tonys for the books of “Into the Woods” and “Passion.” Or that he’d direct the 2016 Broadway revival of “Falsettos,” which comes to Knight Theater June 25 in the Broadway Lights series.
“I was surprised it didn’t feel dated at all,” he says of that revival. “I was more concerned with whether people would still be interested. We were working with a generation of actors who weren’t around at the time, so we did a lot of research. I had to explain to the 12-year-old boy in the show, who lives in New York City and sees no problem in being gay, that there was a time when gay people couldn’t get married.”
The show, a combination of the short musicals “March of the Falsettos” and “Falsettoland,” deals with all kinds of love: men for men, men for women, women for men, women for women, parents for children. Perhaps because Finn and Lapine come from Jewish families, there’s also a key subplot about a bar mitzvah. The comic opening number, “Four Jews in a Room Bitching,” drops us down in the New York of 1979 and introduces us to the male characters, who will deal with love and pain and death before leaving us in the 1980s.
The creative process
Lapine moved from directing “March” in 1981 to directing and co-writing “Falsettoland” in 1990 but says the creative process remained the same:
“It was very fluid, talking to Bill about storytelling and characterizations and what the songs should be. We’re from the same era” – Lapine is 70, Finn 67 – “and we’re both improvisational. (A producer) gave us four weeks in a room together (for ‘March’) and said, ‘Make something.’ Without anything to go on, we went in with a few songs and talked out a whole show. I had no background in musicals, so for me that was kind of fun.”
“March” opened off-Broadway in 1981. A year later, Lapine collaborated with Sondheim on “Sunday in the Park with George.” Acquaintances suggested the 33-year-old Lapine and 52-year-old Sondheim adapt Nathanael West’s novel “The Cool Million,” a satire of American business. That went nowhere, so they focused on French painter Georges Seurat and his fictional great-grandson.
“Sondheim comes from a more structured school, where everyone has a role to fulfill,” says Lapine. “He doesn’t work improvisationally. It’s like any relationship: You try to find a balance and figure out what each of you can contribute. In the Sondheim relationship, he was the neat one. In the Bill relationship, I was the one who had to be neat. But I couldn’t have been more thrilled working with both. I don’t try to analyze these things too much.”
If he did, he might be amazed at his own path. As he says, “I can’t recall a moment in a theater when I said ‘This is going to be my life.’ “
Growing up in Ohio
He grew up mostly in mid-sized Mansfield, self-proclaimed “Fun Center of Ohio.” (“Ummm, I don’t remember it that way.”) His parents took him to just one Broadway show as a middle schooler: “Bye Bye Birdie,” because it takes place in “Sweet Apple,” Ohio, and its lyrics came from Mansfield native Lee Adams.
Lapine earned an M.F.A. in design at California Institute of the Arts and went to New York, where he promptly became a waiter. And a page and tour guide at NBC. And a freelance photographer, graphic designer and architectural preservationist for the Architectural League of New York.
His freelance work designing “Yale/Theater,” the magazine of the Yale School of Drama, so impressed dean Robert Brustein that he gave Lapine a full-time job designing all the school’s printed materials and teaching a course in advertising design.
Yale faculty do something outside their fields every January, in the academic off-season. Lapine directed the Gertrude Stein play “Photograph,” five acts spread over three pages of text. Bizarre as that sounds, it found a home off-Broadway and won a plaudit from the New York Times. Suddenly, his hobby became his profession. He hooked up with Finn in 1981 on “March of the Falsettos” and never looked back.
Movies and more
Over the years, he has directed movies (most recently the 2016 “Custody” with Viola Davis and Tony Shalhoub), written a dozen musicals and plays and directed shows as unexpected as the 2012 Broadway revival of “Annie.” How did he end up with those cheerful street urchins immediately after directing Finn’s darkly comic musical “Little Miss Sunshine”?
“I’m not sure I have the answer,” he says. “I had never seen the show, but I love working with kids. So I read it and met with the producers and thought I’d have something to say about The Depression that hadn’t been said that way before. I like to try different things, the kinds of shows I’ve never done. That’s always a challenge.”
When: June 25-30 at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 1:30 and 7 p.m. Sunday.
Where: Knight Theater, 430 S. Tryon St.
Details: 704-372-1000 or blumenthalarts.org.
This story is part of an Observer underwriting project with the Thrive Campaign for the Arts, supporting arts journalism in Charlotte..
Want to get more arts stories like this delivered to your inbox? Sign up for the free “Inside Charlotte Arts” newsletter at charlotteobserver.com/newsletters
You can also join our Facebook group, “Inside Charlotte Arts,” at https://www.facebook.com/groups/insidecharlottearts/