Published in KPBS On Air Magazine March 1993

He’s about to become Mr. San Diego Theater. Award-winning writer/director James Lapine is going to be directing something here every couple of months in 1993. There’s “Falsettos” at the Globe (March 18-April 15), “Luck, Pluck and Virtue” at the La Jolla Playhouse (August 1-29) and, also at the Playhouse (October-November), a world premiere musical-in-progress co-created with Stephen Sondheim.

That’s fine with Lapine. ” San Diego ‘s a city I love to be in,” says the Mansfield , Ohio native who’s now rooted in New York .   It wasn’t all planned at once, but “everything just sort of fell together” for his San Diego season.

First, La Jolla Playhouse artistic director Des McAnuff arranged to produce the world premiere of Lapine’s own play, “Luck, Pluck and Virtue”, a dark comedy   based on Nathaniel West’s “A Cool Million,” a parody of the Horatio Alger success stories.   Ironically, it was this play that prompted Lapine’s initial contact with Sondheim. “I was originally thinking of adapting the novella as a musical, and the producer suggested Stephen,” says Lapine.   “He knew the novella and liked it, but he didn’t really want to do a musical of it. But the two of us hit it off from the start.”  

The rest, as they say, is theater history. Lapine garnered a Pulitzer Prize for their first collaboration, the brilliant, painterly “Sunday in the Park with George”.   Next, they developed “Into the Woods”, and Lapine won a Tony.   Playhouse artistic director Des McAnuff has called Sondheim and Lapine “the premier team in contemporary musical theater.” He last hosted them at the Playhouse in 1984, when they were here to mount a revised version of “Merrily We Roll Along”.

Meanwhile, Lapine had also been collaborating with William Finn, who created three plays around the antics of funny/serious/gay character, Marvin:   “In Trousers”, “March of the Falsettos” and “Falsettoland”. Early in 1992, Finn and Lapine combined the three pieces into “Falsettos”, which Time magazine’s William A. Henry called “the first and only great musical of the 90s.”   (Lapine Tony took home another Tony).

In the play, Marvin has left his wife Trina and 12 year-old son Jason for his male lover, Whizzer. Trina subsequently marries Marvin’s psychiatrist, and Jason’s Bar Mitzvah (catered by lesbians) is held in the hospital room where Whizzer lies dying of AIDS.   Doesn’t sound like the stuff that smash musicals are made of. “I’m surprised it’s run so long,” Lapine confesses. “I felt that it would get decent reviews, but I didn’t know if audiences would come… But I think it will be timeless. It has very broad appeal. It’s not about homosexual issues. It’s about love.   And relationships.   And commitment. And about family. And that’s what everyone relates to… These are changing times. These issues have touched everyone.”

Lapine’s new production of “Falsettos” at the Globe will become the national touring company, and will move from San Diego to San Francisco and beyond.   As for the new Sondheim collaboration, everyone has been tight-lipped for months — about title, topic, opening night, everything. All Lapine would say when we went to press was that “it’s an adaptation of a nineteenth century Italian novel. About vanity and beauty… very different from anything we’ve done.”

A lot of the difference will have to do with “the visual look” of the piece.   Lapine is admired and revered for the stage pictures he creates when directing (he was trained in graphic design at the California Institute of the Arts and the Yale School of Drama).   The new work will experiment with “mixed media…   and it’ll be fun for the audience to see a work in progress, with new songs added all the time… Both Steve and I,” he adds, “tend to write under pressure.”

The pressure of his San Diego schedule won’t give Lapine much time for projects in between his gigs here, but he just wrapped “Life With Mikey,” a movie starring Michael J. Fox.   What he likes about film is the editing. “It’s a whole different mind set from theater,” he explains. “It’s exactly the opposite process.   You have opening night for ten weeks and then you go into rehearsal.”   He does admit to a preference for “the immediacy of theater,” and he’d like to direct an opera.   Opera companies, take note; Lapine may be on the loose…

With all the attention and kudos, it’s easy to become jaded. “Winning awards is great,” Lapine admits. “But it isn’t the be-all and end-all. The process itself is so satisfying. I love putting it all together, and being involved with the people doing it.   But — it’s always nice to have something to hang on your wall.” And when did the award-winner first get bitten by the theater bug?   “I’m not sure I’m bitten,” he deadpans.   “It’s a living.”  

©1993 Patté Productions Inc.