James Lapine spoke with LCT's dramaturg Anne Cattaneo at a platform event on Tuesday evening, in the lobby of the Vivian Beaumont, and it didn't take him long to make a major announcement about Act One: "Today, we pretty much locked down the show." A project that Lapine has been working on for around four years thus has assumed a final form: the actors and the audience will determine how it evolves from here.
Lapine, who grew up in Ohio and had an early career in graphic design, said he didn't read Moss Hart's Act One until he was well along in his theatrical career, which has included writing such plays as Twelve Dreams and the books, as well as direction, for Stephen Sondheim collaborations such asSunday in the Park with George and William Finn collaborations such asFalsettos.
"I'd never adapted a book before," Lapine said of the Act One project, "and it's been a real learning curve." He added: "It's a beautifully written book" but "eloquence on the page doesn't really translate to conversation." The autobiography, he explained, "feels very dramatic when you're reading it, but you realize it's not written very dramatically - you always hear Moss Hart's voice."
At first, Lapine commented, the books seems as if it would be a better film than a play, even though, he suggested, echoing a general consensus, the 1963 movie version, starring George Hamilton, "is really not very good." Lapine said his job was to locate what in Hart's autobiography is theatrical. "I tried to capture the essence of the book but not the book literally."
At the Beaumont event, a member of the audience suggested that some of the facts in Hart's book were questioned by people who knew him, and wondered if Lapine felt the need to do research for veracity's sake. Lapine answered, "I did stay true to the book," and said he was less interested in "what is or isn't true" than in "the psychology of the version [Hart] wanted to pass on."
Lapine credited Hart's children, Chris and Cathy Hart, for helping him in his work on the project, as well as Anne Kaufman Schneider, who, Lapine said, gave him a great piece of advice: she said that her mother, Beatrice Kaufman, read all of her husband's work, and that it's entirely conceivable she may have urged her husband to do Once in a Lifetime, the Kaufman/Hart collaboration that forms the heart of Lapine's second act.
As for his own experience of working with or without a creative partner, Lapine said, "Having a collaborator is much easier." He added: "I write and then I discover what I've written while I'm directing." He credited Andre Bishop, LCT's producing artistic director, for providing valuable collaboration during the genesis of Act One.
A few members of the Beaumont event's audience, inevitably, asked about Lapine's collaboration with Sondheim. "Meeting Sondheim," Lapine said, "was probably not as big a thrill as it should have been. I was kind of an ignoramus when I met him." Lapine added: "I don't know to this day what Sondheim saw in me." As for whether another Sondheim collaboration is in the offing, Lapine commented: "We'll see. We remain very close."
Brendan Lemon is the American theater critic for the Financial Times and the editor of lemonwade.com