Back in 2005 I was invited to work at a 150 seat theatre in London called the Menier Chocolate Factory on their production of Sunday in the Park With George.
You don’t need to be an Oompa Loompa to know that you don’t turn down a chance to work in a chocolate factory, so I packed my bags and headed to London.
It was the first time I’d been on ‘the inside’ as a complex show like this was put together, and I learned a lot from the people around me.
Sunday is a magnificent piece of art, and the show and the experience changed my life.
One of the highlights was when Stephen Sondheim (who wrote the score) and James Lapine (who wrote the book and directed the original production) came to see our show one Saturday matinee. I had the opportunity to meet and speak with them both briefly after the performance, which was a great thrill and honour.
What a blast it must have been for them to see that the show they began creating for an experimental theatre workshop in 1983 was still affecting audiences over twenty years later.
I’ve been enjoying Putting it Together, James Lapine’s 2020 book about the process of creating the show, especially learning about how Sondheim responded when James received a pan from the NY Times theatre critic.
Lapine’s star had been on the rise. He had written and directed a number of Off-Broadway successes. Just as he was scheduled to begin his collaboration with Sondheim, his production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream received a terrible review. He went into a spin, worrying that Sondheim would change his mind about their planned collaboration.
But in fact, the day the review came out, he received a phone call. It was the composer, inviting James to come over to look at his bad reviews.
Sondheim, whose shows at that point included West Side Story, Gypsy, Company, A Little Night Music and Sweeney Todd was accustomed to receiving terrible reviews.
As he explained, “the first time I ever got a good review I was forty years old, on my sixth show, Company.”
Sondheim did show Lapine his collecting of scathing reviews, which he kept in a collection of scrapbooks. He modeled what it means to be a good colleague and helped James put his own criticism in perspective.
As Sondheim says “the work is the work.” The show they went on to create together won two Tony Awards, the Pulitzer Prize for drama and changed my life.