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They are one of the greatest combos in the history of musicals. The Pulitzer-winning pair behind Into the Woods talk about bumpy first nights, how to read audience coughs and why shows today are too loud

Stephen Sondheim once gave James Lapine, his friend and longtime collaborator, a useful if inadvertent piece of advice. The two first worked together in the mid-1980s on Sunday in the Park With George, and a revival of their second musical, Into the Woods, is transferring from the US to London this summer. They are very different, says Lapine, when we meet in a rehearsal space near Times Square in New York. Although in life, Sondheim is the dark soul and Im the light one, when it comes to work, Lapine characterises himself as the gloomier of the two. I just think everything will flop, he says, while Sondheim once shocked him by saying: You know, I think everything I do is going to be a huge success. I said really? Why? He saidbecause its so interesting to me, I assume it will be interesting to others.

The lesson of this is to confine ones anxieties to the project at hand. When I see Sondheim a day later at his home in New York, he confirms that Into the Woods was not written as a critique of the contemporary world, nor with an eye on the box office nor the potential longevity of its appeal. I was just thinking about telling these fairytales, he says. I had no sense of anything but showbiz.

The 2013 movie adaptation of Into the Woods, directed by Rob Marshall and starring Meryl Streep, Emily Blunt and Anna Kendrick, renewed interest in the musical, which weaves together classic Grimm Brothers fairytales, before complicating each story and rolling it on. The revival, by the Fiasco theatre company, is what Lapine calls a ground-up production, driven by the ethos of lets get in a room and play and against what has become the unwieldy mega-musical of Broadway.

Sondheim has only praise for the group, which is not always the case with revivals. Legally, a theatre company is prohibited from changing a single word of the text without running it by the author, but quite often they say to hell with that, and they do it anyway, he says, and cites the example of a production of Merrily We Roll Along, staged at a university in Long Island in which the entire timeline of the musical was reversed. They only had a weeks worth of performances but we stopped it, says Sondheim, who diagnoses the problem as one of directors showing off. This is, he says, particularly true of student directors. They take it upon themselves to distort in order to draw attention to themselves.

The new ground-up production of Into the Woods, at Londons Menier Chocolate Factory. Photograph: Catherine Ashmore

If this sounds a little stern, it is. Lapine and Sondheim have, through long experience, learned that the effects of even minor tweaks on a show can catastrophically or, miraculously affect its impact. The question, for the creators, is when to tweak and when to leave be, a decision made by interpreting tiny fluctuations in the response of an audience.

Before it ever got to that stage, the two men would meet once a week to go over the work in progress and, Lapine says jokingly, for him to make sure [Sondheims] working. Im sort of the go-getter. Ill throw anything on a piece of paper, I dont give a shit. And hes like … everythings so meticulous. Its hard for him to let go of things. Were a good combo that way.

No, not at all, says Sondheim, when appraised of this assessment. No, no, no, no. The point is, writing a scene is one thing; writing a song is another. Writing a song you are restricted; you have certain rhythms and meters and rhymes. You cant just go (he makes a retching sound) whereas you can write a scene that should be two pages long and is eight pages, and just vomit on the page and then you cut back and edit and go to your collaborator. But thats not the same thing.

Watch the trailer for the film adaptation of Into the Woods

Sunday in the Park was their first collaboration and it was, Lapine believes, a mark in his favour that he wasnt a huge Sondheim devotee before they met. Id only seen one show he had done. I knew of him of course, but I wasnt a fan. That was kind of good. I think in retrospect he must have liked that it wasnt somebody whod seen everything hed done and was so impressed with him.

For the most part, he says, writing a musical with someone else is so much silly fun. Stimulating, and hes so funny, and we enjoy each others company. And theres real excitement to it. It never feels like work. How would conflict be resolved? Easily. He always said whoever cares most, wins. Weve never had an argument. Never. The nice thing about the theatre is you can always change it. With a movie, once its there, youre stuck with it.

Depending on the collaborator, Sondheim sees each of his shows as inhabiting a unique and entirely different colour. George Furth was very urban and contemporary. John Weidman was very political. James is a poet. Theyre writers of distinction. They have their own whatever-it-is.

The hard part is what Lapine calls the birthing process and many of the musicals had a bumpy first run. In 1994, he and Sondheim wrote a musical called Passion, to which the reaction, says Lapine, was just so hostile that we had to change it. We knew we hadnt solved the fundamental problem. Its one thing if people dont like it, and you like it. Its another when theyre not getting it. Then you have to solve it. And then if they dont like it, its fine.

Oh, now you like it Sunday in the Park With George, inspired by the painter Georges Seurat. Photograph: Jacques Demarthon/AFP/Getty Images

This, Lapine says, was the case in 1984 when Sunday in the Park opened. The audience, he says, didnt know what they were seeing; it wasnt what they wanted. Then the night after the review came out in the New York Times, we got a standing ovation. And it made me go, Ew. Like, oh, now you like it?!

Sondheim says: Its not as simple as that. The New York Times wrote a favourable review and it may have affected the audience, but it certainly didnt change it from everybody booing to everybody standing on their feet. This only happened over time. For Sondheim, the most important principle is to start at the very beginning of the show and say: does the audience understand whats going on in this scene? Do they understand what the musicals going to be? The point is when you fix something for the better, it affects everything that follows. I mean everything. I mean an hour and a half later, youll suddenly get a laugh on a line you never got a laugh on.

Are focus groups ever useful? Sondheim makes a face like Dracula being struck by a beam of sunlight. Focus groups are the death of all entertainment. Some forms of entertainment depend on that kind of death. Instead of a focus group, he says, you listen to the audience. You can tell from silences, from restlessness, sometimes from coughing. Sometimes from the quality of the applause. The key is not to rush into a response. Its a great mistake just to go home and rewrite. Or just fire an actor. To zero in on whats wrong immediately is always wrong. You gotta let it play.

James Lapine and Stephen Sondheim in 2014. Photograph: Vera Anderson/WireImage

One of the biggest rewrites he did was in 1962 on the musical A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum, which bombed in its out-of-town tryouts. Then he changed the opening number from a sweet romantic song, which set up the wrong expectations in the audience, to something more raucous that announced the burlesque show to come and it opened to a rapturous reception in New York.

Hamilton aside, the current health of Broadway musicals relies heavily on stage adaptations of blockbuster movies, something regarded critically by both men. Most musicals are real crowd pleasers, says Lapine.They just want to fuck the audience. Sondheim sees the effect on Broadway musicals of pop music where the idea is to sing loud. Thats what its about. Make loud songs. And so musicals are now very loud. Over an evening, that can get tiresome.

Does he think they pander to the audience, that theyre market driven? I suppose. Im not sure that the people who write and produce the musicals know the difference.

Sondheims art is a question of specificity. Story is all. I dont think the theatre is about converting people to new ideas, he says. I think its about confirming ideas you have by dramatising them and making them human. As opposed to novels which, as Tolstoy proves, can teach you things. At its most basic level, its about how you combine song and dance and libretto to make a whole. Thats what its about; its an exercise in style.

Its making a puzzle for yourself to solve, says Lapine and, as Sondheim says, in the spirit that has defined his career there is only one way to do that. You have to try to be free, and try not to worry about what people think.

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