James Lapine

James Lapine Biography

Playwright (1949–)
Award-winning director/playwright James Lapine is regarded as a major figure in American theater, collaborating with Stephen Sondheim and William Finn, and garnering a Pulitzer Prize for Sunday in the Park with George.


Renowned as the co-creator of one of the most innovative musicals on the Broadway stage, James Lapine was born on January 10, 1949, in Mansfield, Ohio. He moved on to Pennsylvania and California for schooling, and eventually landed in New York, where he worked as a freelancer, including as a designer for the Yale School of Drama magazine. This led to Lapine's first directing gig, which launched a string of New York theater successes and awards, including a collaboration with Stephen Sondheim and a Pulitzer Prize for Sunday in the Park with George. Lapine is also a respected filmmaker.

Early Life

James Elliot Lapine was born on January 10, 1949, in Mansfield, Ohio, to David and Lillian Lapine. When Lapine was in his early teens, his family moved to Stamford, Connecticut. He attended public schools there before eventually moving to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, to attend Franklin and Marshall College as a history major.Photography and graphic design captured Lapine's imagination, however, and he soon moved to Valencia, California, to pursue an MFA in design at the California Institute of the Arts.

After completing his education, Lapine moved to New York City, where he held several jobs, including waiter, NBC tour guide, freelance photographer, graphic artist and architectural preservationist. He also did freelance design work on the magazine for the storied Yale School of Drama. Lapine's work so impressed the school's dean, Robert Brustein, that he asked Lapine not only to design all of the school's printed material but also to join the faculty as a design teacher. In a curious melding of expertise and environment, Lapine ended up directing a Gertrude Stein play called Photograph—and it was there that the seed was planted for his most enduring success.

Theater Career

The production of Photograph, which in 1977 was innovative in its use of image projections, moved to an off-Broadway house in New York City, and its success earned Lapine an Obie, his first of many theater awards. His next staged project, Twelve Dreams, also combined his visual sensibilities with his interest in history, memory and surrealism.

However, it was Lapine's work with composers William Finn and Stephen Sondheim that would lead to his most notable successes. In 1981, he and Finn collaborated on March of the Falsettos, an exploration of Jewish family life that evolved over the years into the Tony Award-winning Falsettoland.

Lapine's introduction in 1982 to composer Stephen Sondheim led him to revisit the haunting image of Georges Seurat's A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte that he had used in Photograph. A conversation with Sondheim, during which Lapine noted that the artist was missing from the narrative of the painting, made them realize the dramatic tension needed for a play. The resulting Sunday in the Park with George became a groundbreaking musical that would go on to win two Tony Awards and a Pulitzer Prize. New York Times theater critic Ben Brantley said of the show: "You really did believe that it was the mind of the artist that summoned this vision into being. Or rather a melding of the artistic minds of Seurat, Mr. Sondheim, [and] Mr. Lapine."

Lapine went on to create more award-winning shows with Sondheim—including Into the Woods, Passion and Sondheim on Sondheim—and The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee and a stage version of Little Miss Sunshine with Finn. He also directed numerous productions, including Dirty Blonde, The Diary of Anne Frank and a recent revival of Annie.

Film Career and Personal Life

Lapine is married to Academy Award-winning filmmaker, chanteuse and novelist Sarah Kernochan. Together they have a daughter, food writer Phoebe Lapine, and produced the 1991 film Impromptu, which starred Hugh Grant, Judy Davis and Mandy Patinkin.

Lapine has also written and/or directed other films, including Earthly Possessions, starring Susan Sarandon, and the recent HBO documentary produced with former theater critic Frank Rich, Six by Sondheim, which features the details of the composer's life as told through six songs.

In 2011, Lapine was inducted into the Theater Hall of Fame. He also wrote the 2014 Disney film version of his stage success, Into the Woods, starring Meryl Streep and Johnny Depp.

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