James Lapine Is Flying Back Over Sunset

Interview   James Lapine Is Flying Back Over Sunset
 
A conversation with the Tony-winning book writer and director of Lincoln Center Theater’s new musical about the shared LSD experiences of three luminaries of the 1950s.
James Lapine in rehearsal for <i>Flying Over Sunset</i>
James Lapine in rehearsal for Flying Over Sunset Marc J. Franklin

Flying Over Sunset was originally set to play its first performance on March 12, 2020, the day of the Broadway shutdown. And, while many expected the delay to be brief, the show’s acclaimed book writer and director James Lapine (Sunday in the Park with George, Into the Woods, Falsettos) saw the situation more clearly.

“When it all came down, I did not think, like so many people, that we were coming back in a matter of weeks,” said Lapine. “It just seemed like the beginning of something and not the ending of something.”

So, he retreated to his office to write everything down. Lapine took copious notes on the work done so far on his new musical following the LSD experiences of 1950’s icons Cary Grant, Clare Boothe Luce, and Aldous Huxley. Then he stuffed everything in a drawer. Now, with Flying Over Sunset at last beginning performances at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theater on November 11, Lapine has had the opportunity to take advantage of that foresight.

“It’s almost like having a restart button,” he reflects, “I have the distance on it, and it’s being refracted through a different lens and perspective.”

Tony Yazbeck, Harry Hadden-Paton, and Carmen Cusack in <i>Flying Over Sunset</i>
Tony Yazbeck, Harry Hadden-Paton, and Carmen Cusack in Flying Over Sunset Joan Marcus

Where did the idea for Flying Over Sunset come from?
James Lapine: Many years ago, I read an article about Cary Grant that mentioned he did LSD. Even though I’m a child of the ‘60s and ‘70s, I had no idea that LSD was available in the ‘50s—particularly with someone of his stature taking it. So, I started doing some research and I started to get more and more fascinated.

In my research, I started reading about Aldous Huxley and understanding that LSD was legal in the ‘50s. Next, I came upon the biography of Clare Boothe Luce, who many people don’t know now but was extremely famous in her time. She was a sort of a polymath who started as a playwright, then became the editor of Vanity Fair, and finally moved on to politics as a congresswoman from Connecticut and eventually the ambassador to Italy. She was an arch conservative and a practicing Catholic, and I thought, “Well this is really interesting that she does LSD.’ And the man who was her sort-of guide on LSD was a sort-of great friend of Aldous Huxley. And, I came back to Cary Grant, realizing that their paths had crossed, and that was when I said, “Oh, this is just too good.”

And I decided it was a musical because I thought they should only sing when they were on LSD.

Do you imagine that the show is going to resonate differently with audiences?
JL: That’s a big yes because the show is about people’s connection to themselves. That’s why people do LSD—it’s to go into another plane and discover things about the world and themselves. The show itself is also about the connection between these three seemingly very accomplished people struggling to connect with one another and to share an experience together.

What is the structure of the show?
JL: The show is very specific. The first act concentrates on each of these people’s experiences with LSD at a different period. It introduces the individuals and what they’re going through. The second act is when they all end up in California and decide to take the drug together because none of them have ever done that before.

in <i>Flying Over Sunset</i>
Robert Sella and Carmen Cusack in Flying Over Sunset Joan Marcus

What’s been toughest about creating this world?
JL: The challenge of it, I think, has been helping our audience understand what an LSD trip feels like, and, of course, it’s very individual.

And then, of course, there’s the challenge of the visual and audio...I think it’s going to be a visual delight. I started out in the visual arts and this is the most ambitious project I’ve done.

Are you hoping that an evening at Flying Over Sunset will be mostly about escapism or something else?
JL: It’s whatever the person walks in with. It’s going to be entertaining, but I hope it asks questions of the audience, like, “Do I want to take LSD?” or “What’s missing in my life?” I don’t try to project a message or something at an audience. I’ve found the more specific you can be, in a funny sort of way, the more universal it is.

What does the title mean?
JL: It takes place on Sunset Boulevard. And one of them, on their trip, they’re flying, literally, over Sunset Boulevard. I love the title. It also has to do with the sunset of our lives because these are people who are starting to consider that their lives are on the other side of the middle.

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