Taking a Chance on Amour

Except for the opening-night bows, you don’t often see the director of a Broadway musical onstage. Especially one wearing floppy Bermuda shorts, an olive-drab shirt, and basketball sneakers. But when you have a show about a nebbishy civil servant who suddenly discovers he has the power to walk through walls, and the walls refuse to cooperate in the illusion – in fact, the walls keep tumbling down on the poor fellow – some diplomacy on the part of the director may be just the thing to calm a frustrated audience. So it happens that an early preview of Amour – a French import with music by the legendary pop songwriter and composer Michel Legrand – finds James Lapine taking the stage of the Music Box Theatre.

A bittersweet parable that is sung through and runs without intermission, Amour is something of a departure for Lapine. It’s his first musical in years without composer Stephen Sondheim, his collaborator on Sunday in the Park With George, Into the Woods, and Passion, and it’s his first musical with a classic boy-meets-girl plot. Set in Paris in the fifties, to music by the man who gave the world “What Are You Doing for the Rest of Your Life?,” it won the Paris equivalent of the Tony in 1997.

Dressed to be invisible in the back row, Lapine would never be mistaken for a star. A 53-year-old Charlie Brown comes to mind. A chunk of Montmartre had become uncoupled and fallen onto the stage the night before, he explains to the audience, in a peculiarly engaging monotone that is equal parts his native Ohio and the Upper West Side. Now, he says, the set refuses to move altogether, so the stage is nearly bare. “You’ll be meeting Sal and Angelo,” he says, indicating two stagehands. “They’ll be putting a stool at stage left and one at stage right. The stool with the bread will be the bakery and the stool with the jewelry will be the jewelry store. For about five minutes, we’ll be doing Our Town.” Lapine is that droll, and his drollery has won the audience over: They’re with him. Next problem?

“At first the show didn’t sing to me, as it were,” Lapine says. “I tend to do steak dinners, and this is kind of a soufflé, and that isn’t where I live so much. On the other hand, that became the challenge for me.

“But I don’t think this show is wildly different from what I’ve done before,” he adds. “It’s not like I’m suddenly doing a Robert Wilson piece at BAM – though I would really love to do a Robert Wilson piece at BAM.”

Amour is also the rare Lapine project to open without the benefit of a tryout at a nonprofit theater, a safety net he lobbied for in vain. “I’m basically a chickenshit,” he confides early one morning over scrambled egg whites at an Amsterdam Avenue restaurant near the apartment he shares with his wife, screenwriter Sarah Kernochan, and their 16-year-old daughter. “James Lapine, chickenshit.”

Legrand, on the other hand, is not a safety-net kind of guy. He is conspicuously excited, even for a Frenchman. He’s excited about working on his first Broadway show after a career spent composing sentimental hits and movie scores (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Brian’s Song, Summer of ‘42, Yentl). And, having seen the three shows Lapine did with Sondheim, he’s really excited about working with the writer-director. “What he does is very different from what I do,” Legrand admits, “but everything I have seen that I liked very much was directed by heem. When I dreamed of coming to New York, I had Jeem in my dreams.”

Jeem doesn’t do excited. “When you play tennis, you spin the racket and say ‘up or down’ to see who serves. And 99 percent of the time James says ‘down,’ ” chortles his close friend, composer Alan Menken (Little Shop of Horrors, Beauty and the Beast). “There’s a part of him that’s always expecting the roof to fall in.”

Or the set. “My stomach is very tight,” he says by way of greeting one night outside the Music Box. “Come and see our car wreck. Oh, don’t write that,” he implores. “I’ve never gotten used to having things I do being publicly considered. I love everything until the audience comes, and then I’m miserable. I love the process of making something, but I don’t like sharing it.”

“Jim is” – a pause while the speaker searches for the right word – “phlegmatic,” says Amour’s lead producer, Shubert Organization sultan Gerald Schoenfeld.

Maybe not all the time. “James is not a showbiz guy,” says his longtime pal, playwright Wendy Wasserstein. “You get no ooh, darling from him. Where you do get exuberance from him is with children. He’s wonderful with my daughter Lucy. He bought her all these tutus, and you haven’t lived until you see James with a tutu on his head.”

In Sondheim’s seventies collaborations with director Hal Prince – Company, Follies, A Little Night Music, and Sweeney Todd – which changed the tune and the tone of the American musical, love is at best rueful and at worst radioactive material. People are not getting married today, they’re singing the God-why-don’t-you-love-me blues, sending in the clowns, making puff pastry out of priests. In the Lapine-Sondheim teamings – unlike Prince, Lapine is both director and librettist – characters’ romantic yearnings are palpable even through a sometimes dense thicket of cerebral musings. Love, if not within easy grasp, seems within reach.

“James is a poet,” says Sondheim. “I don’t just mean poetry in the sense of language, but in outlook. When I think of him as a director, I think of his Twelve Dreams,” Lapine’s 1981 evocation of a Carl Jung case study. “It was so graceful and dreamlike. He never sees things with outlines that can’t be blurred. He has a whole different way of thinking about the theater, about politics, art, everything.”

Much of that can be attributed to Lapine’s former life as a graphic designer (he turned to the theater when he was teaching at Yale). It gave him an “ability to coordinate visual elements,” as one producer puts it. “He knows what the pictures onstage are going to look like – and a lot of directors don’t.”

We’re in the Music Box the day before the walls will fall, at a technical rehearsal. “I actually feel very blessed to be doing what I do, for all my kvetching,” he says sheepishly. “It’s just who I am. Finding some individual challenge that I never had before is what drives me.” Now he’s got this intimate little chamber musical about the guy who gets the girl, by a composer most in the audience will probably never have heard of. It’s a challenge, all right, and Lapine is in his element. “There is something ineffable pulling me to everything I do,” he admits, “but I think the fun part is not knowing what it is and sort of discovering it along the way.”

Lighting designers Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer offer up a palette of gels for the set, a Montmartre street. “This is the part where I wave my hand,” Lapine adds, “and the magic happens onstage.”

As if on cue, the set is suddenly awash in pinks, then deep blues, then purples. “You get old,” he says, settling back into his seat and looking around the theater, “and you realize you’ve pulled it out of the fire before.”

Taking a Chance on Amour