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Interview: Theatre Life with Sarna Lapine

The fast growing interpreter of Stephen Sondheim's musicals on her current staging of Sweeny Todd at Signature Theatre and more.

By: May. 05, 2023
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Interview: Theatre Life with Sarna Lapine  Image
Sarna Lapine. Photo by Sofia Colvin.

Today's subject Sarna Lapine is currently living her theatre life at the directing helm of Signature Theatre's upcoming production of Stephen Sondheim's gothic musical masterpiece Sweeney Todd. The production begins performances on May 16th and will play through July 9th in Signature Theatre's MAX space. It is the fourth time Signature has produced the show, making it Signature Theatre's most produced Sondheim musical overtaking Assassins and Into The Woods with three productions each.

Sarna Lapine has had the good fortune to assist two directorial giants of the theatre. The first is Bartlett Sher whom she assisted on The Light in The Piazza, South Pacific, Women on the Verge Of a Nervous Breakdown and Awake and Sing!.

You might remember a tour of South Pacific at Wolf Trap from a few years ago. It was based on Lincoln Center Theater's production and was originally directed by Bartlett Sher. That tour happened to be directed by Sarna and if you saw it, then you know how good it was. Read on for Sarna's thoughts on working with Bartlett Sher.

The second person she has assisted might be familiar to you because he shares the same last name as Sarna. I'm talking about playwright/director James Lapine who just happens to be Sarna's uncle. Her first job working with him was at Roundabout Theatre Company. Read on to see what it was and how James Lapine nurtured and mentored his up and coming relative. When she directed the last Broadway revival of Sunday in The Park With George, you could say the show was handed down to the next generation.

Sarna's work is not limited to musical theatre by any means. She has also helmed many operas and plays throughout her career. On the concert stage she has directed 4-Stars in Osaka and Tokyo, Japan; two Sondheim concerts with the Boston Pops starring Ruthie Ann Miles, Carmen Cusack, and Phillip Boykin as well as Sondheim on Sondheim at The Hollywood Bowl, starring Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Jonathan Groff and Vanessa Williams.

There are many reasons for you to attend Sweeney Todd at Signature Theatre. There is of course the obvious one about Signature being the area's top company for producing Stephen Sondheim's work. Second, tickets are way more affordable for Signature's production than the current Broadway revival. Third and most importantly, the production is helmed by a woman who is fast becoming a top interpreter of Stephen Sondheim musicals.

Sarna Lapine is living her theatre life to the fullest and the DMV theatre community is extremely fortunate to have her working within our mists. Grab some tickets to Sarna Lapine's new staging of Sweeney Todd at Signature Theatre and I guarantee you will leave saying "God That's Good!".

Were you ever interested in working in another area of theatre before becoming a director?

Yes, I did a lot of other jobs in other fields before working in theater. I worked as a rock climbing and mountaineering guide for several organizations leading wilderness expeditions. Through my environmental and outdoor education work, I became a program director for an organization that served young women navigating the juvenile justice system. This led to the development of programs to raise sexual assault awareness. I eventually became an arts educator for young people transitioning out of the juvenile justice system. This led to my first job in theater, in the education department at Intiman Theatre in Seattle, Washington.

Where did you receive your training?

I studied English Literature and Anthropology at the University of Washington. I received my MFA in film from Columbia University.

What was your first professional job working in the theatre?

My first professional job was as the community programs associate at Intiman Theater in Seattle. I met Bartlett Sher there, who was then the artistic director. He offered me my second professional job in the theater, to be his assistant director on the Broadway production of The Light in the Piazza at Lincoln Center Theater.

Interview: Theatre Life with Sarna Lapine  Image
L-R Annaleigh Ashford, James Lapine, and Sarna Lapine
at the opening night of the 2017 Broadway revival of
Sunday in The Park with George.
Photo courtesy of the artist.

You are the niece of director/writer James Lapine. Growing up, did he encourage you to work in theatre?

James is inherently more interested in people and what makes them tick than he is in the career path concept. He always engaged me in thoughtful conversations at family functions and was curious about my interests. I don't know that I had ever expressed an interest in theater, specifically. I was shy, liked reading and creative writing, and was infatuated with movies. I didn't fully understand the reality of James's professional life when I was growing up. Still, he was always honest that a professional life in the arts would face challenges, uncertainty, and disappointment. I think he helped me see that if it were ever something I was serious about pursuing, it would not be easy. But he also served as a great example of someone in my life who was professionally creative, hardworking, and intellectually curious.

One of the things I learned about James when we worked together for the first time on Sondheim on Sondheim at Roundabout Theatre Company was how generous he is as a mentor and a colleague. After Sondheim's memorial, James told me, "I owe so much to Steve. He taught me a lot about being a more generous person." James often spoke of Steve as being a great teacher, and he was. I think that is something James and Steve had in common, a generosity of spirit, especially with young artists.

You are currently directing Signature's upcoming production of Sweeney Todd. Can you please talk about your concept for this version?

Sweeney Todd is a story told on the scale of Greek tragedy. Its emotions, action, music, and call to be witnessed exist at an epic scale. Accordingly, the ensemble in Sweeney Todd functions like a Greek chorus. And in Signature Theater's wonderfully intimate space, the audience becomes an extension of this chorus, bearing witness to the horrors caused by corruption, social inequity, and injustice. In the world of Sweeney Todd, the absence of justice drives society to a state of chaos and despair where moral and psychological anguish leads to violence. What happens to the mind of an ordinary person when they are subjected to a level of cruelty that reaches the absurd? What happens when nefarious forces grind down a common person, a baker, or a barber to the point that they must reconstitute as an avenging angel or...demon? Even as we witness these dramatic atrocities, we experience catharsis and, ultimately, joy. Because we also experience the exquisite invention and beauty of humankind through Sondheim's music.

Sweeney Todd also has the tone of a Jacobean Dramady. I think of Mrs. Lovett as a woman ahead of her time, imaginative, resourceful, and innovative, with no positive outlets for her dreams and ambitions to flourish. I think of Lovett and Sweeney as victims of circumstance who lived in a time without any actual justice system to serve and protect them from the corruption of the ruling class.

Most, if not all, of us, agree that Sweeny Todd is and always will be Stephen Sondheim's masterwork. When Signature approached you about directing it, was there any hesitation because of the show's iconic status?

I love this musical and was thrilled to be invited to direct it.

Sweeney Todd will not be the first time you have helmed a production of a Sondheim musical. Can you please tell us what other productions of Stephen Sondheim's shows you have worked on as a director?

I was the assistant director and video content producer for Sondheim on Sondheim at Roundabout Theatre Company. Then I went on to help James adapt it into a version to be done with symphony orchestras and directed a production at Tanglewood and The Hollywood Bowl. I also directed the last Broadway revival of Sunday in the Park with George and just directed this production with a new cast at Pasadena Playhouse.

You have a long association working with director Bartlett Sher. What would you say is the biggest lesson you have learned from him as his associate director on several projects?

I learned a tremendous amount from working with Bart. One of the most important lessons was knowing when to move on, do my work, and find my voice as an artist. Bart's career was taking off when I started working with him, doors were flying open, and work was pouring in. It was exciting and fascinating to witness someone on that kind of ascension. But it also was very much Bart's journey, and there was a point at which I had to know when to get off that ride and find my own voice and path.

Interview: Theatre Life with Sarna Lapine  Image
L-R Stephen Sondheim, Jake Gyllenhaal, Bernadette Peters, Analeigh Ashford,
James Lapine and Sarna Lapine ​​​​​at the opening night
of the 2017 Broadway revival of Sunday in The Park with George.
Photo courtesy of the artist.

Did you ever have the occasion to meet Stephen Sondheim? If yes, what do you remember most about the encounter or encounters?

Yes. For Sondheim on Sondheim, I had to produce interviews that we recorded for the show's projection design, which became a part of the documentary, Six by Sondheim for HBO. Sondheim was kind, funny, and generous about sharing his wisdom and experience with younger artists. And he was incredibly supportive when I directed the revival of "Sunday in the Park with George" on Broadway. He was pleased with the production and offered precise and incisive notes; I especially remember sitting next to him during our sitzprobe. I was so nervous, and he was very kind and insightful. He also trusts his collaborators.

Why do you think audiences are drawn to Sweeney Todd and the works of Stephen Sondheim in general?

Sondheim was dedicated to his craft in such a singular way that his work has been constructed with intelligence, humor, heart, and a deep love of the art form. All his work examines the puzzle of complex and contrasting human behavior and emotions. He is a master wordsmith who cleverly employs all the pleasures of language to mine the universal pain of our ambivalence.

What is the one musical of Stephen Sondheim's that you would most like to get a chance to direct?

Sunday in the Park with George and Sweeney Todd are my top two. I'd still love to direct Passion and A Little Night Music.

After opening Sweeney Todd at Signature Theatre, what does the rest of 2023 hold in store for you?

I'm heading to The Guthrie in Minneapolis next to direct Into the Woods. Then I have a few projects in development that will have workshops and one film project. I also wouldn't mind a weekend at home with my husband and our cats.

Special thanks to Signature Theatre's Marketing Manager and Publicist Zachary Flick for his assistance in coordinating this interview.

Theatre Life logo designed by Kevin Laughon.


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