“Flying Over Sunset” by James Lapine, Tom Kitt, and Michael Korie
At the Vivian Beaumont Lincoln Center Theater
In my recent review of a wonderful new musical, “Kimberly Akimbo,” I complemented its director, Jessica Stone, suggesting that not noticing the hand of director is a good sign of effective directing. There is no better affirmation of this belief than the production of “Flying Over Sunset” at the Lincoln Center Theater. There is not a moment in this disappointingly misguided musical that you do not see the heavy hand of James Lapine. It seems that even the PR department at LCT wanted to make his absolute control clear by labeling it “A James Lapine Musical” in many ads, ignoring the contributions of the composer, Tom Kitt, and the lyricist, Michael Korie, usually listed as co-creators in musical promotions. Mr. Lapine wrote the book and directed the show.
Mr. Lapine has been working on this show for six years with readings in 2015 and 2016. The initial Lincoln Center production was shut down along with all Broadway theaters at the start of the pandemic in Spring 2020 (Yes, the Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theater is considered a Broadway house). Originally he tried to get the late Stephen Sondheim to collaborate with him, but he (wisely) declined. Instead, Mr. Lapine found two experienced colleagues to work on his creation. Tom Kitt has a long list music for Broadway shows(Next to Normal, If/Then) and Mr. Korie wrote the lyrics for Grey Gardens and a number of off-Broadway and regional musicals. But this show is James Lapine’s conception and execution (figuratively and literally)!
This is a musical about LSD – yes, acid! Well, that is not totally fair. It is about a group of very famous people in the 1950s who partook of the drug that became famous in the 60s and 70s while it was still legal in the 50s. Mr. Lapine was stimulated by the mention in a biography of Clare Booth Luce that this queen of many different social circles took LSD. Evidently it is a well-known fact that film idol Cary Grant used LSD as part of his consultations with a psychologist. And Aldous Huxley, the multi-faceted author and philosopher, was a great advocate for acid; he even wrote a book about it. All of these well-known figures circulated among the exclusive social and artistic spheres in Los Angeles during the 1950s. Another member of that clan was Gerald Heard, also an author with diverse interests who had close friendships with both Huxley and Luce.
The structure of the entire show is sort of modular. We go from the introduction of Aldous Huxley to the presentation of Claire Booth Luce, their only connection appears to be Mr. Heard’s role as their gay confidante. Unfortunately, Mr. Lapine really did not develop Heard’s character. Most of the time he was simply a “yes-man” to the other three. We are introduced to Cary Grant in his first visit with a psychologist and he is portrayed as an egotistic, self-centered bully with a sad and difficult childhood. Floating in and out of scenes, there is a child actor playing Archibald Alec Leach in the dress that his mother made him wear when he entertained in bars and clubs to earn a living as a child. He appears in several scenes when Grant is confronting his demons.
Mr. Lapine uses the first act to introduce each of these four famous Angelenos and to touch on their hidden traumas. The second act, presumably purely the book writer’s invention, has the four lounging at Ms. Luce’s rented Malibu beachfront villa and dropping acid. What follows is a dramatization of each character’s adventures into their disturbing memory of their past life’s psychological ailments under the self-revealing effects of this powerful drug. Beyond what I have just described, the musical has no real plot. That is clearly Mr. Lapine’s intention.
The problem is that there is very little that links these acid-induced discoveries. There is really no thematic connection to engage the audience. Each character has different “issues” in their past. Their “trips” force each of them to confront their past and, under the haze of the drug, each finds that confrontation as psychologically revealing. While the first act includes the introduction of each character’s secret phantoms, the play does not dramatize the effects of these psychological barriers on their lives. We must simply assume that they are the source of failures in their relationships with others. The only take-away I found at the end of the second act was “acid is good,” something I knew from my life as a college student in the 1960s.
One of the obvious challenges that Mr. Lapine fails to effectively meet is dramatizing what an acid trip is like to an audience that has never experienced its extraordinary effects. Along with his set, lighting, and projection designers, he tries to either replicate the visual pleasures of acid or, through rather silly dramatizations of early life experiences, show each character’s confrontation with their past while overwhelmed by the drug’s tampering with their minds. For example, after reluctantly swallowing the drug, Cary Grant goes to the beach with the other two men. Soon he is drawn into the deep sea while trying to rescue the image of his childhood figure from drowning. There are projections of the rising sea and strange lighting effects on the rescue of the drowning actor by Mr. Heard, who, you guessed it, longs to touch this symbol of desirable manhood. But we never hear what the movie star discovers about himself and, as a veteran of the Timothy Leary era, I can confirm that the visuals hardly replicated the consumptive delusions that accompany this extraordinary drug that is reemerging as a possible treatment for extreme psychological traumas like PTSD.
The music and lyrics are not particularly revealing either. Mr. Kitt wrote the music for the most extraordinary portrayal of bipolar disorder in the musical, “Next to Normal.” And Mr. Korie found words to help an audience understand the strange mentality of the Edith Beale and her daughter, Little Eddie, in the musical adaptation of “Grey Gardens.” However, it appears Mr. Lapine preferred two more traditional musical styles: musical recitatives that allow the pre-drugged characters to interact with each other through song and some rather ill-conceived production numbers that either dramatize the acid trips or simply inject the usual delights of musical theatre regardless of their appropriateness to his story telling. At one point, the three Englishmen -- Cary, Huxley, and Heard (who repeatedly is careful to correct his heritage with the fact that he is not English but Irish) -- break into a tap dance and they are not even on drugs when this out-of-place number occurs.
If all of this sounds very messy, you are getting an accurate picture of this misdirected effort to bring these complex subjects to the Broadway stage. No expense has been spared in this effort. Beowolf Boritt demonstrates his facility in using mobile sets that transform into new locations. 59 Productions, a renowned multimedia design company, labors to replicate LSD visuals. Costume designer Toni-Leslie James has captured 1950s attire that helps define each of the “in the spot-light” characters. But in the end, all of this expense does little to make Mr. Lapine’s vision more meaningful. Like the more traditional Broadway musicals, the audience does not leave the theatre humming the sets.
Coincidentally, I frequently found Mr. Lapine’s contributions to Sondheim’s musicals less than extraordinary. During a post-performance discussion with the audience after a performance of “Sunday in the Park with George,” Mr. Sondheim was asked about his collaboration with James Lapine. He explained that his original idea for the structure of second act was to have the story of the characters in the painting and the artist retold with different dimensions and musical variations. However, Mr. Lapine convinced him that a Broadway audience would not tolerate that type of artistic indulgence. So, the second act of that popular musical tried to convince an audience that a contemporary light show was the equivalent of Seurat’s “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.” As was typical in Sondheim’s collaborations with Lapine, the late composer’s amazing unification of music and lyrics carried the show.
James Lapine has a long record of clever directing on- and off-Broadway shows such as “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” and a mildly successful revival of “Annie.” Perhaps his most successful journeys into “serious musicals” (other than his collaborations with Sondheim) was the three-part series of “Falsetto” shows about a man discovering his homosexuality and his efforts to maintain a relationship with his family from his former marriage. The “Falsettos” shows were a collaboration with William Finn that was successfully unified around themes of Jewish identity, gender roles, and, eventually, AIDS. It was the success of those serious, yet entertaining, musicals that made me anxious to see “Flying Over Sunset.” That expectation also made its failure so much more disappointing.