Up, up and away: The trippy tales behind 'Flying Over Sunset'

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Up, up and away: The trippy tales behind 'Flying Over Sunset'
From left, Harry Hadden-Paton, Tony Yazbeck and Carmen Cusack on the stage of the Vivian Beaumont Theater, where “Flying Over Sunset” is now in previews, in New York, Nov. 2, 2021. When James Lapine read an excerpt from Sylvia Jukes Morris’s masterly biography of Clare Boothe Luce, he saw the makings of a play. Justin J Wee/The New York Times.

by Lisa Birnbach

NEW YORK, NY.- When James Lapine read an excerpt from Sylvia Jukes Morris’ masterly biography of Clare Boothe Luce, he saw the makings of a play. Dubbed “The Woman of the Century” during her illustrious lifetime, the complicated Luce had been a socialite, a madly accomplished writer (“The Women”), the ambassador to Italy, a Republican member of Congress, and the wife of Henry Luce, the founder of Time, Life and Fortune magazines.

Though she died in 1987 and is likely remembered by very few, a surprising bit of her history was enough to grab Lapine’s attention — and somewhat circuitously get him to the Vivian Beaumont Theater, where his new, risky and idiosyncratic musical “Flying Over Sunset” is in previews for a Dec. 13 opening at Lincoln Center Theater.

Under the guidance of her friend, the writer and spiritualist Gerald Heard, Luce became an aficionada of LSD. You read that right. A straight East Coast power figure, the stylish 50-something indulged in the hallucinogenic drug years before Timothy Leary discovered it at Harvard. A discontented seeker, she tried it at a vulnerable time in her life; according to the biography, she used acid again and again, persuading her husband, her priest and her lovers to partake frequently over the course of six years.

I don’t know about you, but I am clutching my pearls. The discordancy is so intriguing — like learning that Katharine Graham went to nude encounter sessions at Esalen, or Alan Greenspan was once in a Lynyrd Skynyrd cover band.

In Lapine’s imagination, it was a powerful jumping off point — for a play about Cary Grant. (Wait a second, we’re getting there). Further reading revealed that the dapper movie star, too, regularly used psychedelics under the guidance of a psychiatrist, a footnote which Grant had mentioned in several interviews. And Lapine already knew that the “Brave New World” writer Aldous Huxley had experimented with drugs as well, starting with mescaline.

No stranger to LSD himself, Lapine — the Pulitzer Prize-winning book writer of “Sunday in the Park with George” — thought about bringing these three very different, largely unconnected yet celebrated figures, together.

On a communal acid trip in Southern California.

Set to music.

The Surprising ’50s

Growing up in Ohio, and later Connecticut, Lapine started smoking pot as a teenager. He dropped acid for the first time while in college, and used it frequently while studying for his MFA in design at CalArts. It wasn’t a matter of deep, soul-searching exploration, as it is for the key characters in his show. “For us it was, ‘It’s Saturday night; let’s do acid,’’’ he explained. “At the time I was a photographer, and I was more interested in the visual aspects of it.”

This was the 1970s. But what interested Lapine about Grant, Luce and Huxley was that they were flying high back in the uptight 1950s, unlike his own parents, who would have been their peers.

“It was not an introspective era,’’ he said. “It was postwar, and it was all about security and stability. My dad wanted no emotional conversations; no expressions of dismay or unhappiness.”

As with many ideas in Lapine’s creative life, he approached his frequent collaborator and good friend Stephen Sondheim to write the music. (The last original musical they had worked on together was “Passion” in 1994.) He declined the invitation.

“He regrets it now,” Lapine said wryly outside the rehearsal room on the Beaumont roof a few weeks ago.

Lapine turned to the lyricist Michael Korie, whose work on “Grey Gardens” he deeply admired. For the music, his choice was Tom Kitt, the prolific composer. They had gotten to know each other on a workshop of “Next to Normal,” though another director went on to oversee the Pulitzer Prize-winning musical.

The writers had never collaborated before; nor had either of them experimented with psychedelic drugs. They just wanted the chance to work with Lapine. It’s OK, he laughed: “I’ve done enough for all of us.”

Still, Korie was dubious: “A musical about some entitled Hollywood actors sitting around a pool talking about their back-end contractual deals and taking cocaine? Not interesting.”

Then he learned more: the drug was LSD, which was legal in the 1950s. These were characters seemingly on top of the world, yet all dealing with private grief.

And while he hadn’t figured out a story line, Lapine had written three separate but intriguing scenes, including one showing Luce being grilled by a Senate subcommittee over her hawkish views. (The lawyer Lapine consulted about dramatizing historical figures ended up giving his OK, given that they were people in the public eye.)

But it was only after many workshops that the musical’s key conceit came to life: That the characters would sing only when on drugs.

They would meet for the first time at the end of Act 1. And Act 2 would be one big trip.

Producing in a Pandemic

Fully original musicals — those not based on books or movies or pop songbooks — are increasingly rare on Broadway, and “Flying Over Sunset,” on paper, was certainly original. And despite the track records of the creative team, commercial producers were less than confident it would work.

After almost four years in development (and a handful of songs painfully cut), André Bishop, the producing artistic director of the nonprofit Lincoln Center Theater, took the chance. (He ran Playwrights Horizons when a fairly amorphous “Sunday in the Park with George” came his way in 1982.) At the time the idea was to mount the show off-Broadway, at the 299-seat Mitzi Newhouse Theater.

Some months later, the tap dancer, choreographer and MacArthur Foundation genius Michelle Dorrance entered the picture, and she is now making her Broadway debut on the show.

As a poor motherless kid in London, Archibald Leach made his way as an acrobat and stilt dancer in music halls, occasionally picking pockets to support himself. Growing up, he remade himself into Cary Grant, and in “Flying Over Sunset” he’s played by the virtuoso song-and-dance-man Tony Yazbeck.

“When I saw Michelle’s work,” Lapine said, “it inspired me to have Cary tap and for her to be our choreographer.”

Dorrance had never staged numbers with performers who weren’t trained dancers before. And she pointed to the thick pile of tiny papers crammed with notes to explain why the collaboration has been exciting. “James loves to mess with things,” she said. “Be careful that you love your idea before you propose something to James because he’ll fall in love with it.”

After five years and seven workshops (many of them underwritten by the photographer Jack Shear), “Flying Over Sunset” was ready for takeoff. The first preview would be March 12, 2020, with the show now slated to run in the larger Beaumont, Lincoln Center’s Broadway house.

During a rehearsal break that day, Yazbeck; Harry Hadden-Paton (Huxley); Carmen Cusack (Luce); and Robert Sella (Gerald Heard) gathered to share their feelings about the musical, because this is a musical about feelings (and sex and loneliness and grief).

“Cleverly, the show shows you what the drug does — it shows the longing and the mystery,” Cusack said. The musical “forces you to notice things,” Sella added. “It gives you permission to go deep.” Each explorer had profound melancholy they wanted to probe. For Luce, it was guilt over the death of her daughter in a car crash. For Grant it was the disappearance of his mother when he was a child. For Huxley, it was mourning his wife, Maria.

Later that afternoon the mayor of New York decreed all theaters closed. The first public preview was canceled; the company was gutted. It wasn’t just the scary virus; they felt ready to perform for paying strangers whose feedback would be vital to hone the show.

Locks were affixed to the glass doors of the Beaumont, but Lincoln Center Theater leaders OK'd a private performance that night for friends and family. (I was permitted to attend, too.)

It was all happening: The full orchestra, the whole company in full makeup and costume. Someone filmed with a simple camcorder. Lapine sat in the fourth or fifth row, “feverishly taking notes and occasionally crying,” he recalled.

One moment stood out in particular. The scene late in the first act located in the venerable Brown Derby, an old Hollywood power restaurant. It was here that Lapine set the apocryphal meeting between the four main characters.

When Luce said, “Mr. Grant meet Aldous Huxley,” Hadden-Paton instantaneously extended his elbow, in a moment that was pure 2020. It will never be repeated, but the sly surprise almost stopped the show.

By March 15, the cast, crew and creators dispersed. There were weekly Zooms, and on April 16 — what would have been opening night — they dressed up and toasted one another from near and far, virtually.

Back in the Aftermath

What did you get done during the pandemic?

Lapine wrote a book, the marvelous “Putting It Together: How Stephen Sondheim and I Created ‘Sunday in the Park with George.’’’ He also made a full-length documentary about the writer Rose Styron. Kitt released an album called “Reflect,” with many of his friends and two of his children. Korie began writing two new musicals and continued teaching by Zoom at Yale and Columbia. Dorrance taught online classes every day and created new dances while sheltering with her immunocompromised mother.

Cusack starred in a stage adaptation of the popular sitcom “Designing Women.” Hadden-Paton and his wife had another baby.

And what of the musical? “After we closed,” Lapine said, “I took all my notes and wrote everything down and stuck it in a drawer.” Then he went away, quarantining with his wife, the writer Sarah Kernochan, and their daughter and son-in-law at their house in Martha’s Vineyard.

“This was kind of a unique opportunity,” he paused, referring to the Pause. “I like having the distance now to rework it a little. They should do this on every show,” he joked.

Some details were up in the air, however. Yazbeck got a movie in Romania. And the young company member Atticus Ware, who plays Archie Leach, is a phenomenal dancer, but at 13, Lapine and company are dreading (awaiting?) his voice changing.

Online reports from early previews emphasized how the show defies contemporary Broadway’s embrace of easy escapism. But still: hallucinations!

With the musical coming to life after a deeply unmooring and isolating pandemic, its creators contend “Flying Over Sunset,” for all its unusual dimensions, feels more urgent than ever.

As their collective trip winds down, Luce, Grant, Huxley and Heard together sing: “Each of us is incomplete/Till our paths converge/ Everyone in life we meet/ Mixes in the merge.”

“This,” Lapine said, “is a show about connection.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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