In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter ahead of the release of his new book tracking the development of Sunday in the Park With George, playwright and director James Lapine revealed that the Pulitzer-winning musical has had chances of becoming a film—twice.
"When we did the show [in 1984], a producer, Irwin Winkler, was mad for it, took Steve [Sondheim] and I out to dinner, and said he wanted to make a film of it, with [original stars] Mandy [Patinkin] and Bernadette [Peters], and me directing." This attempt apparently failed because Sondheim was more interested in writing another stage musical with Lapine, ultimately giving us Into the Woods.
Winkler came back into Lapine's life 20 years later, and Lapine returned to the idea of turning Sunday into a film.
"I sat down and wrote a screenplay. And that’s when I called Jake Gyllenhaal and said, 'I think this is the perfect part for you.'...And I had asked Meryl Streep, and she agreed to be in it. So we had Jake and Meryl. I thought, 'Well, this will go.' It was before all these movies and streaming shows that are musicals. So I think maybe our timing was really, really bad."
According to Lapine, Gyllenhaal pitched the film around Hollywood to no avail, and then ultimately took on the role in a 2016 concert that became a full Broadway revival in 2017, both co-starring Annaleigh Ashford as Dot.
The first collaboration between Lapine and Sondheim, Sunday in the Park With George is a fictionalized look at impressionist artist Georges Seurat, most famous for his pointillist painting "A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte." The musical explores his relationships, both romantic and artistic, as he creates the landmark painting, with every character in the show (except for Seurat) becoming a figure in the tranquil seaside scene. The show's second act takes place in the 1980s as a descendant of Seurat struggles with the same push and pull between art and the rest of his life.
The screenplay for the proposed film take, however, plays with the timeline further, according to Lapine: "It’s very different than the stage piece. I think it’s very cool, because it starts in the present. It doesn’t start in the past."
The musical premiered Off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizons in 1983. The work would transfer to Broadway in 1984 with most of its cast intact (minus Off-Broadway supporting players Kelsey Grammer, Christine Baranski, and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), ultimately winning the 1985 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The musical was also filmed on stage with most of its original Broadway cast, and was revived on Broadway in 2008 and, as mentioned, in 2017.
Lapine's new book Putting It Together: How Stephen Sondheim and I Created Sunday in the Park With George hits bookshelves August 3. Lapine, Sondheim, Peters, and Patinkin will celebrate the release of the book with a conversation moderated by Baranski August 3 at 7 PM ET. Tickets to the streaming event are available at TheTownHall.org.