In July 1983, the first act of a new musical titled Sunday in the Park with George—the first collaboration between Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine—premiered Off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizons. The musical would later make its way to Broadway in the spring of 1984, earning the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
André Bishop, who was artistic director of Playwrights Horizons at the time of Sunday in the Park’s premiere, writes about the impact the National Endowment for the Arts had on the development and production of the musical, which recently concluded a run at Broadway's Hudson Theatre starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Annaleigh Ashford.
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Bishop’s exclusive statement follows:
James Lapine was one of a group of writers in residence at Playwrights Horizons during the 1980s. We had given him a commission to write a new play for us, and in 1983 he came to me and said he wanted to write a musical for his commission, and what did I think of his collaborating with Stephen Sondheim? “Yes, yes, yes,” I said!
That commission was funded by the National Endowment for the Arts. People have forgotten that there was a division of the NEA called the Opera-Musical Theatre Program; it had started out just funding opera houses, but had expanded to include theatres that produced musicals, especially serious ones. Playwrights Horizons in those days was one of the few theatre companies producing new musicals, and we were a lucky beneficiary of this visionary new program.
People also forget that 30 years ago, much of the funding for institutional theatre came from the NEA or the various Councils on the Arts. Foundations, corporations, private donors were part of the landscape, but not all of it by any means. So getting money from the NEA was a big deal and helped us embark on an ambitious and expensive program to develop and produce new musical plays.
For the 1983–84 season, besides getting a large grant from the Theatre program, Playwrights Horizons received a handsome grant from the newly formed Opera-Musical Theatre program, and it went directly to Lapine and Sondheim’s new show: Sunday in the Park with George.
Their show was the biggest show we had ever produced, and even though it was considered a “workshop,” it was fully produced: sets, costumes, and lights. It was about the coming together of a famous painting, after all, and we needed all the elements. We scrambled mightily to raise extra money, and we did. How did we do it? The answer is obvious: the pedigree of the authors, an irresistible story about artistic creation, a theatre with a track record of supporting musical theatre artists, and the NEA! The fact that the NEA had funded the commission and helped fund the production gave people confidence to join us in producing this lovely and moving work.
I’m not trying to say that Sunday in the Park with George would never have been written and produced without the NEA, but it could not have been produced by Playwrights Horizons. The NEA allowed us to begin our work on the show and then to actually do it, and that show was certainly one of Playwrights Horizons’ proudest moments. The fact that Sunday in the Park with George is triumphantly playing on Broadway 33 years later makes me very happy and very appreciative of the help, good will, respect, and belief that the NEA bestows on all its constituents.