“Flying Over Sunset” and Its Trippy Origins

“Flying Over Sunset" and Its Trippy Origins - Moonhaus

As James Lapine read through an excerpt from the biography of Clare Boothe Luce by Sylvia Jukes Morris, he saw how the play came to be. “The woman of the century”, the ever-complex Mrs. Luce was a socialite and a very accomplished writer, as well as an ambassador to Italy, a member of congress through the Republican party, and the wife of Henry Luce, founder of Time, Life, and Fortune magazines. 

Although she passed away in 1987 and is probably not remembered by too many, a pretty fascinating part of her history grabbed the attention of Lapine. And this led him to the Vivian Beaumont Theater, where the new risque musical “Flying Over Sunset” was in preview for an opening at the Lincoln Center Theater.

While being guided by her friend Gerald Heard, who was a spiritualist and writer, Luce became an aficionado of LSD. The powerful and stylish East Coast icon dabbled in the use of hallucinogens several years before it was discovered by Timothy Leary at Harvard. She was a seeker without contentment, and this pushed her to try it during a pretty vulnerable time in her life. The biography says that she used acid regularly, and even persuaded her husband, lovers, and even her priest to also participate over a couple of years.

Lapine imagined that it was quite a powerful jump-off, especially for a play about Cary Grant. More in-depth reading showed that the dapper movie star also took psychedelics, although he was guided by a psychiatrist. And Aldous Huxley, the writer of “Brave New World” also indulged in these psychedelic drugs, although he started with mescaline. 

Lapine himself is not a stranger to LSD, and this Pulitzer prize-winning book writer decided to try to bring together these three different, unconnected, yet famous figures together. He did this on a communal aid trip in Southern California, setting the story along with some music. 

“Flying Over Sunset" and Its Trippy Origins - Moonhaus

The Surprise of the 50s

Lapine grew up in Ohio before later moving to Connecticut, and he started smoking pot when he was just in his teens. The first time he dropped acid was when he was in college, and he used it regularly when he was studying at CalArts for his MFA in Design. It was not about having a deep and soul-searching exploration, as it is for the characters portrayed in his show. For him and his fellow consumers, it was just about taking some acid on a Saturday night out. At that time, he was a photographer and he was pretty interested in the visual effects he got from the trip.

This was back in the 70s. However, Lapine was interested in Luce, Grant, and Huxley because they were flying high back in the pretty conservative 50s, unlike his parents who were their agemates. 

He says it was not an era of introspection. It was just after a war and most people just wanted to be secure and stable. His dad did not want to have any emotional conversations or negative expressions like unhappiness or dismay.

Just like many other ideas that Lapine had, he asked his friend and constant collaborator Stephen Sondheim to write the music. Stephen declined this invitation. 

Lapine said that Stephen now regrets that decision. He then turned to Michael Korie, a lyricist who Lapine admired for his work on “Grey Gardens”. To create the music, Lapine chose Tom Kitt, who was a well-known composer. They had met each other during the workshop of “Next to Normal”, although another director ended up overseeing the musical. 

The writers had never worked together before and none of them had ever had an experiment with psychedelic drugs. They all just wanted to work with Lapine.

Korie was still pretty doubtful, saying that a musical about a couple of entitled Hollywood actors that sat around a pool and talked about their “back-end” deals while taking cocaine was not interesting.

Then he began to learn more, starting with the fact that the drug was LSD, which was still legal in the 50s. These characters seemed to reside on the top of the world, yet they all dealt with some sort of grief in private.

And even though he had not gotten a clear storyline, Lapine had written three different but very captivating scenes, including one where Luce was heavily questioned by a Senate subcommittee because of her militant views. (Lapine consulted a lawyer who gave him the go-ahead about dramatizing historical figures because they were all in the public eye.)

However, it was after several workshops that the key concept of the musical came out, that the characters only sang when they were high on the drugs. 

They met for the first time at the end of the first act, and the second art would be a big trip.

Creating a Pandemic

Completely original musicals, that do not come from pop songbooks, movies, or books, are becoming rarer on Broadway, and “Flying Over Sunset” was an original on paper. And regardless of the records of the creative team, the commercial producers were not very confident that it would work out. 

After nearly four years of spending time in development, Andre Bishop, who was the Lincoln Center Theater’s producing artistic director, decided to take a chance on the play. The idea at the time was to put the show off-Broadway, at the Mitzi Newhouse Theater which seated 299 people.

A few months later, the choreographer, tap dancer, and genius from the MacArthur Foundation, Michelle Dorrance also entered into the story, making her Broadway debut on the show.

Archibald Leach, a poor motherless kid from London, started as a stilt dancer and acrobat in music halls, and he often picked pockets just to sustain himself. When he grew up, he then turned himself into Cary Grant, and he played the masterful song-and-dance man Tony Yazbeck in “Flying Over Sunset”.

Lapine said that after seeing Michelle’s work, he was inspired to let Cary be their choreographer and tap for them. 

Dorrance had never staged a dance number with performers that were not trained in dancing before. The collaboration turned out to be pretty exciting for her, and she had a thick pile of tiny papers filled with notes that helped relate to her excitement. She said James loved to mess with things and he so easily fell in love with things that were proposed to him, that she always ensured she loved her idea first before proposing it. 

After seven workshops and about seven years of development, the show was finally ready for the stage. The first preview was to take place on the 12th of March in 2020, and the show was set to stage in the larger Beaumont, in the Broadway house of Lincoln Center.

While on a rehearsal break that day, Yazbeck, Carmen Cusack (Luce), harry Hadden-Paton (Huxley), and Robert Sella (Gerald Heard) all came together to discuss how they felt about the musical because it was a musical that involved a lot of feelings, including grief, sex, and loneliness. 

Cusack said that the show had a clever way of showing you how the drug worked, revealing its mystery. The musical pushes you to notice the finer details and go deeper into the subject. Each user has serious melancholy that they want to explore. For Luce, she felt guilty about her daughter’s death in a car crash. In Grant’s case, it was how his mother disappeared when he was still a child, and Huxley was still mourning his wife Maria.

Later that day, the mayor of New York asked for the closure of all theaters. So, the first public preview was canceled and the company was very unhappy. It was not just about the terrifying virus, but they were finally ready to perform to the viewers whose feedback was necessary to hone the show.

Locks were put on the glass doors in the Beaumont. However, the leaders at the Lincoln Center Theater allowed a private performance for just the family and friends. 

It was finally happening, with a full orchestra and people in complete makeup and costume. A member of the audience filmed it with a camcorder. Lapine then sat a couple of rows away from the stage and took notes feverishly, sometimes crying.

One moment stood out in the play. It was a scene that took place late on in act 1. The location was the revered Brown Derby, which was an old Hollywood power restaurant. This was where Lapine set up the interesting meeting that took place between the four main characters.

When Mrs. Luce introduced Aldous Huxley to Mr. Grant, Hadden-Paton immediately extended his elbow. It can not be repeated, but it was a surprising moment that almost halted the entire show. 

By the 15th of March, all the cast, crew, and creators had gone in different directions. There were zoom meetings weekly, and on April 16, which was meant to be the opening night, they all dressed up and toasted one another in any way they could.

The Aftermath

So, what happened during the pandemic?

Lapine wrote a book titled “Putting It Together: How Stephen Sondheim and I Created ‘Sunday in the Park with George’”. He also produced a documentary about Rose Styron, the writer. Kitt also released an album that was titled “Reflect”, with several of his friends and two of his children. Korie started to write two fresh musicals and kept teaching at Columbia and Yale through Zoom. Dorrance was teaching online classes daily and she created some new dances while she lived with her immunocompromised mother. 

Cusack was the star in a stage adaptation of “Designing Women”, a popular sitcom. Haddon-Paton and his wife had a baby.

And the musical? Lapine says after it was closed, he took all his notes, wrote the things down, and put them in a drawer. Then he went off and quarantined with his wife, Sarah Kemochan the writer, as well as their daughter and son-in-law at their home in Martha’s Vineyard. 

He referred to the pause as a very unique opportunity. He liked the distance it gave him to perform a bit of reworking.

Some details were still all over the place however, Yazbeck for example, was in a movie in Romania. And Atticus Ware, a young company member who was an amazing dancer playing Archie Leach, caused a bit of fear in Lapine and co. because of his voice changing.

Online reports from earlier previews also pointed to how the show worked to defy the way contemporary broadway embraced easy escapism.

As the musical comes to life after a long and isolating pandemic, the creators believe that the need for “Flying Over Sunset” to be staged is more urgent than ever before.

As their trip starts to wind down, Grant, Heard, Luce, and Huxley begin to sing “Everyone in life we meet/Each of us is incomplete/Mixes in the merge/Till our paths converge”. Lapine said it was a show about connection. 

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