Jack, The Beanstalk, Mansfield and Jamie Lapine

Mansfield, Ohio is just a small city in the anonymous rolling hills of the American Midwest, and it is a long way from Broadway. It’s even farther from Hollywood.

Yet there is a common denominator between these three points in the cultural map of America: it’s a boy whose role as a giant killer led him to huge success in pop culture. And this is no small thing; in fact, it’s a giant thing.

A boy in Mansfield dreamed of killing giants on the stage, and put on the costume as Jack at a Children’s Theatre production in South Park. Then, 30 years later, he wrote a play about Jack that was a giant hit in NYC, where his killer talent brought him a Tony Award; and took him to Hollywood, where his giant-killing boy generated 212 million dollars worldwide with a landmark film.

Killing giants is a big dream. It can place you in the history books for happily ever after.

If you’ve seen the play, or watched the movie, or listened to the soundtracks, you know the Lapine script about Jack begins with this line: Once Upon a Time. These are powerful words, so they surely must have been placed at the start of this tale:

Once upon a time, a boy was born in Mansfield General. Actually, it was once upon 1949 and the boy was called Jamie Lapine.

Lapine’s Giant takes a break outside (on top of) the Martin Beck Theatre in NYC in 1987.

The Storybook Plot

The largest part of Jamie’s life was lived somewhere else, because the Lapine family moved out of Mansfield when the boy was 11; but he spent his boyhood dreaming years on Cline Avenue. The Lapine family was well-known around town: the older kids in school government at Senior High; the father in business and civic fund-raising; the mother at B’Nai Jacob.

Jamie went to Brinkerhoff, and he subsequently schooled in CT, PA, and NC where he studied graphic arts. Then he taught at Yale.

His career in theater and movies started almost incidentally, when a casual college play he had a hand in, unexpectedly went to Broadway. Finding himself backstage in the most important theater district in the world, he sat down and wrote a couple plays that had success and won some awards; and the next thing we knew, he had won three Tony Awards and a Pulitzer Prize.

Today he keeps company with the best known and greatest performers of our age, and he must be counted among them because he is the one who puts the words they speak into their mouths with his scripts and his directing.

Jamie Lapine’s emergence as a giant talent in the entertainment world took place the late 20th and early 21st centuries, and all that happened long after Mansfield. It is not a stretch to posit however, that the seed of all that astonishing achievement was planted right here. The seed, in fact, could well be considered the fabled magic bean. This seminal moment took place in South Park in August of 1958.

Mansfield News-Journal, Friday, August 1, 1958.

Jack and the Giant

It was a play staged by Children’s Theatre that sowed the magic bean into Jamie’s destiny. The summer of 1958 was the 22nd year that Children’s Theatre had been playing in Mansfield, and the production company had grown summer by summer at the South Park pavilion to include a cast of 40 kids and dozens of parents backstage.

When they ended the ’58 season with Jack and the Giant, there was a considerable crew of talent to turn the traditional script of Jack’s Beanstalk into a whole new creation, by grafting on elements of fantasy and reality. The Mansfield revisioning of Jack’s tale was set in an old attic, where children explored trunks of old clothes to costume their playacting at the inspiration of a ‘Rainy Day Pixie.’

Jack & the Giant played two nights in the pavilion, and saw an audience of 400 people on those green wooden benches; as Hal McCuen, the founder of Children’s Theatre, strummed his autoharp to add magic and music between scenes.

It was Jamie Lapine who took center stage in the starring role as Jack.

The next time Jamie and Jack spent time together was 26 years later, in 1984, when Stephen Sondheim was composing songs for a new Broadway musical about fairy tales, and Jamie—now the Pulitzer Prize winner James Lapine—was given the task of concocting a script that would present a new angle on Jack and the Giant.

Various adaptations of Lapine’s work: The original libretto published 1987; original Broadway production filmed for DVD, 1991; the Disney adaptation nominated for 3 Academy Awards, 2014; children’s book adapted and illustrated by Hudson Talbott, 2002.

This publicity shot from 1985 captured James Lapine (right) with his collaborator Stephen Sondheim (left) during the run of his Pulitzer Prize play, Sunday in the Park With George.

Into the Woods

The fabric of the Sondheim/Lapine play is made of many colorful vignettes interweaving the stories of several traditional fairytale characters, all stitched together into a warm and comfortable quilt. But make no mistake, even though Jack and his beanstalk comprise only one of the many plots, the whole show ultimately revolves around him.

As Act 1 is winding up, it is Jack’s beanstalk rising upstage that foreshadows all that is to come in Act 2.

Each set of characters have their own plots and challenges to deal with, but in the end it all comes down to Jack. He manages to become the axis upon which the play turns. And, amazingly enough, he has the only true love song in the show: singing to his cow.

Into the Woods weaves together songs and jokes with themes and plots running through them like a classic Vaudeville— and there are segments between scenes when the characters troop out one by one to deliver aphorisms to the audience, almost like a Sunday School pageant or a Miracle Play from the Middle Ages. It has the effect of being very modern, sophisticatedly complex and, at the same time, elegantly simple, like Medieval Theater. Or perhaps, even Children’s Theatre.

Jack is just one character among a whole shelf of storybook classic figures like Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Rapunzel, some Charming Princes, a Wicked Witch, etc., but he is the one who gets them into their collective crisis, so he is the one they’re all searching for, scene after scene, in Act 2.  He is pictured here in promotional material from LA in advance of Academy Award nominations, 2014.

The Jack Legacy

The tale of Jack and his beanstalk is one of those old, old stories that go way back in folklore in many cultures, and, as a tale told round the fire, it would be among the earliest bits of theater itself. It is certainly the earliest theater for many young boys in grade school plays.

People who study the psychology of folk tales and fairy tale will tell you that the story of Jack and the Beanstalk is all about rites of passage involved in leaving one’s childhood. There is the cow who gives no milk, suggesting that weaning is over; and the magical escape up to a new world full of large people, where there is danger and great reward.

Jamie Lapine spent his childhood in Mansfield learning to dream, and when he left our town, the place he ascended to has certainly been rewarding for the entire world.

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