06 April 2008

Sunday in the Park with George review

Sunday in the Park with George (SitPwG) is the first musical Sondheim wrote in the second "act" of his career. Sondheim's collaboration Merrily We Roll Along with book writer George Furth and director Hal Prince was a horrible flop in 1981, lasting less than ten performances. Sondheim publicly declared he was going to stop writing musicals, but fortunately, he changed his mind when James Lapine suggested that he write songs for a musical about the life of Georges Seurat. SitPwG was a great critical success in 1984 and even won a Pulitzer prize for drama (only one of seven musicals to do so).

The first act of the musical centers around Georges Seurat during the time of his painting of his masterpiece "A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte." He has a lover named Dot who bears his child, a girl named Marie. In the second act, Marie's grandson is also an artist named George. The actors who played Seurat and Dot double as young George and Marie.

This review should have been written a while ago, but I was planning to see 2008 Broadway revival a second time and thought that a second viewing might bring some new insights. That wasn't the case, but I still need to write up this review.

SitPwG has an incredibly challenging score that is written to mirror the Pointilism style of Seurat's painting (making the painting with very short strokes, almost like dots). The prime example of this style is the song "Color and Light" where Seurat sings about painting "A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte." I didn't truly enjoy the score until the third listening. The music is bright and shimmering (apparently the painting itself has also been described in the same way). These qualities in combination with the unusual pointilistic style give the music a freshness and uniqueness so amazing that I have to drop everything I'm doing when I listen to the soundtrack. If I have one negative comment, the song where Seurat impersonates two dogs ("The Day Off") is really weird, but maybe it serves to show how self-absorbed the artist is in his work.

I haven't even mentioned the lyrics which are some of the best Sondheim has written (and that's saying a lot considering that Sondheim is probably the best lyricist in musical theater history). There are gently comic and witty songs like "Sunday in the Park with George" (Dot complaining about being a model), "It's Hot Up Here" (a whimsical fantasy where the characters in the painting complain about being stuck in time), and "Putting It Together" (George complaining about the hassle of fundraising and hobnobbing to get your art on exhibit). The duet between Seurat and his mother "Beautiful" has one of my favorite lyrics "Pretty isn't beautiful, Mother/Pretty is what changes/What the eye arranges." The bittersweet song "Finishing the Hat" is considered one of Sondheim's very best songs. It's beautiful the way Sondheim weaves in the metaphor of seeing as an artist and sitting by the window watching the world go by because you have to do your work. The song ends with the line "Look I made a hat... where there never was a hat." This idea, the uplifting nature of creation, is brought to a climax in the Act I/II finale "Sunday." What's interesting about "Sunday" is that the lyrics seem like a meaningless jumble of words: "Sunday, by the blue purple yellow red water/On the green purple yellow red grass." But you realize that it's really saying how a bunch of dots painted by Seurat can come together into a beautiful piece of art.

Book writer James Lapine does a wonderful job turning the creative process into a coherent, touching, and wise play. It would be a stretch to say that SitPwG has a plot or story; it's more like a portrait which captures all the joys and disappointments of making art. Seurat is a controlled, anti-social character who doesn't speak much, so Lapine cleverly comments on the artist through the other characters. Dot notes that artists are "bizarre, fixed, cold" (hmm, sounds like a lot of physicists). Franz, a German servant, says "Work is what you do for others, art is what you do for yourself."

Lapine also directed the original 1984 production (rare, since book writers don't usually direct their own work). His conception of the Act I set as the painting itself holds the play together. It's so clever how the characters interact on the island and suddenly at the end of Act I come together as the painting itself. It's ironic that these lively characters end up as being stiff, faceless figures in the final painting, but Seurat wasn't interested in personality. He wanted to understand the interplay of color and light. For some elements of the painting, Lapine uses paper cutouts (for instance, the dogs and one of the soldiers). The metaphor of arranging people and papercuts is extended to the beginning of Act II. In a bit of perversity, the young George is using his artist vision not to make art, but to arrange the critics, sponsors, etc to fund his art.

Comparing the two acts, I feel like the songs in the second act aren't quite as strong. "Children and Art" is a really touching song mood-wise, but the lyrics just don't seem very interesting. "Lesson #8" has to be acted very well; otherwise it comes across as excessively self-pitying.

It doesn't help that the Act II is less coherent than Act I. The second act starts off strong and promising, but it seems like James Lapine didn't know quite how to end it. The idea of Dot's ghost coming back to help young George find his way back to creative productivity is far-fetched and feels like a hack. Unlike some people, I do feel like Act II is important because if Act I is the "head" of creating art, Act II is the "heart." Young George is the opposite of Seurat. He lacks confidence, feels like a failure at times, and cares about his personal relationships. It's easy to be an artist with tunnel vision, but how do you do hard creative work when you can't help being distracted by other things (some of them arguably important like human relationships)?

Finally, I'll discuss the actual performances. My first introduction to SitPwG was a video taping of the 1984 stage production with Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters as the two leads. The 2008 Broadway revival is actually a transfer of a transfered production. The revival was originally put on in a tiny 190-seat theater called the Menier Chocolate Factory. Then it was moved to the West End of London before moving to Broadway. The two leads, Daniel Evans and Jenna Russell, who play Seurat/George and Dot/Marie, transferred to Broadway from the West End but the rest of the Broadway are American actors, new to the production. Menier Chocolate Factory is tiny, so they only used a 5-piece orchestra. Even when the production was transferred to Broadway, they kept the 5-piece pit which I find very strange. I prefer a larger orchestra for SitPwG (I think the original 1984 production had 20+ musicians). The other difference is that the paper cutout of the scenery and animals have been replaced by computer animation. The technology is more modern, but the basic concept of the paper cutout hasn't changed. They just happen to be digital this time. Comparing the stage video of the 1984 original production to the live 2008 Broadway revival, I prefer the acting of the British actors Evans and Russell, but I prefers the singing of the American actors Patinkin and Peters. But these are minor quibbles; both productions are fantastic. SitPwG is so sophisticated (most audiences probably won't "get it"), the music and set design so challenging, it's rarely put on. I'm just glad to have seen it twice.

Overall, Sunday in the Park with George is a daringly beautiful and touching work about the creative process which manages to capture all the joys and struggles of living life as an artist, writer, or even scientist. It's not perfect, but even slightly flawed, it's one of the best works I've seen in a long time.

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