Tonight, after my family went to bed, I watched Stephen Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George on YouTube.
The interplay of harmony and dissonance make it a masterpiece of American musical theater. The first act traces the relationship between the artist Georges Seurat and his model Dot in Paris. He focuses his attention on his artwork. Dot wants his attention. The tension builds until she leaves him to marry Louis the baker. They leave to move to America and Georges is devastated. Act One culminates with the song “Sunday.” The emotional power gave me chills.
Act Two begins in the twentieth century linking a contemporary young artist named George with the nineteenth-century artist Seurat. It is set in the United States. The cast shows a living rendition of “Sunday Afternoon on the Island of la Grande Jatte 1886”. Each of the characters in the painting sing “It’s Hot Up Here” and describe what it is like being forever in the painting.
“Putting it Together” brings the two worlds of art and institutions together. It’s an energetic song that Mandy Patinkin executes beautifully. He jumps between cocktail conversation and a soliloquy about the business of art. Stephen Sondheim speaks through his characters about the business of art, but it sounds as much about any artistic business, including writing musicals. The lyrics are a thinly veiled critique of conversations Sondheim’s probably had dozens of times.
The musical moves to focus on perspective. It says put people and family first, ahead of work and other priorities. Unlike some vacuous musicals that seem to exist for their own sake, Sunday in the Park with George wants to say something. It starts with color and perspective in paintings but the message transforms to become appreciate the people in one’s life.
My history with Sunday in the Park with George goes to the early 1990s. A woman I knew loaned me a CD of the soundtrack. We shared an affinity for musical theater, and she raved about Sondheim and his work. Thus, I was convinced that I should love this particular musical. I listened to it over and over again. Eventually something clicked. I understood what was happening. I understood the themes. I could hear the development of the chords, harmonies, melodies, and lyrics. However, I never saw it.
Bernadette Peters and Mandy Patinkin gave amazing performances. The characters came to life on my laptop screen.
The play ends on a note of hope. “White. A blank page or canvas. His favorite. So many possibilities.”
I think we need that kind of hope right now.