by Stuart Sherman
Thirty years or so ago, Stephen Sondheim and librettist/director James Lapine spent days at the Art Institute of Chicago, gazing at the painting on which they hoped to base this show: George Seurat’s A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte–1884.
What’s most famous about the painting (as Chicagoans know well) is the innovative relation of parts to whole: all those hundreds of thousands of dots, insistently separate when seen close up, coalesce into passages of shimmering color when viewed from the right remove. At a moment catalytic for the show’s conception, Lapine saw that the same principle, operating virtually in reverse, governs the gazes of the figures in the picture. He was struck by “the curious fact,” as Sondheim later put it, “that of all the fifty-odd people” in this large luminous image of a community at play, “not one...is looking at another.” Everyone’s assembled; no one quite connects.
There’s the tension that shapes the show: between the impassioned pursuit of harmony (a key word in the script from start to finish) and the welter of missed connections that make deep harmony barely attainable in art, nearly impossible in life.
Sunday in the Park with George incarnates these tensions in its characters’ intrinsic isolation, and in their baffled, variable desire for convergence. As opening gambit in that splendid game, Sondheim and Lapine name their fictive female protagonist Dot. She is Seurat’s exuberant, exasperated mistress, muse, and model. In the show’s first song, we see her locked into the pose George has assigned her, while going volubly, silently, and hilariously crazy at the disparity between her atomization as an aggregate of dots obsessively stippled onto canvas, and her actuality as the complex flesh-and-blood woman she’s longing for her lover to see. In later songs we learn that George, while not oblivious to her wish that he look past painting into passion, knows nothing of how to fulfill it, or even how to want to: his painting is his passion; distraction might do it damage.
Out of such crossed purposes gorgeously vocalized, Sondheim had shaped wonderful thwarted-love stories before (think of Mrs. Lovett crooning her ardor to Sweeney Todd as he, simultaneously, sings a love song to his razor). In Sunday, though, the lovers’ subtler sunderings become the template for all the tensions and contentions among the lesser characters: the fights and slights out of which Sondheim and Lapine shape a bright kaleidoscope of songs. Sondheim has written about his newfound pleasure in “allowing songs to become fragmentary, like musicalized snatches of dialogue,” without the “static verbosity of recitative.” Sondheim’s fragments work like Seurat’s dots; they index both the energies of isolation and the elusive possibilities of harmony, of coalescence.
Sunday’s creators built this tension into their show another way as well—simply by deciding to make a play out of a painting in the first place. For ardent theatergoers, there may always be something strangely, though movingly, Sphinx-like about an art gallery: the figures in the pictures talk to no one, and do not know we’re there. The actors onstage speak plentifully; they know we’re there from start to finish. To watch Sunday in the Park is to be reminded of the painting’s stillness while at the same time being released from it, into a playhouse world where the innumerable disconnections among the characters can seem intermittently over-ridden by the fundamental, fundamentally theatrical, connection between living bodies on stage and in the seats. And there’s a further point of kinship, triggered in the show’s plain title. Plays, like parks, are places of recreation. We go there (in a word) to play, to seize for ourselves a momentary holiday. Sundays and plays have lots in common also. In its steady attention to multitudes at leisure, Sunday in the Park ends up meditating to an extraordinary extent on its audience, who will for a time, like the figures in Seurat’s painting, stay silent, not looking at one another, but will then, like the characters on Sondheim’s stage, be speaking, flirting, and quarreling with each other soon enough. Sunday in the Park plays out the comedian Lily Tomlin’s oracular pronouncement in The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe: “the audience is art.”
So, in this show, are the artists. Sondheim and Lapine give us two Georges: in the first act the late-nineteenth-century Parisian painter, struggling with his method, his models, his materials; in the second his troubled (and fictional) namesake and great-grandson, a late-twentieth-century American artist adrift after initial success in a world of fickle benefactors, daunting new technologies, endless iterations and tyrannic fads. Here, as the young George fretfully sings, art isn’t easy; “putting it together” has become for him more chore than challenge. The second act pervasively, often parodically, echoes the first, as Sondheim pointedly reapplies melodies now familiar to topics and lyrics strikingly new.
Out of his two Georges, Sondheim crafts for himself something like what Shakespeare may have attained in Hamlet: a probable (or at least plausible) self-portrait, as close a map as the oeuvre offers to the workings of its maker’s mind, to the shaping vectors of his art. Small wonder that Sondheim titled his two recent, spectacularly engaging volumes of autobiography with titles taken from Sunday’s core song, in which Seurat sings of the ardors and arduousness involved in “finishing the hat” (the title of Sondheim’s Volume 1), and ends with the simple boast (and only full sentence in yet another song composed of fragments: “Look, I made a hat” (Volume 2). “The agony and the ecstasy” has long served as pulp-fiction shorthand for the artistic process. In Sunday as in his autobiographies, Sondheim makes clear that for him, the agony and the ecstasy are one and the same thing.
“See George attempting to make a connection,” the young protagonist sings wearily of himself near the very end. Sunday’s power consists in the assiduousness with which it tracks the pleasures, costs, and strain of those attempts for everyone involved in the art of making art. “We do not belong together,” Dot sings to George near the end of the first act. “We have always belonged together,” she sings, to the same melody, at the end of the second, in a song whose title and refrain (“Move On”) argues for the flow, in art and in life, toward which Dot, like all those dots on Seurat’s canvas, has striven from the start. But even now there are dividing lines: the song is a duet between the living, younger George of Act 2 and a Dot, his grandmother, long dead; within moments, she’ll disappear from the stage as well. Even at the show’s high points of exquisite harmony, its makers hint gently but insistently at inevitable sunderings.
By the time the figures in the painting sing hypnotically of “our perfect park,” we know well that the perfection’s not in the park but in the picture. Outside its frame there can be no perfection—only faulty mortals, missing connections while dreaming toward connection. La Grande Jatte is, as the painting’s title points out, an island after all; and so in a sense, as Seurat and Sondheim suggest (contra John Donne), are all the people on it. But out of imperfection and missed connection come longing, hope, and the aching beauty of this painting and this play.