Sunday in the Park with George

September 24

November 11, 2012

in CST's Courtyard Theater

music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
book by James Lapine | directed by Gary Griffin

Playgoer's Guide

Art Institute of Chicago Trustee Frederic Clay Bartlett returned home from his 1924 collecting trip, where he purchased, among other works of art, A Sunday on La Grande Jatte—1884. After his wife’s death the following year, Bartlett gifted the Art Institute with the Helen Birch Bartlett Memorial Collection, and Georges Seurat’s masterpiece, measuring approximately seven feet high and ten feet across, was among the first to represent the artist’s work in America.

Seurat devoted two years, from 1884 to 1886, to the painting. He began with detailed studies of the site, recording the location of each tree and natural feature, and creating a pictorial landscape—a “set design” that he would complete with his human subjects. In the park the artist sketched small studies, then returned to his studio to create his large canvas. When Seurat entered his new work into The Eighth Exhibition of Painting, Monet and Renoir (among others who were dubbed the “Romantic Impressionists” to distinguish them from the
“Scientific Impressionists”) withdrew their submissions.

Seurat painted his only true portrait, Young Woman Powdering Herself, in 1890—the painting that Dot requests from George in Sunday in the Park with George. Seurat’s model was Madeline Knobloch, his lover and the mother of his child, who was born in 1890 and named Pierre Georges (his father’s names reversed). The next year, at the age of thirty–one, Seurat died suddenly from a contagious, but undiagnosed, disease—which his infant son, too, fatally contracted.

He put hundreds of thousands of dots on that canvas. And every one was a separate decision. Some people say there were five million individual decisions. And that is what art is.

–Michael Kantor and Laurence Maslon,
Broadway: The American Musical (2004)

With Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters in the lead roles, Sondheim and Lapine workshopped Sunday in the Park with George in 1983 at Playwrights Horizons, an off Broadway, nonprofit theater devoted to the development of new and innovative work. The play opened on Broadway on May 2, 1984—one hundred years after Seurat began his work on the Island of La Grande Jatte. Despite receiving ten Tony nominations, the play garnered just two awards for design. New York Times Theater critic Frank Rich was one of the few to champion the work as a masterpiece, and it was perhaps Rich’s recurrent musings that kept the theater sold out through the show’s 604–performance run. In 1985 the play was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Sunday in the Park with George was first staged at CST in 2002, directed by Gary Griffin in the theater Upstairs at Chicago Shakespeare.

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