The Experience: Sunday in the Park with George Streaming on YouTube
“Connect, George.” This is the underlying theme; of our time and our place in COVID19 history, along with the current that flows inside of the epic and majestic Sunday in the Park with George, one of my all-time favorite pieces of theatre and works of art. With music and lyrics by the extremely talented and whip-smart Stephen Sondheim (Follies; Sweeney Todd) with a stellar book by James Lapine (Falsettos; Passion), the musical that premiered on Broadway in 1984, captivates, as always and forever, I imagine. So on a self-isolated Saturday afternoon, I found myself turning away from the balcony views of Toronto Island to the wonderfully eclectic YouTube service to be swept away in musical brilliance. This piece of theatre always has the ability to emotionally destroy me, in the most beautiful of ways, taking me to places that entertain and fulfill. There is something so powerful and connecting as we watch the character Dot struggle with her hopeless desire to be wanted and thought of by the French pointillist painter Georges Seurat, as he, in turn, struggles with his own engagement and love for her, versus that of his intense devotion to his art and his work in progress, the painting A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, that captivates his eyes and his mind. We know who will win this battle, as artists are “bizarre, fixed, cold”, and that is most definitely, him, George. No amount of battling will change that.
The plot strikes a cord that sends me down a rabbit hole of emotions, tearing up my soul over the conflicting desire between George, a fictionalized version of Seurat, and his model and lover Dot played magnificently by Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters. It’s a sublime salvation, finding this show on YouTube, diving into it as fast and furious as George immerses himself in painting the masterpiece that will eventually find its way onto the walls of the Art Institute of Chicago. He can not look up, not even long enough to see the woman in front of him desperate for his love and attention. Or, is it that he doesn’t want to see and take on the responsibility of her distraction and devotion? And that is only Act One. Act Two spins out a modern take on art and commerce, revolving around his great-grandson (also named George), a conflicted and cynical contemporary artist, and his loving attachment to his grandmother Marie, a woman who believes with all her heart that the model in the forefront of that same painting is her mother, and she is that child in the background held by her father, the baker. But ultimately, it is more about love and the ability to engage. It’s about “Children and Art“; family and passion; and the ability to balance desire harmoniously and connect. And it breaks my heart every time Dot sings, “Hello, George“.
The musical won the 1985 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, two Tony Awards (and a nomination for Best Musical), numerous Drama Desk Awards, the 1991 Olivier Award for Best Musical and the 2007 Olivier Award for Outstanding Musical Production, but it all started out in July 1983 when it opened Off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizons. Starring Patinkin and Peters, it ran for 25 performances with only the first act being performed and even that was considered still in development. The second act was floating in a sea of creative process trying desperately to be completed in time, and was only presented as a complete two-act musical for the last three performances at Playwrights Horizons. What an honor it would have been to see this development, as that second act is forever being discussed as never fully being as functional or as solid as the first. For me, it swings wildly from intelligent to emotional and is full to the brim of ideas about the creation of art and commerce, within the abstract connection to creativity and passion. Composer Leonard Bernstein was said to have written to Sondheim after seeing the completed piece, complimenting the show as being “brilliant, deeply conceived, canny, magisterial and by far the most personal statement I’ve heard from you thus far. Bravo“, he added. The musical transferred to the Booth Theatre on Broadway in the spring of 1984, dazzling its audience. The rest is theatrical history.
Lapine directed the Broadway transfer with Patinkin and Peters continuing on, cementing their iconic portrayals in history and the recording that I was able to watch on YouTube (click here). Sunday opened on Broadway to mixed reviews, with The New York Times theatre critic Frank Rich commenting: “that Mr. Sondheim and Mr. Lapine have created an audacious, haunting and, in its own intensely personal way, touching work. Even when it fails – as it does on occasion – “Sunday in the Park” is setting the stage for even more sustained theatrical innovations yet to come.” Taped on October 21–25, 1985, at the Booth Theatre, directed for television by Terry Hughes, with most of the original Broadway cast (Bernadette Peters, who was performing in Song and Dance at the time of the taping, was given time off from that play to tape this production), the piece sparkles to this very day. It shimmers in glorious color and light, thanks to the strong scenic design by Tony Straiges, detailed costuming by Patricia Zipprodt and Ann Hould-Ward, stellar lighting by Richard Nelson, and divine special effects by Bran Ferren. Sunday was praised at the time for being the first Broadway show to utilize ‘projection mapping’ (onto the spherical surface at the top of the Chromolume #7 sculpture), and high powered lasers that shot throughout the audience in a creative attempt to make the Act Two installation art piece both thrillingly modern and exciting. I’m not sure it ever really elevated the moment as intended (I saw the show on one of my youthful trips to NYC in 1984 and remember not being overwhelmed by the installation art). It struggled, even back then, to find its secure place in the fine art world it was trying to present. Watching it today, the feeling remains as before, but as a whole, taking in its timeframe in history, the show shines as bright as can be, drawing us in as completely as it did for me almost 36 years ago.
Running for a total of 604 performances and 35 previews, the show had a healthy box office but sadly, failed to pay back its investors, and although it was considered a brilliant artistic achievement for Sondheim and Lapine and was nominated for ten Tony Awards, the show won only two, both for design, losing many of the awards to Jerry Herman‘s La Cage aux Folles. Sunday did win the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Outstanding Musical and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, an astounding achievement as it is one of only nine musicals to win that award. This was only the beginning for this complex and magnificent piece of art.
Many years later in 2006 when I was heading to London to study for a summer at Regents College School of Psychotherapy, Sunday had just transferred to the Wyndham’s Theatre in London’s West End from the Menier Chocolate Factory. Naturally and without a doubt, I had to see it on the very first day I arrived. The phenomenal production directed brilliantly by Sam Buntrock with a gorgeous reorchestrated score by Jason Carr, starred the impressive Daniel Evans and Jenna Russell, who had replaced the unavailable Anna-Jane Casey from Donmar. Living up to everything I had hoped for, this Sunday tore my hearts to bits, so much so that the Bostonian woman sitting beside me started to stroke my forearm midway through Act One, trying to settle me down a wee bit. I was crying as if every part of my soul was connected intimately with each note and every phrase. Russel was astonishing, and will forever be my most beloved Dot. Something about her portrayal and her lovely rich voice triggered an emotional reaction inside me that transformed this experience into something cathartic. It will resonate with me until the day I die. Just hearing a few notes of a few particular songs sends tears down my face, uncontrollably, and happily, I might add. Just like it did today, watching the video on a quiet Saturday afternoon in Toronto.
Besides being gorgeously designed with the most modern of projections bringing the art to life on a plain white canvas, that revival deservedly received six Olivier Award nominations and won five, including Outstanding Musical Production, Best Actor in a Musical (Evans) and, most wonderfully, Russel won for Best Actress in a Musical. Not surprisingly, it transferred to Broadway in 2008, bringing its perfection to the Roundabout Theatre Company’s Studio 54 Theatre for a limited engagement, with Evans and Russell reprised their roles and Sam Buntrock directing once again. The Broadway revival received five Outer Critics Circle Award nominations, three Drama League Award nominations and seven Drama Desk Award nominations including Outstanding Revival of a Musical, Outstanding Actor and Actress in a Musical and Outstanding Director of a Musical. Russell and Evans also received Tony Award nominations for their performances, but sadly did not win. I was there, naturally, taking in its glory once again with my best friend, as part of our subscription, and then, because it was just too good for my friends to miss, another time with two of my favorite people in the world. They just had to witness this show and this perfect rendition, so they too may cry alongside me throughout. It just seemed like the right thing to do.
One might call me a glutton for glorious emotional punishment, because, without a pause in 2016, I bought tickets to the New York City Center‘s October gala concert version that starring Jake Gyllenhaal as George and Annaleigh Ashford as Dot/Marie. Blowing me away once again, especially Gyllenhaal’s performance that was as rich and deep as the magnificent Mandy Patinkin. Just listen to his “Finishing the Hat” and be wowed. Who would have guessed that he was able to sound so good, and bring such depth to the role? It quickly transferred to Broadway’s Hudson Theatre for a limited-run revival in February of 2017, opening to glowing reviews, including my own for frontmezzjunkies. It was glorious, particularly Ashford’s dynamic take on the role, and the larger than life sound delivered forth by the orchestra. Oddly enough, the producers withdrew the production from Tony Award consideration for the 2016-17 season, most likely because of the financial cost of giving tickets to all the voting members, but that’s just my guess. This stunningly beautiful production is scheduled to transfer to the West End’s Savoy Theatre in June 2020 starring, once again, the wonderful Gyllenhaal and Ashford. But that remains to be seen with all that is going on in the world today. It’s such a shame (if it fails to open), as this production is so worth seeing, and an emotional journey completely worth taking. My fingers are crossed for you, London, as well as for theatre in general. Survival is imperative.
I must admit that I also saw a fabulously inventive pared-down production by the Eclipse Theatre Company in the attic of the Jam Factory in Toronto, which made me, once again, believe in the pumping heart of this show. The gorgeousness of the music and the stellar voices soared, managing to carry my heart along beautifully, even when I found myself distracted and obstructed. It’s compelling to learn that back in the day, following the failure and scathing critical reception of Merrily We Roll Along in 1981 (it closed after 16 performances), Sondheim stated quite emphatically that he intended to quit musical theatre forever, but Lapine wisely persuaded him to not give up on the musical form. Lucky for us all, the two found inspiration within A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. They spent several days studying the masterpiece at the Art Institute of Chicago, noting, quite interestingly, that the only important figure that was missing from the canvas was the artist himself. This catapulted the idea forward, shaping Sunday into a meditation on art conflicting with love, emotional connection colliding up against romantic ideals, and a descent into the concepts of creative inspiration and community. Without that divine guidance, the world that Lapine and Sondheim created with such order, design, composition, form, symmetry, tension, balance, light, and most importantly of all, harmony, would never have seen the light of day. And that, my fellow theatre junkies, would have been a sad disastrous moment in time and theatrical history. My heart needs this show. Yes, it makes me cry, like a distraught inconsolable baby, but isn’t that what theatre should be all about? A release and connection to our heart, our love, our desire, and our pain. That is Art, and drama. So thank you, James Lapine, for finding that painting, and reinvigorating Sondheim, so that this piece of musical majesty can forever torture my soul and my tear ducts. In the best of possible ways, for years to come, revival after revival.