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Art a Century Apart: Sondheim’s inspirations for Sunday

Peter DuBois Adam Chanler-Berat Art Institute

“I care a lot about art and the artist,” says composer Stephen Sondheim, exploring why he chose to base a musical off a famous work of visual art. “The major thing I wanted to do [with Sunday in the Park with George] was to enable anyone who is not an artist to understand what hard work it is.”

After the closing of Merrily We Roll Along, Sondheim almost gave up writing musicals, until he was introduced to writer-director James Lapine. The two began exploring ideas for a musical to create together, and while they considered a short story, they knew they had their inspiration when they came across Georges Seurat’s painting A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. “We realized that that painting was the setting of a play,” explained Sondheim. “All the people in that painting, when you start speculating on why none of them are looking at each other, maybe there’s a reason for that. Maybe someone was having an affair with another one, or was related to someone else.” The final question Sondheim and Lapine asked themselves before they started work: Who was missing from the painting? Sondheim and Lapine both agreed — it was the artist.

1884

Seurat was a leader of the Neo-Impressionist movement that was radical for its time, known for being the pioneer in the pointillism technique. His painting A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte was started in 1884. Seurat lived a short and mysterious life, dying in 1891 at the age of 31 from a strange illness. Sondheim was intrigued by Seurat’s double life: “Almost every night he’d stroll over to his mother’s house for dinner, yet only a few weeks before he died, she discovered he’d kept a mistress and had had a baby by her.”

Seurat’s progressive work as an artist parallels Sondheim’s use of music, as seen in last season’s A Little Night Music. Sondheim changed musical theatre from hummable tunes to songs that expressed the intricate inner-monologues of his characters. Both the portrait of a man and the creative process, Sondheim’s classic features one of his most autobiographical songs “Finishing the Hat.” In Ethan Mordden’s On Sondheim: An Opinionated Guide he explains, “‘Finishing the Hat’ offers a massive credo for the artist who has, in effect, two souls: one for the physical specimen living in the world and another for the out-of-body creator living in the canvases where he re-fashions the world.”

How you have to finish the hat
How you watch the rest of the world
From a window while you finish the hat
- “Finishing the Hat,” Sunday in the Park with George

1984

In the second act, Sondheim introduces us to George, the great-grandson of Georges Seurat. Like his namesake, George’s work is radical for his time. The inventor-sculptor George enters with his Chromolume #7, a contemporary art piece created to commemorate Georges Seurat’s original Sunday painting. George is experiencing a creative drought as he begins to lose funding for his art. Should he make something that sells, or make something that speaks to himself? Sondheim explored the same connection. “Mr. Sondheim has written a lovely, wildly inventive score that sometimes remakes the modern French composers whose revolution in music paralleled the post-Impressionists’ in art,” wrote critic Frank Rich in The New York Times. Sunday in the Park with George is a musical experiment in its storytelling form. The bridge between both acts lies within the work of the artist. “It’s part of the reason [Sondheim] did the piece,” said Bernard Jacobs of the Shubert Organization, a producer of the original musical, “My guess is that it’s his reflection of his own place in the world.” Sunday in the Park with George surrounds itself in a visual painting. As Sondheim says, “Musicals are, by nature, theatrical — meaning poetic, meaning having to move the audience’s imagination and create a suspension of disbelief, by which I mean there’s no fourth wall.” Sunday invites artists, creators, and audience members of all forms to experience the art of making art.

– Phaedra Scott


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