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Every Little Detail: Sondheim on Making Art in Sunday

Charles Peter Sondheim Header

“Just when we think we know what Stephen Sondheim does, he does something else,” writes critic Sandor Goodhart. “Stephen Sondheim has continually eschewed repetition, continually sought to remake himself, to reinvent his style.” Each musical that Sondheim has written across his six-decade career breaks new ground, not only for the artist himself but for the musical theatre form. He brings a constant sense of surprise and reinvention to his work through two twin principles: artistic rigor and ingenuity. These key traits can be seen deep in the fabric of his most acclaimed work, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Sunday in the Park with George.

When Sondheim began work on the musical in the early 1980s, he considered making it into an aural representation of pointillism. The art technique, in which tiny dots of pure color are arranged in patterns to create a larger image, made the central character of Sunday, the French artist Georges Seurat, into a legend. Sondheim often begins musicals with this kind of strong concept; for A Little Night Music, seen at the Huntington last season, he based all the songs off the same time signature – the triple beat of a waltz.

For Sunday, Sondheim had the notion to mirror Seurat’s work by drawing on the artist’s strict reliance on pure colors. “I thought, isn’t it interesting that Seurat had, on his palate, eleven colors and white,” Sondheim said in an interview with scholar Mark Horowitz. “Eleven and one make twelve. And how many notes are there in a scale? Twelve. I thought I would utilize that […] the way he never mixed a color with a color that wasn’t next to it on the color wheel. He would mix yellow and yellow-orange, or blue with blue-violet; but he would never mix yellow and blue.” Early sketches for Sunday grew into a complicated notion of coordinating keys for the songs in a similar pattern. Ultimately, Sondheim discarded these ideas as too restrictive, but their essence still forms and influences the music and gives it a distinctive flavor; songs flip back and forth between major and minor keys sometimes in the span of a few measures; staccato notes dart through deconstructed scales, like dabs of paint on a canvas.

As an organizing principle, instead of an overarching musical pattern, Sondheim and the book writer James Lapine created a mirrored structure between the first and second acts. The acts take place 100 years – the first follows Seurat as he paints A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, the second follows his great-grandson as he tries to find inspiration for his next contemporary art creation – and the acts share only a single character between them. “In Into the Woods, which has a similar structure, there’s a story, a real plot, which is a result of the first act,” Sondheim writes. “But in Sunday, the second act is an entirely separate entity – it’s another ship – so the way to link them together, it seemed to me, was to make it a parallel structure.” In an impressive trick, the two best known songs from the musical – “Finishing the Hat” and “Putting it Together” – share the same tune. (Original star Mandy Patinkin did not realize Sondheim’s sleight of hand until more than a year into performing the show.)

Structural underpinnings of the intricacy that Sondheim creates maybe barely perceptible to an audience, especially on the first viewing; however, the rigor and ingenuity of all those small choices, when seen together, take on their own sense of movement and life. As Sondheim says of Seurat’s original painting, “Of course, this is the perfect painting for someone like me to musicalize, because it is all about design. It’s all about echo. It’s all about the effect of this next to that, or this apart from that. The more I got to know the painting, the more musical I felt.”

Like Seurat’s painting, Sunday’s breathtaking beauty comes from stepping back and looking at the whole effect of the piece. “Look closely at that canvas – or at Sunday in the Park itself – and you’ll get lost in a sea of floating dots,” New York Times critic and Sondheim aficionado Frank Rich wrote in his original review. “Stand back and you’ll see that Mr. Sondheim and Mr. Lapine have woven all those imaginative possibilities into a finished picture with a startling new glow.”

– Charles Haugland


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