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Living in the Canvas: The Creation of Sunday in the Park with George

“ART IS HARMONY. Harmony is the analogy of contrasting and similar elements of tone, color, and line.”

— GEORGES SEURAT

The winner of the 1985 Pulitzer Prize for drama, Sunday in the Park with George is perhaps composer Stephen Sondheim’s most acclaimed score. It is also perhaps the most ambitious of his career — highly original in its inspirations and structure. The creation of Sunday marks a brave new period in Sondheim’s decades-long career.

A new collaboration sparks

Sondheim and LapineSunday in the Park with George was the first musical that composer Sondheim created with book writer (and original director) James Lapine. Sondheim told his new collaborator that he wanted to team up with him to create a musical that would explore “theme and variations” (the same structure that inspired A Little Night Music). Sondheim showed Lapine the French magazine Bizarre. Sondheim recalls, “One issue was devoted entirely to a couple hundred pages of every conceivable variation of the Mona Lisa … both visually and verbally.” Elaborating from that suggestion, Lapine brought up French impressionist Georges Seurat and his painting Un dimanche après-midi à l’Île de la Grande Jatte.

“We realized that painting was the setting of a play,” Sondheim says of the duo’s first impressions, as recounted in Craig Zadan’s oral history Sondheim & Co. “All the people in that painting … when you start speculating on why none of them are looking at each other, and maybe there’s a reason for that. Maybe someone was having an affair with another one, or one was related to someone else.” But Lapine made what would be the key observation. Sondheim recalls: “Jim said, ‘Of course the main character’s missing. […] The artist.’”

Sondheim and Lapine instantly knew they had the idea for a musical. Yet the story of artist Georges Seurat and the people in his painting ultimately only became the first act. The structure that Lapine created with Sondheim — which jumps a century ahead in time for the second act — is one of the most intricate for any Sondheim work. Early on, the creators knew they needed to connect two acts that would share few characters and almost no plot. “I thought one way to tie the two acts together would be to make — this is a word I learned from Milton Babbitt, and I loved it — architectonic similarities,” Sondheim says. “In Into the Woods, which has a similar structure, there’s a story — there’s a real plot that goes on — which is a result of the first act. 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 some kind of parallel structure.” Each act’s opening song — “Sunday in the Park with George” and “It’s Hot Up Here” — is the most obvious parallel; both are about being posed uncomfortably by an artist. But the songs “Color and Light,” “Finishing the Hat,” and even some of the characters each have a mirror image in the second act.

Seurat's Bathers painting

The dazzling intricacy of these parallels would be nothing without the intense passions that drive each of the characters, an emotionality that Sondheim credits in part to Lapine. Working with Lapine added to Sondheim’s work, in Sondheim’s own words, “a current of vulnerability, of longing, […] a measure of compassion.”

Seurat and Sondheim

Georges SeuratSeurat’s biography immediately moved Sondheim, who was drawn in by Seurat’s meteoric path; Seurat finished his most famous painting at the age of 26, and then died unexpectedly at the age of 31. Sondheim also found Seurat’s secrets tantalizing. “Here was this marvelous, mysterious genius who died of some strange disease, probably a rare form of meningitis,” Sondheim says. “He led a double life — on the one hand, 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.”

Sondheim also reached beyond the biographical, and found ways to draw inspiration from Seurat’s aesthetic in the composition of the music itself. Initially, his impulse was to mirror Seurat’s pointillist method in the rhythm of the music. “I looked at the painting,” Sondheim remembers in an interview with scholar Mark Eden Horowitz. “You know everybody thinks Seurat painted in dots — he didn’t, they’re dabs. If you look at the strokes closely in the painting, he could only have applied them fairly slowly and meticulously. […] But, I thought, on the stage you can convey that — this is called taking liberties — by having him applying dots fairly rapidly and rhythmically.”

Sondheim found deeper ways to draw inspiration from the artist’s work; Sondheim was struck by the way Seurat used pure colors to give life and vibrancy to his work. “Seurat never mixed a color with a color that wasn’t next to it on the color wheel,” Sondheim explains. “So he would never mix yellow with blue; he would mix yellow with yellow-orange, or he would mix blue with blue-violet. […] Because the idea was to let the eye mix the colors. If the painter mixes the colors then the eye doesn’t get a chance to, does it?”

Sondheim decided that Seurat’s method of mixing colors would be reflected in his method of choosing and combining keys in the score. Initially, he thought he might contrast keys that were only a half-step apart, an idea he quickly discarded as too restrictive. But he found a way to incorporate that idea through major and minor keys. Sondheim says, “If you listen to the alternation — which becomes very important in the score — […] the alternation between a major third and a minor third, if you juxtapose them, is exactly like juxtaposing yellow with yellow-orange, or red with red-orange.”

While what is happening at a musical level has theoretical inspirations, Sondheim’s desired effect was not a trick, but a new way to evoke emotion in a listener. Sondheim says, “I really believe that in ‘Move On’ when that alternation occurs — that little major/ minor alternation — that the ear blends those two things and it comes out to be this unsettled, but very poignant chord.” Drawing inspiration from Seurat’s methods brought fresh vibrancy to Sondheim’s work as well.

Sondheim on the songs of Sunday

Stephen Sondheim“Color and Light”

“If there is any song in the score that exemplifies the change in my writing when I began my collaboration with James Lapine, it would be ‘Color and Light.’ The flow between spoken and sung monologue, the elliptical heightened language, the stream-of-consciousness fantasies, the abrupt climatic use of unaccompanied dialogue, these are all musical extensions of hallmarks in Lapine’s playwriting, particularly his early days.”

“Finishing the Hat”

“As befits the creative act, ‘Finishing the Hat’ is a stream-of-consciousness lyric. There is no complete sentence until the last stanza; each of the preceding stanzas is a subordinate clause. […] A little incoherence seemed appropriate in the case of an artist struggling to reconcile his personal life with his professional one.”

“Sunday”

“Once during the writing of each show, I cry at a notion, a word, a chord, a melodic idea, and accompaniment figure. In this show, it was the word ‘Forever’ in ‘Sunday.’ […] I still cry when I think about it. But then I cry at Animal Planet. Often.”

— CHARLES HAUGLAND


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