Saturday, August 29, 2015

Sunday in the Park with George (Brandman Productions, The Shubert Organization, American Playhouse, 1985)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The “feature” Charles and I watched last Thursday night was Sunday in the Park with George, a 1985 video presentation of the original Broadway production of the musical I consider Stephen Sondheim’s greatest work. Indeed, if he’d done nothing else for the theatre — no lyrics to Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story and Jule Styne’s Gypsy, no A Little Night Music, Company, Follies, Sweeney Todd or Into the Woods — this one show would establish him as one of the all-time giants of musical theatre. Sunday in the Park with George was Sondheim’s first collaboration with writer James Lapine after years of working with Hugh Wheeler (a partnership that broke up in the wake of the failure of Merrily We Roll Along, their adaptation of a 1934 George S. Kaufman play about a love affair, told backwards — beginning with the couple breaking up and ending with their first meeting — though they had been warned because the 1934 original had been a flop, too), and for the first act they told the story of the real-life French painter Georges Seurat (1859-1891) and the creation of his most famous work, “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.” A few explanatory titles at the beginning of the video explain that the Grande Jatte was a resort frequented in the 1880’s mostly by working-class Parisians, though occasionally members of the upper class would go out there as unobtrusively as possible on what in the U.S. in the 1920’s became known as “slumming” trips. The show’s acknowledgment says it is “a work of fiction inspired by the art of Seurat and what little is known of his life,” and to that end Lapine invented the female lead of Dot (Bernadette Peters, turning in a far finer performance than she did in the next Sondheim/Lapine show, Into the Woods, because a more realistic character gave her far more to work with), who’s both Seurat’s mistress and his model.

In the opening scene he’s sketching her as one of the figures he intends to have appear in the “Grande Jatte” painting and he’s rudely telling her to keep still while she sings of her discomfort over her “Sunday in the park with George.” The first act is about an hour and a half long and deals both with Seurat’s work and with the “regulars” and semi-“regulars” at the Grande Jatte whom he incorporates into the painting, including a pair of soldiers (one of whom is a live actor, Robert Westenberg, while the other is a cardboard cut-out, life-size and painted in Seurat’s style, one of the sometimes annoying little “arch” touches that afflict Sondheim’s musicals), a prominent artist and critic named Jules (Charles Kimbrough) who praises Seurat’s work to his face and disses it behind his back, an old woman (Barbara Bryne) who turns out to be Seurat’s mother, her nurse (Judith Moore), a couple of women who cruise the soldiers, a boatman (William Parry) who has a proletarian’s attitude of contempt for anyone with more money or status than he, an obnoxious little girl with glasses and others. The act artfully alternates between Seurat (Mandy Patinkin, coming off his star-making role in Barbra Streisand’s Yentl and turning in an otherwise good performance that’s just a bit too Jewish to be credible as a 19th century Parisian artist — though I looked up the Wikipedia page on the real Seurat and the photo there looks strikingly like Patinkin in the show) creating and controlling this world of people who are going to become the characters in his painting, and the real people themselves, with their own ambitions, attitudes and actions. The central conflict is between Seurat, Dot and Louis the baker (Cris Groenendaal), who’s also after her and who seems like a much better match — at least he pays attention to her and doesn’t just ignore her when he’s not telling her to hold still in one uncomfortable position after another — and there’s an ironic Sondheim lyric in which Dot compares the two men in her life and says Louis is also an artist, only his artworks are far more popular and are immediately enjoyed by their consumers.

The conflict ends with a heart-wrenching duet between Seurat and Dot called “We Do Not Belong Together,” and apparently in this performance it was so heart-rending it got to Bernadette Peters personally and she cried through so much of it the producers decided her vocal was unusable and she had to dub her own voice in post-production. Dot leaves Seurat and marries Louis even though she’s pregnant with Seurat’s child, and a typically ugly American couple who are visiting Paris and are singularly unimpressed with everything but its pastries hire Louis to come to the U.S. with them and make those spectacular French baked goods for them in America. Of course, he brings Dot and “their” child, a daughter whom Dot names Marie because she’s been teaching herself to read out of a red-bound primer in which all the women mentioned in the examples are named Marie. (“Why is she always Marie?” Dot complains, though later she gives that name to her daughter.) The hour-long Act Two deals with a modern young artist named George (Mandy Patinkin) who creates works he calls “chromolumes” (after “chromoluminarianism,” one of the terms Georges Seurat coined for his painting style, though the name for it that has entered the art history books is “pointillism”). The chromolume we get to see in action is his Number 7, which looks like a statue of R2-D2 topped with a large glass globe that shows holograms while the rest of the machine puts on a light show — only when it’s exhibited by the museum that commissioned it as an homage to Seurat’s “Grande Jatte” painting (the museum is unnamed but the real “Grande Jatte” is part of the permanent collection of the Art Institute of Chicago) the creation puts such a drain on the museum’s circuits it shorts out and the display comes to an abrupt and unscheduled end. When they fix the technical glitches and it resumes, it turns out to be a sort of holographic biodoc on Seurat and the creation of “La Grande Jatte,” and in what’s become the best-known song from the show (and virtually the only one performed out of context), “Putting It Together,” the modern-day George laments at how many sponsors are required for him to create anything and how he can’t work until the financial package behind him is set.

Indeed, the reception for him after his display is more a networking opportunity than anything else, and the actors who played the characters in Seurat’s painting and his life in Act One reappear as typically pretentious would-be patrons, critics and assistants, one of whom tells George that after this project he’s leaving the art world and returning to his calmer, less stressful former job with NASA. The featured guest at George’s opening was his grandmother Marie (Bernadette Peters), who keeps insisting that he is the great-grandson of Georges Seurat — which he refuses to believe for reasons Lapine’s script keeps hauntingly ambiguous, though we get the impression that’s a family burden he doesn’t want the challenge of living up to and which would just add to the already large number of stressors in his life. George (the modern one) gets an invitation to present his chromoluminarian homage to Seurat on the actual site of the Grande Jatte, which turns out to have been heavily developed and full of aggressively ugly apartment buildings, and though his grandmother Marie has died by then, he meets up with the spirit of his great-grandmother Dot (she’s still played by Bernadette Peters, whose performance here is much stronger than the one she gave in the next Sondheim-Lapine show, Into the Woods: apparently playing a realistic character with human emotions and motivations turned her on a lot more than playing a fairy-tale witch) and she re-energizes him to do something new with his art — it’s never explained exactly what, but the big duet between them, “Move On,” is essentially a continuation of “We Do Not Belong Together” only with the opposite message: they do belong together, even as inspirations spanning the generations rather than real people living at the same time. What’s more, Dot’s appearance enables George finally to come to grips with his legacy as Seurat’s great-grandson and to understand that the mysterious words scrawled by Dot in the back pages of that red-backed grammar primer — “Order. Design. Tension. Balance. Harmony” — were her transcription of Seurat’s artistic credo.

I’ve seen this presentation of Sunday in the Park with George several times and every time I’ve found it utterly magical. The first time was with my late roommate, who watched it on HBO when he was still getting premium channels and much to my irritation turned it off after half an hour after I had got totally engrossed in it. The second time was when it was rebroadcast on PBS and I recorded it on Betamax, a tape I later showed to my late partner John Gabrish. I had worried it might be too recherché a story for him, but it turned out John had a personal connection to the painting: he was from Sheboygan, Wisconsin but had lived much of his life in Milwaukee. The distance between Milwaukee and Chicago is about the same as that between San Diego and Los Angeles, so people in Milwaukee wanting a culture fix from a first-class city go to Chicago the way San Diegans go to L.A. — so John had seen the original painting at the Art Institute many times and the story came alive for him because he knew the work so well. For me, I had a quite different reaction; when I’d seen slides of the “Grande Jatte” in art history class in junior college I had reacted much the way the artist and critic Jules does in Lapine’s script: I had found it dull and emotionless. Seurat’s painting technique was to use a restricted number of colors and apply his paint in the form of little dots over the canvas so the eye would blend them together and see more and different colors than were there in the actual paint. (Ironically, a color TV image is essentially created the same way: what we were watching when we ran this DVD was a series of dots — “pixels” — of colored light, either red, yellow, blue or black, which the eye blends into a whole palette of really existing colors. In a sense, the entire technique of halftoning that allowed photographs to be reproduced in print and then allowed TV first to exist at all and then to exist in color is an homage to Seurat, who in real life had read works on color theory, including the one by French author and chemist Michel Eugène Chevreul, who invented the color wheel.) That’s one reason why he created so few works — he spent two years on “La Grande Jatte” and the credits to this show claim only seven Seurat paintings exist (though his Wikipedia page shows at least 12) — before his death at 31. Other artists, from Van Gogh to Basquiat, may have died equally young but they produced a lot more works in the time they had! So for me Sunday in the Park with George gave me a greater appreciation of Seurat’s work than I’d had before. Later I ran the tape for Charles, who didn’t like it — this time around he enjoyed it more than he had before, though he still isn’t as impressed by the show as I am.

I think it’s a work of utter magic, and though it won the Pulitzer Prize for drama it was snubbed by the Tony Awards, who gave Best Musical that year to La Cage aux Folles (obviously influenced by the social daring of doing a musical in which the central characters are a middle-aged Gay couple, though in all other aspects La Cage aux Folles is a depressingly ordinary musical farce with almost none of the depth, richness, artistic quality and insight of Sunday in the Park with George) — and this production enables us to watch this magnificent piece with the actors for whom Sondheim and Lapine created it. Patinkin and Peters are marvelous; yes, there are times (especially during the big duets) during which I found myself wishing to hear what weightier, more operatic voices might do with Sondheim’s songs (which isn’t always how Sondheim himself wants them performed: I remember reading how many singers, including Sarah Vaughan, work their asses off to take the long lines of his best-known song, “Send In the Clowns” from A Little Night Music, without pausing for breath in the middle — only Sondheim said in an interview that since the song is performed in the show by an actress playing an older woman, he expected the singers to pause for breath and didn’t necessarily want the song sung with the superb breath control Sarah Vaughan brought to it even when she was no longer young), but I also love this show and appreciate the honest, natural performing style Patinkin and Peters brought to the leads. Indeed, though the music-to-talk ratio in Sunday in the Park with George is far more skewed to talk over music than the one for Into the Woods, Sunday in the Park with George is considerably better constructed musically, with strains from the various songs used effectively as leitmotifs and the always awkward transitions from speaking to singing handled smoothly (far more so than in Violet, the recent musical I just saw “live,” where the plot was strong and the songs were good but the junctures between them were so crude as to be wince-inducing). One minor quibble: the arrangements of the songs played on stage used only eight musicians, and the orchestrations by Michael Starobin sound a bit thin — especially by comparison with the original-cast album, for which Starobin beefed up his arrangements for more musicians and a bigger “sound” that would work better on records. Sunday in the Park with George — despite that silly title (maybe it would have been taken more seriously if it had had a name like Art Isn’t Easy, a phrase repeated many times in Lapine’s script) — is a masterpiece, an absolutely magical work, and this performance is a document of the original production and is fully worthy of it.