Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Sondheim at 75 (Part Five)

This review ran originally in The Metro Herald in June 2002. An earlier review of the same show, which I wrote in 1997, can be found here.

Catharsis in the Park With George
Rick Sincere
Metro Herald Entertainment Editor

Practice makes perfect? Third time’s the charm?

However you put it, with Eric Schaeffer’s third attempt at directing Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s 1984 musical, Sunday in the Park with George, he accomplishes the near-impossible: He has completely re-imagined the play, transforming Sondheim’s most static, most dated—dare I say it?—most sterile musical into an emotionally wrenching masterpiece. Schaeffer has rediscovered the dynamics of what had become a tepid work. It is a stunning achievement.

Forgive me for confessing, but in the past the only musical play ever to move me to tears was The King & I. That last scene, when the King dies and his son takes his place, always opens the waterworks for me, whether in live performance or on film—even listening to the cast recording. That reaction was mawkish sentimentality compared to what happened after Sunday in the Park with George.

Eschewing, as he should, cheap sentiment, Schaeffer renders a true emotional catharsis in the Kennedy Center’s Sunday. I am not much given to hyperbole, but mark this, readers: On Sunday afternoon, June 2, 2002, the Platonic Form of Beauty graced the stage at the Eisenhower Theater. Only by great forbearance did I avoid bawling like a baby in the lobby—the full impact of what I had seen did not hit until after the exit music ended. Even now, some 10 hours later as I write this, temblors shake my body, my hands trembling, and my teeth clattering. Live performance being so ephemeral, I grieve that the Form of Beauty eludes our permanent grasp. But we can witness it, alive but fleeting, in Washington for the next few weeks. (Keep in mind that beauty need not be pretty, nor even pleasant. True beauty transcends the superficial to metamorphose into the sublime. As George sings in “Beautiful,” in Act I: “Pretty isn’t beautiful, Mother,/Pretty is what changes./What the eye arranges/Is what is beautiful.”)

Sunday is a musical play about “the art of making art.” Sondheim denies it, of course, but it is a highly personal and autobiographical work. (Sondheim claims the only autobiographical thing he’s written is the “Opening Doors” sequence in Merrily We Roll Along.)

For those unfamiliar with this Pulitzer Prize-winning play, the first act focuses on French artist Georges Seurat, whose pointillist painting Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grand Jatte hangs in the Art Institute of Chicago. Sunday in the Park with George shows us Seurat’s creative process, his relationships with his lover, Dot, and other people (his mother, fellow artists, Parisians). Act II focuses on Seurat’s fictional great-grandson, George, who uses new technology to create art but, like his ancestor, fails to “connect” . . . with people, with himself.

Both halves of the play also reflect on how the “arts establishment” deals with challenging and original works. Seurat was rejected by the establishment in his short lifetime (he died at age 31) and never sold a painting. Act II’s George has to engage in politics to get the commissions he needs to create his own art, a process he finds undignified at best and slimy at worst.
Seurat was said, by his critics, to be “inaccessible” (the word is in the script) and “cold,” that there was “no life in his art,” charges also leveled against Sondheim, whose intellectually rigorous and challenging music contrasts with the melodism of Richard Rodgers or Jerome Kern, for instance. (Not to denigrate those composers; they are different, not better or worse.)

Sondheim says that of the three elements of music—melody, rhythm, and harmony —it is harmony that defines music for him, with rhythm and melody being secondary. That should come as no surprise, since Sondheim was a mathematical prodigy whose chief avocation even today is puzzles and brain-teasers. Harmony is built with mathematical precision. (By the way, Sondheim says the richest and most inventive harmonics he has encountered are those of George Gershwin and Harold Arlen.) So obsessed was Sondheim with mathematics that, when he entered Williams College, he conscientiously chose to major in music rather than math because, with math, he would be too self-absorbed and lose himself in the subject. (“I chose, and my world was shaken–/So what?,” sings Dot in “Move On”; “The choice may have been mistaken,/The choosing was not.”)

There is also, Sondheim says, a tension between music and lyrics. Poetry (lyrics), he says, “is about concision,” while music is “about explosion.” Fitting words to music is much like creating a crossword puzzle, where each choice impinges on all the others.

These comments were delivered on the Kennedy Center Concert Hall stage on April 28, when Sondheim told interviewer Frank Rich of The New York Times and an appreciative, knowledgeable audience that a major part of his creative process is “getting inside characters” created by his collaborating librettist “like an actor does.” Asserting that he knows the books of his musicals better than the librettist himself, he said, “I really act well when I’m writing”—not so well, apparently, when he’s performing.

Similarly, Act I’s George immerses himself in the models he uses for his painting. He does not hide behind his painting, he says, “I am living in it.” He voices the thoughts of the otherwise mute dogs that he paints.

We know, too, from published biographies (notably Meryle Secrest’s) that, like Sunday’s Seurat, Sondheim had a tense, distant relationship with his mother and difficulty forming other, significant close human bonds until late in life. (Seurat did not have the benefit of living long and prosperously.) The song “Beautiful,” a duet between George and his mother, is as much a statement of personal perpendicularities as it is about disagreement over art, form, and beauty.

What is it that, given this background, makes this particular production of Sunday in the Park with George so spectacularly successful? One element that must be taken into account is director Schaeffer’s earlier career as a graphic artist. He understands what George seeks: order, design, tension, composition, balance, light, harmony. He has himself faced a blank page or canvas and brought it to life.

Schaeffer, with his collaborators, is able to combine all these with movement, words, music, emotion, meaning, costumes, set design, props. There are so many details that deserve attention (and praise) that a review like this cannot do justice to them. The monochromatic design of the “Putting It Together” sequence in Act II is amazing in itself, but just one element that calls out for notice.

The fact is, Eric Schaeffer has completely reexamined the material in Sunday. He has reached down to the foundations, rebuilt the exoskeleton of the play, creating something new yet familiar.

The new can be challenging, it can be tough for audiences. (American theatregoers are unlikely to tear down an auditorium as Parisians did when Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring premiered early in the last century. But they won’t buy tickets for shows they don’t like, either.)

Schaeffer’s direction—assemblage of the various elements of theatrical performance—produces a meditation on how artists try “to get through to something new, something that is mine,” as George says. Work, another character relates, is what you do for others; art is what you do for yourself. “I do not paint for your approval,” George tells the establishment’s Jules.

George is driven by his art, which is also his science. He is excited by his discoveries of how the human eye mixes colors together to produce a new color. That intensity is seen by others as dehumanized eccentricity. Failing at relationships, George creates not love but art. Uncaring for his biological progeny, the product of his loins, he is drawn only to the product of his intellect.

Act II’s song, “Children and Art,” reflects this apparent dichotomy. We only leave behind two things in this world, says Marie (George and Dot’s daughter, George II’s grandmother): children and art. Children or art. All else is barren.

In the end, Act II’s George realizes that connection and creativity are not at odds. He can do both, he can “move on” to create something new and unexpected. What he creates, we do not know.

Philosophy aside, the physical presence of the actors on stage was a major factor in this production’s achievement. Melissa Errico as Dot/Marie and Raúl Esparza as George/George are cast well. Errico is smooth and shimmering, while Esparza distinguishes the two Georges smartly. He adds a youthful spark to the dual role.

Washington audiences will recognize Signature Theatre regulars Donna Migliaccio, Sherri Edelen, Daniel Felton, and Jason Gilbert, among others, in this cast. Accomplished Broadway actors like Cris Groenendaal (who was in Sunday’s original Broadway cast) and Florence Lacey shore up the ensemble as well. As highly competent as their performances are, however—and it is hard to identify any flaws—they are subsidiary to Errico and Esparza, satellites to their sun.

I spent the second act of Sunday in the Park with George with my eyes wide and my mouth agape. I only wish more tickets were available, that more performances would be added to this run, since the Sondheim Celebration is of limited duration, not open-ended like a Broadway show. It is a crime that so few theatre lovers will see this production.

Each show so far—Sweeney Todd, Company, and now Sunday—has been great on its own merits, but successive productions have each been better than the preceding. Where can the Sondheim Celebration go from here? Three more major productions —Passion, Merrily We Roll Along, and A Little Night Music—are planned. What’s in store for us there?

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