1-pager: Sunday In the Park With George

A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, by Georges Seurat

After a string of groundbreaking artistic and commercial successes with producer/director Hal Prince, the stinging, embarrassing failure of Merrily We Roll Along (it closed after just 16 performances and terrible reviews) led Sondheim to abandon the commercial mass market and develop new work in the more artistically-oriented and experimental off-Broadway environment. He and poet/playwright James Lapine had been looking for a project to collaborate on, and one day while viewing a print of George Seurat’s A Sunday on La Grande Jatte, they wondered about the everyday people depicted in the painting—a boatman, well-to-do ladies, servants, children, dogs—and whether they could write an interesting musical speculating about who those people were. When Lapine remarked that the most important person was missing—the artist—they knew they had a show. The show was developed and premiered off-Broadway at a small theater called Playwrights Horizons (where Into The Woods would be developed later) and transferred to Broadway before the second act was fully developed. The mass market’s reception to Sunday was mixed to hostile, with plenty of intermission walk-outs and losing the Best Musical Tony award to Jerry Herman’s La Cage aux Folles. But Sunday went on to win the Pulitzer Prize in drama, one of only eight musicals ever to do so (Hamilton is the latest), and remains for many theater cognoscenti the pinnacle of the form. It is probably the least musically accessible of Sondheim’s shows in terms of the style of the music.

Premise and Plot Synopsis

In the rest of this discussion, words “in quotes” are lines of dialogue, and words “in quotes and italicized” are excerpts from lyrics.

Sunday is not plot-driven: little actually happens in the story. Instead, it is an exploration of the personal cost of making art. As Jeanine Tesori has said (composer of Fun Home, Caroline Or Change, and Violet, and an intern at Playwrights Horizons when Sunday was in development), “[it] actually captures what it’s like to have a blank page and then put something down—the rush of it, the burden of it, and what it costs people” to try to get others to see your vision, to watch your personal relationships falter as you slave away over tiny details you’re not sure anyone will notice (“which is, of course, the way that everyone who makes art does it,” according to Sondheim). In short, it shows how challenging it is for artists deeply immersed in their work to connect with other people and things around them.

Sunday is best thought of as a pair of related one-act musicals. The main characters in Act I  are Georges Seurat, the impressionist painter best known for his invention of pointillism; his fictional lover Dot (I’m sure Lapine couldn’t resist the name); and various characters who spend time in the park on Sundays, including Seurat’s mother. (In pointillist painting, specks of solid primary colors are placed next to each other on the canvas. Up close, any part of the painting looks like a random mess of different colored dots; the truecolors and shapes only become apparent when you step back and let your eye do the color mixing.) The main characters in Act II are a young-to-middle-aged modern conceptual artist, George; his elderly grandmother Marie, who is the daughter of Dot; and George’s coterie of collaborators, colleagues, and promoters. Marie claims that Dot was once Seurat’s lover (and therefore George is Seurat’s biological great-grandson) and that Dot was one of the models in the famous painting, a story young George has always been skeptical of. In the rest of this discussion, I will use “Seurat” to refer to Georges Seurat in Act I and “George” to refer to the younger contemporary artist of Act II.

Act I takes place in 1884, with Seurat spendinga series of Sunday afternoons sketching people in a small park on the Parisian island of La Grande Jatte, where the lower classes often came to relax and the upper classes sometimes came to slum with them. The play opens with George sketching Dot in the park, early in the morning to get just the right light. Dot, though highly attracted to Seurat’s creativity and intensity, also wonders why he can’t be more “normal” like the other men she’s dated (Sunday In the Park With George). We learn that Seurat has been struggling to get his painter colleagues to appreciate his work, but whether they are envious of his talent or truly unable to see what Seurat sees, they are dismissive of his new method of painting (No Life). Back in the studio, obsessed with re-creating the park’s color and light on his canvas (Color and Light), he is so immersed in his work that he forgets he had promised to take Dot on a date that night: “I have to finish the hat.” She storms out in anger. Seurat loathes himself for letting this happen, but can’t tear himself away from his work. Dot, even in her anger, realizes that there has always been a part of him that she can’t reach: “George is very special. Maybe I am just not special enough for him.” [Theater aficionados: I’ve always thought that the song “I’m a Part of That” from The Last Five Years* is the emotional direct descendant of this song.]

The following Sunday, Seurat is again in the park sketching ordinary people on their day off (Gossip/The Day Off). While therehe learns that Dot is pregnant with his child, but she is so frustrated at being ignored that she has left him for another lover, Louis the baker. Louis may not have Seurat’s talent, intelligence, passion, or intensity, but he gives Dot the personal warmth she needs: “Louis makes a connection—that’s the thing that you feel” (Everybody Loves Louis). Seurat, devastated, had hoped Dot would be different from other women: “I had thought she understood. They have never understood—and no reason that they should. But if anybody could…” (Finishing the Hat), analogous to how Dot told us in the opening number how she wished Seurat was more like other “normal” men. When Dot comes to the studio later to tell Seurat that she is leaving for America with Louis, Seurat tries in vain to explain that the same things that made her fall in love with him—his intensity, passion, creativity, devotion to his craft—also mean he cannot be the way she wants him to be: “You will not accept who I am. I am what I do.” In his world, the most intimate gift he can give Dot isn’t to take her out on dates, but to incorporate her into his art, the most important and personal thing in his life: “I care about this painting. You will be in this painting.” But it’s too late: Dot realizes that while Seurat is remarkable, she is missing what she needs to feel truly loved and happy (We Do Not Belong Together). On his final visit to the park, George tries to connect with the one remaining person who cares about him, his elderly and faltering mother. She reassures him that the way he sees and reimagines the world in his paintings will make it always look beautiful to her, even though the real world is changing and becoming uglier (Beautiful). Act I culminates in Seurat unveiling his masterpiece to us—the audience, the world—in a moment of theater that never fails to bring me to tears (Sunday).

Act II takes place in the present, starting with a reception in the gallery where Seurat’s famous painting hangs. The characters in the painting open Act II by complaining about how uncomfortable it is to be frozen in this still life under bright lights (It’s Hot Up Here). We then learn that the guest of honor at the reception is middle-aged conceptual artist George, whose latest color-and-light sculpture (Chromolume #7), “inspired by” the famous painting, is being unveiled. George is frustrated that his need to constantly raise money to finance his projects has put him into an artistic rut with nothing new to create (Putting It Together). George’s wheelchair-bound grandmother, Marie, tries to comfort him and reminds him that her mother Dot (George’s great-grandmother) was the secret lover of Georges Seurat and was one of the models for the famous painting, and that therefore George is actually Seurat’s biological great-grandson. Marie’s only proof of these claims is a child’s lesson-book that belonged to her mother Dot and has comments about someone named “George” written in the margins. George has always been skeptical of this story and says those comments could refer to anyone named George. Marie doesn’t understand why George is so resistant to connecting with his family heritage, and encourages him to draw inspiration from the pluckiness of his great-grandmother Dot and how much Seurat must have loved her (Children and Art).

During the reception we learn that George has been invited by the French government to bring the sculpture to France and give a presentation in the actual park on La Grand Jatte. The next scene finds George in that park, which has been turned into an ugly suburban development in modern-day Paris. George’s grandmother Marie has since died, and he misses her, the only real personal connection he had left, just like Act I’s Seurat eventually turned to his mother as the only real personal connection he had left. As George looks through the lesson-book handed down from his great-grandmother (Lesson #8), Dot appears to him, as in a vision, and explains that it was really hard for her (and for great-grandfather Seurat) to make such a large and difficult change they ultimately both knew was necessary. She comforts young George that he needs to believe in himself and not be afraid to take a leap of faith—even if he feels alone and in despair, what he brings with his voice as an artist is what will make something feel new: “Anything you do, let it come from you—Then it will be new. Give us more to see!” (Move On). Newly reassured and inspired, George confronts (in the same vision) the original personages in the park who were part of the original painting, appreciating the bravery of Seurat in doing something new and the bravery of Dot in leaping into an unknown and difficult new life, and comes away with renewed determination to “move on” nourished by these examples, as the curtain falls (Sunday, reprise).

Note: Act I is not intended to be historical. While inspired by the real Seurat and his life, the other characters and events are fictional. Little is known about the real Seurat’s life, but he really did have a mistress who bore him two children, which he tried to hide from his mother; he really did die in his thirties never having sold a painting; and he really did paint at night, possibly to avoid being spied on.

Key Themes

Sunday is widely said to be one the most deeply personal of Sondheim’s musicals, exploring as it does the world of the artist—how lonely it can be professionally, when you can’t get others to see what you see; how lonely it can be personally, when friends mistake your immersive devotion to your craft for a snub against them; how difficult it can be to make a living from it despite both of those obstacles, not because you want to do it, but because you also know you must *do it.

Theme 1: Connect, George, connect.  In Act I, Seurat tries without success to remain connected to his lover Dot, but he knows all too well that whatever excuse he has for being unable to temporarily stop working and pay attention to her, something else will eventually take its place. In the end he knows that’s no way to sustain a relationship with a lover, but he cannot get past the thrill of having created something out of nothing:

Finishing the hat.  — How you have to finish the hat.
How you watch the rest of the world from a window, while you finish the hat…
And when the woman that you wanted goes, you can say to yourself “I gave all I could give.”
But the woman who won’t wait for you knows that however you live, there’s a part of you always standing by—
Mapping out a sky—
Finishing a hat.

Dot also sings to us that unlike Seurat, Louis the baker makes her feel loved (“Louis makes a connection—that’s the thing that you feel”). But also unlike Seurat, Louis never frustrates or surprises her, which also makes life with him unremarkable (“Everybody gets along with him. That’s the trouble—nothing’s wrong with him.”), and maybe that’s just the price of dating someone who is a weird genius (“George is very special. Maybe I am just not special enough for him.”)

Act II’s younger George also has trouble connecting with people. George is skeptical that he could really be the biological great-grandson of Seurat, and is resistant to exploring and embracing that family history. Marie prods George, telling him that his great-grandmother Dot used to say “there are only two worthwhile things to leave behind when you depart this world: children and art.” George never had children with his ex-wife, and he is anxious about his ability to produce inventive and lasting art. By the end of the play, George ultimately is able to connect with and draw renewed inspiration from his family roots—his pioneering artist great-grandfather who had his own vision and never cared what anyone else thought, and his brave great-grandmother who left her lover knowing she needed a change, even if she didn’t know what the right change would be or where it would lead (“I chose, and my world was shaken—so what? The choice may have been mistaken—the choosing was not. You have to move on!”) Both Seurat and George have trouble connecting to people around them. Seurat is so focused on his art that he loses his connection with his lover completely; George is not sure of his art, but ultimately his ability to reconnect with his family is what allows himto move on.

Theme 2: Art isn’t easy. To make a living as an artist, you have to get people to pay for your work. Seurat was unable to get serious recognition in his own time, and died without having ever sold a painting (these aspects of the script are historically accurate). In contrast, young George has become masterful at raising sponsorship for his work (as we observe during the number Putting It Together) but the creative aspect of the art has gotten away from him. Each has swung too far to one extreme, yet both are sympathetic characters we can’t judge too harshly: art isn’t easy when it requires managing these competing demands, and as young George explains, “The art of making art…is putting it together.” And what all artists have in common—their big spiritual payoff—is the thrill of creation:

…There’s a part of you always standing by,
Mapping out a sky,
Finishing a hat.
Starting on a hat.
Finishing a hat.
Look, I made a hat…
…Where there never was a hat.

The last line, when it lands well, summarizes the ultimate achievement of an artist: to have made something where there was nothing before. Indeed, the very first and very last lines of the show, spoken by Seurat and young George respectively, bookend this challenge.

Opening: Seurat (to audience):                 ”White. A blank page or canvas. The challenge: bring order to the whole…”

Closing: George (reading Dot’s diary):  “White. A blank page or canvas. His favorite—so many possibilities.”

Artistic Devices

Use of surrealism.  Lapine’s roots as a poet and experimental playwright come through in some moments in the show that use some surrealism. In the very first scene, when Seurat is sketching the park, at one point he says “I hate this tree.” And just like that, the tree he is sketching disappears from the stage. Soon after, an old woman and her nurse arrive in the park and the woman is puzzled: “Where is that tree??” Similar stagecraft happens while Seurat is arranging the figures in his painting during the Act I finale—a monkey on a leash, who has never been seen on stage, suddenly appears as an element of the final painting. Similarly, at the end of Act II, young George has a “vision” of his long-dead great-grandmother, Dot. They have an extended interaction and even sing a song together. Is this interaction with Dot real, or in George’s mind? Are the disappearing tree and the monkey in Act I real, or only in Seurat’s vision of his painting? In the comic strip Calvin and Hobbes, is Hobbes the stuffed tiger real? When artists look at the world, what they see is real to themwhich may be one reason some artists find it hard to connect with “normal” people. 

Musical pointillism.  The music in Sunday is challenging to perform, and to some extent, to listen to. It is tonal, but not in the solid way “show tunes” usually are. There are dissonances, chord clusters, harmonies that seem marginal. But like a pointillist painting, if you aurally “step back” from the music, it makes sense. It has an internal logic and language of its own, but if your brain tries to “shoehorn” what you’re hearing into the aural mold of strongly tonal music, it will be hard to parse it, just as it’s hard to make sense of a bunch of colored dots next to each other up close. Frank Rich wrote in the original (1984) New York Times review of the show: “Seen from a distance, [Seurat’s] pointillist compositions reveal people and landscapes in natural harmony. Examined up close, the paintings become abstractions revealing the austerity and rigor of the artist’s technique.” The same is true of Sondheim’s music in this show. Just as Seurat might occasionally put a black or white dot next to a colored dot to “darken” or “lighten” the color when blended by the viewer’s eye, Sondheim’s score is littered with accidentals (tones that are a dissonant half-step away from the principal tones of a chord) that “darken” or “lighten” the harmonies they embellish, adding nuance to repeated phrases, conveying subtext, or just subtly lifting and then dropping the mood here and there. Step back and hear the big picture, and don’t let your musical experience be dictated by the traditional things your ear expects to hear next. Don’t expect Irving Berlin or Jerry Herman, and you won’t be disappointed.

Tonal and atonal contrast.  **In a score that has plenty of dissonance and moments of near-atonality, moments that are strongly tonal stand out even more. While the overall score has an undercurrent of angst and ambiguity, the strongly diatonic moments cue us of an outpouring of unambiguous, unadulterated, mainlined emotion*. The first such moment is in Dot’s opening song Sunday In the Park With George, *when in the midst of kvetching about getting up early, wearing an uncomfortable dress, and standing motionless in the hot sun while George sketches her, she also reveals how dazzled she is by his artistic talent in a burst of unashamed diatonic harmony:

 All it has to be is good.
 And George, you’re good—you’re really good.
George’s stroke is tender, George’s touch is pure…

Notice the double entendre in that last line: the attraction of his art clearly spills over into her being attracted to Seurat generally. In contrast, Everybody Loves Louis is a jaunty ditty built around straightforward major chords—except for the part when Dot boasts about her “improved” sex life with Louis:

The bread, George…I mean, the bread, George…
And then in bed, George…I mean, he kneads me…
I mean like dough, George !
Hello, George?!?

Unlike most of the song, which uses straightforward “happy” major harmonies, the above lines sit on the same ambiguous harmonies that underpin the rest of the score. Subtext: despite Dot’s words,  whatever else life (or sex) with Louis may be, it’s hardly a source of powerful emotion.

Another moment comes during George’s Finishing the Hat, when he openly admits to himself (and us) that he will always be pulled in opposite directions trying to make a romantic relationship work while practicing his art:

And when the woman that you wanted goes, you can say to yourself “I gave all I could give.”
But the woman who won’t wait for you knows that however you live, there’s a part of you always standing by—
Mapping out a sky—
Finishing a hat.

In these and a few other moments, the musical sophistication of the rest of the score is temporarily set aside to allow the characters to sing out—in the truest musical theater tradition that when a character is no longer able to express their emotions in spoken dialogue, they turn to song.

And, of course, there is the huge build-up in the Act I finale as the characters all sing together and in harmony (for the first time in the show) about the painting they are about to be in:

People strolling through the trees
Of a small suburban park
On an island in the river…
On an ordinary Sunday.

The harmony under “On an ordinary” uses the clustered chords that have largely defined the score (and are hardly ordinary! Sondheim is a master of subtext) but reaches a triumphant resolution outlined by the forceful fanfare of B to G on the syllables “Sun-day”, an inverted major third, which declares a G major chord unambiguously. In fact, by this point, we know that while perhaps the Sunday park scene and its characters may be”ordinary,” the grueling and tortuous process by which the painting was painstakingly created is anything but. In the final notes of the Finale before the Act I curtain falls, a horn playing in its highest register restates the fanfare of “Sun-day.”

Self-referential. When Seurat’s artistic colleague Jules and his wife are privately mocking Seurat’s paintings, dismissing both his new painting style and his propensity to be all-absorbed by his work, they complain that Seurat’s work exhibits “no life”:

It has no presence, no passion, no life.
It’s neither pastoral nor lyrical—You don’t suppose that it’s satirical?
It’s so mechanical, methodical—It might be in some dreary socialistic periodical…

What’s fairly hilarious is that the music of the song is a parody of the lyrics: it is borderline-atonally structured to a wincing, almost academically dreary degree, a song that feels more constructed according to compositional rules than composed from an inspired melody and harmony. No life, indeed.

A perhaps more obvious self-reference occurs in the song Color and Light, whose main motif not only mimics George’s quick and obsessive repeated stabs of the paintbrush, but also outlines the broader harmony in a way that can’t easily be deduced by looking at the individual notes.

Finally, in both the opening and closing of the show, George murmurs to himself the many different competing elements that must work together to make a great painting: “Design…tension…composition…balance…light…harmony.” The increasingly tense dissonances in the music build up as George works to resolve the tension among those elements, and finally, the music resolves to an unabashed major chord on “harmony”—the correct interplay of elements having been achieved, the artist is finally at peace and satisfied with his work. At the end of Act II, it also marks young George’s renewed faith in his ability to find something new—his insecurity and anxiety have been resolved. To highlight this more subdued kind of “resolution”, the closing fanfare figure on the horn is played an octave down compared to how it closed Act I.