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an analysis by Scott Miller

            Sunday in the Park with George sits precariously on the edge between traditional plot-driven musicals and the concept musicals developed mostly by Stephen Sondheim and director Hal Prince. Like concept musicals, Sunday explores an idea more than telling a story, and yet it does still tell a story. The difference is that the exposition and conflicts are established in the 1880s but the resolution comes a hundred years later to a protagonist who is a different man and yet the same.

            The central action of the story centers on George Seurat (in French, it’s “Georges” but in the play it’s just “George”), a real painter about whom we know very little. The story bookwriter James Lapine has fashioned is almost entirely fictional even though it's based on a real person. Sunday explores the eternal battle between Seurat's work and his life with his mistress Dot. Dot loves him for his talent, and yet it's his painting that keeps them apart. At the end of the first act, Dot leaves for America with another man, leaving George to finish his famous painting, Un dimanche après-midi à l'Ile de la grande jatte (which translates as “a Sunday afternoon on the island of La Grande Jatte,” which is literally “Big Bowl Island”). In Act II, Seurat's great-grandson, also named George, is in the midst of a personal and artistic crisis of his own, facing the same issues as his ancestor. By the end of the show Dot returns, and she and George (the 20th century George) reunite. Their musical argument from Act I (in 1886), “We Do Not Belong Together,” returns at the end of Act II (in 1984) as the inspiring “Move On.” There are two Georges and yet they are the same George. As an illustration of this, Dot sings in Act I (in another context):

                        And there are Louis's

                        And there are Georges --

                        Well, Louis's

                        And George.

Though most of us are not one of a kind, George is; so much so, that even when there are two of them, separated by a hundred years, they are really the same man.

            James Lapine and Stephen Sondheim discussed at great length the idea of turning Georges Seurat's famous painting into a musical. But they couldn't figure out how to approach this musical they wanted to write. Lapine wondered why no one in the painting is looking at anyone else. He also noticed that the central character is missing: the painter. Those two observations were enough to start the two men writing a musical about the (completely fictional) events leading up to the creation of this painting. But it's about more than just why the people in the painting aren't looking at each other; it's more specifically about why the woman in front is placed so prominently. Sondheim and Lapine's answer was that she was Seurat's mistress, Dot, and the show became about George's struggle (and the struggle of all serious artists) to reconcile his obsessive passion for his art with his often ignored personal life, represented by Dot. (Some people have complained that Dot's name is a heavy-handed, too obvious joke on George's pointillistic painting style, but Sondheim counters that Dot was a common woman's name at that time in Paris. And besides, Seurat's pointillist paintings were mostly done with small brush strokes, not dots of paint as commonly believed.)

            This is a musical with great relevance to our modern world. Though on its surface this show is about an artist trying to find his voice and reconcile his life with his art, it's about much more. As with any great work of theatre, the more particular it gets. the more universal it becomes. It's the shows that try to be universal that fail. This is a show about our epidemic inability to sustain relationships, as evidenced by a 50% divorce rate and skyrocketing domestic violence. This is a show about juggling a career with a relationship, an issue that speaks strongly to women at the end of the 20th century. It's about art and commerce, an issue that has become a political firestorm as Congress works to eliminate funding for the arts, as corporate arts funding dwindles, as computers make it cheaper to replace musicians and other artists with software.

Que Seurat Seurat

            Sunday in the Park with George does on stage what Seurat's painting does on canvas -- catch people in the midst of living their lives, but in a formal, un-naturalistic style. The musical just sits back and watches people come and go, being lazy or combative, happy or otherwise, and because we only get snippets of most of these characters' lives, we don't get resolution to their many problems. Like the hundreds of people we each encounter every day without really knowing them, most of the characters in the show just pass through this park, but in this case they are frozen there for all time, caught not all at one moment but at many moments at once.

            Some critics of the show complain that all the characters other than George and Dot are treated as two-dimensional objects, stereotypes with no real inner life. What these critics fail to understand is that this is done intentionally and, in fact, is one of the points of the show. We see all the other people as two-dimensional because that's how George sees them. He can't understand the people and world around him; he can't connect with anyone because he doesn't take the time to know them. Dot is the one person he does actually expend some effort in trying to understand (although it takes 100 years and four generations for him to do it). These critics see only the surface of the show, seeing it as only about the passion and pain of being an artist, but that's not what the show is about. That's been done, to the point of being nothing more than a cliché, and Sondheim and James Lapine deserve more credit. Sunday is about something much more complex, much deeper, about how isolated the artist feels, how difficult it is to be faithful to his work and live fully in the real world, interacting with those around him. It's about the conflict between being an observer (which the artist must be) and an active participant, about the conflict between paying attention to those around you who need attention, and paying attention to the work which literally defines your life. In some ways, George’s conflict is similar to Robert's conflict in Company (though for different underlying reasons). It's important to remember that George is the only character in Act I who is not in the painting; everyone else is just a figure to be drawn. George gets to know them only enough to create the tension and drama he needs. And Lapine had done the same.

            One of the interesting things about the show is the fact that the two acts are set a hundred years apart and yet are intimately related. One of the devices to help the two acts connect is the use of the same group of actors in both acts, all playing different though sometimes parallel roles. The actor playing Seurat also plays the modern George. The actor playing Dot also plays her daughter Marie, who is the modern George's grandmother. The actor playing Seurat's mother later plays an art critic and friend of the modern George (anyone looking for a connection between being a mother and being a critic hasn't had a mother). Jules, the more conventional, commercially successful painter and colleague of Seurat later becomes the director of the modern day museum, in both cases walking the tightrope between making art and making a living (as evidenced by the museum director's comic monologue about selling the air rights over the museum for condominiums). The actor playing the sweet but bland Louis the baker in Act I becomes the bland boyfriend of a rich arts patron in Act II. The crass, uncultured American couple in Act I becomes a crass but rich arts patron and a museum publicist in Act II. Interestingly, some of the connections were different in the first workshop production of the show. For instance, George's mother later became a rich arts patron and Jules' wife (who didn’t really understand very much about art) became the critic. It's also interesting to note that the character pairing from the Broadway production was not recreated exactly in London.

Act II Trouble

            When Sunday opened in New York (and still today as it's done around the world), critics complain that Act I is complete in and of itself, and that Act II is unnecessary. Clearly this is not true; there is no resolution of the central conflict in the first act -- the inability of George to grow as a person and to connect to other people. The Act I George has a clear vision of his art, but not his life; the Act II George has lost the vision for his art, and only by returning to the art of his ancestor (the painting and then the site of the painting) does he find the answers. A protagonist in a narrative has to learn something, and the Act II George learns both how to connect to others and how to move forward in his art. He learns to recapture his artistic vision from his great-grandfather through Dot; and he learns for both himself and for his great-grandfather how to connect to others in his personal life. He finally connects to the Act I George's lover, Dot.

            As with many Sondheim protagonists (Robert in Company, Frank in Merrily We Roll Along, Fosca in Passion), George's great lesson is to connect. He has to learn to find as much in other people as he does in his art. Dot has to learn to connect to George by loving what's good in him and not trying to change him to match her idea of what he should be. But George tries to change Dot, too; he wants her to be the perfect model and a literate and educated mistress. Though she tries desperately to be these things for him, he doesn't notice her efforts, only the fact that she falls short. By the end of the show, George finally sees that Dot has something to teach him as well. And Dot has finally come to an understanding of George's passion and she sees how she can help and guide him. Finally the lyric from Act I, “We do not belong together,” becomes “We have always belonged together” in Act II, as it should be. The love song is finally resolved, after a hundred years and three generations.

            The critics who claim that the first act is a complete play in and of itself, and that Act II is superfluous have missed the point of the show. George has a long journey to make and it can't happen in only one lifetime; it has to be finished by his great-grandson. Therefore, Act II is absolutely necessary in order to resolve those conflicts and get George (although a different George) and Dot back together again. No other musical (or play, to my knowledge) has ever reunited the lovers in quite this strange a fashion, yet it is somehow satisfying for us. If this show is viewed as just an excuse for making a pretty tableau, then Act I is a complete work; if however the show is about the centuries-old battle between life and art, then Act I is only half the picture.

            One of the problems facing the show's creators was how to create a late 20th century equivalent to Seurat's ground-breaking pointillism. (Seurat also called it “divisionism” because it was a deconstruction of the shapes and colors of traditional painting, just as Sondheim's scores are often deconstructionist, broken down to their most basic components). Eventually, special effects designer Bran Ferren came up with the idea of a laser sculpture, a “chromolume” (literally, “color-light”), a work that incorporates color and light just as Seurat's painting did. This label is related to a term Seurat invented to describe the way the colors in his painting were blended by the eye: “chromo-luminarisme.” The set around the device was entirely white to suggest Seurat's “blank page or canvas.” Ferren actually created new technology to make the chromolume a reality, just as Seurat used science to create a new kind of painting.

Dot by Dot

            Sondheim seems to be fascinated by characters whose emotional growth has been stunted or who are terribly immature when it comes to love -- both Fosca and Giorgio in Passion, Fay in Anyone Can Whistle, Johanna and Anthony in Sweeney Todd, Robert in Company, Hinckley and Fromme in Assassins, Frank in Merrily We Roll Along, most of the characters in A Little Night Music, and others. In Sunday, Dot and George are both emotionally and socially immature (although we have to remember that George is only about 24 years old and we can assume Dot is about the same, even though they're often played by older actors). Dot seeks a thrilling love life rather than a satisfying or solid one. She likes bad boys. She tells George he's fixed and cold, but then admits she likes that in a man. She seeks out men who will treat her badly, then complains when they do. She enters into a relationship with a man obsessed with his work and incapable of expressing his emotion, and then she pouts when he obsesses over his work and can't say he loves her. She lives with a man who never approves of her, yet she judges herself only by George's criteria: her concentration, her reading skills, the shape of her body. She's got some serious self-image issues that she's not addressing. We might well wonder what her relationship with her father was like.

            She only exists in her relationship to George and his art. In the opening song, she says that she finds George physically attractive but the thing she loves most is his painting, his talent. After all, genuine talent can be extremely sexy. But what she loves most is the thing that will forever keep them apart emotionally. She wants to be the center of his universe, yet she can never be because his art will always come before her. She can only come close when she is the subject of his work.

            In fact, we might well wonder if Dot is more in love with George's art than with him. When she fantasizes about being immortalized by an artist, she says “All it has to be is good,” not a loving memorial, just good art. She speaks rapturously about his stroke and his touch, but she's talking about his painting! It's fair to suggest that maybe she's talking about both his art and his sexual prowess, but even then the art is as important as the love, if not more so. George demands that she understand him, his fits, his moods -- his role as misunderstood genius -- but he is not required to understand her at all. And she accepts this arrangement.

            She finally leaves with Louis because he makes an effort to understand her, but he also does not have the talent and passion that she so loves in George. She will give up the thrill of loving George for the safety of loving Louis. She has no choice now; she has a child that needs security more than excitement.

By George

            No matter how much Stephen Sondheim may swear he's not George (the only Sondheim show in which people don't think the protagonist is really Sondheim is Pacific Overtures), it's not hard to see Sondheim's own artistic life mirrored in Seurat's. Like Seurat, Sondheim creates difficult, challenging, sometimes hard to understand art, work that is sometimes not very commercial, work that is sometimes derided even by others in his own field. Like Seurat, Sondheim has people constantly telling him to create something more commercial. Jules is a more sympathetic version of Broadway producer Joe Josephson (“There's not a tune you can hum. You need a tune to go bum bum bum di-dum...”) in Merrily We Roll Along. After Sondheim had lampooned the commercial side of Broadway in Merrily -- and it ran only nine performances -- it's not hard to see his frustration come through in Sunday. This is undoubtedly one of the things that drew Sondheim to this material, but it would probably be going too far to suggest that any of the personal details of Seurat's (fictionalized) life parallel Sondheim's.

            George literally is what he does. He does not exist outside his work. It defines him. He sees everything as his art, as color and light. In the song “Color and Light,” he says to the figures in his painting: “It's getting hot... it's getting orange...” Heat immediately transfers for him into color, into the language of his art. He says “I am not hiding behind my canvas. I am living in it.” How could he have a real life, too? And we have to remember the time in which Seurat lived and worked. Science and technology were moving ahead by leaps and bounds. Wagner was transforming music theatre.

            There was a monologue written for George to go early in Act II, after the eulogies. It was cut from the original production, but it was included in some versions of the published script. In the speech, George talks about lying in bed at night as a child, watching the play of light through his bedroom window, observing the world through its light and shadows that played on his bedroom wall. Just as he would do as an adult, George would “watch the rest of the world through a window.”

Entering the World of the Hat

            So many Sondheim fans see “Finishing the Hat” as a song about the creation of beauty, and about the too often romanticized loneliness of artists. But if you look and listen carefully to the lyrics, it’s doubtful that either of those things is really what this song is about. We're sucked in by the poetic lyrics, the soaring melody, just as George is sucked in by the seductive world of his obsession, but there is more going on here.

            Perhaps the song is really about George justifying his unconscionable behavior toward Dot, by hiding behind the Noble Beauty and Sacrifice of Art. He's telling himself (and us) that it's okay for him to be mean to Dot (and to others) because he has something more important to do than worry about people's feelings. He has art to create; he has to “finish the hat.” And in that light, the song takes on a much darker tint, and also a much clearer purpose in the show. Throughout the song, the title phrase is always part of a larger thought, not standing alone by itself, and we can't ignore the context in which that phrase is used. Sondheim is telling us something very specific here about George, not about art. After all, this is Sunday in the Park with George, not Sunday in the Park with Art.

            At the beginning of the song, George says:

                        Let her look for me -- good.

                        Let her look for me to tell me why she left me --

George really believes that Dot is the one at fault here, not him. The main idea of this song is set up clearly here at the beginning (as it is with most Sondheim songs). This is not a song about art; it's a song about blame. George is deeply hurt, which means that he cares more for Dot than he admits, or the hurt wouldn’t be as deep. George goes on to say that no one can possibly understand the reasons for his behavior. Maybe, he reasons, that's why people always think it's his fault, when he knows it's always someone else's fault.

            The first time we hear the phrase “Finishing the Hat,” it's not the beginning of a thought; it's continuing a thought. George is saying it would be nice if anybody could understand the act of finishing the hat, could understand his compulsion to put his work above all else, “how you have to finish the hat.” In other words, it's not his fault he's inattentive, insulting, thoughtless, rude ‑‑ it's his art's fault, because that's what forces him to be as he is. He justifies the fact that he watches the world rather than participating in it, which by implication justifies the fact that he refuses to play by the rules of the real world. After all, he's not a part of that world, so why should he live by its rules? And yet, we'll see at the end of Act I that he's not a part of the world of his art either; he is outside of it. There is nowhere he belongs.

            George is aware of the real world, but only as “voices that come through the window . . . until they distance and die.” It's interesting that the world of his art is a world of light, but he sees the real world as “the night.” George sees the real world, the people in the real world, as inferior (though we must remember that George's opinions aren’t necessarily Sondheim's opinions). So George refuses to interact with the real world in any meaningful way. He must keep himself at a distance so he can fully observe it. He thinks “It's the only way to see.” The only way to create art, he believes, is to remove himself from the real world ‑‑ and thereby ignore its rules and conventions.

            Late in the lyric, he says:

                        When the woman that you wanted goes,

                        You can say to yourself, “Well, I give what I give.”

In other words, if she can't handle it, that's just tough. She knows George's rules coming in, and if she can't live by them, that's her problem and not George's. It doesn't even occur to him that he should change his behavior. That's not even an option. He knows that anyone who gets close to him figures out the most basic truth about him: no matter what he's doing, there's always a big part of him that is not there, not in the real world, not in the moment, a part of him who's standing back, watching, not interacting, not caring, just observing. And that's his justification for being the way he is. It's not because he's a jerk (he tells us); it's because he's a great artist. He really believes that he must submerge his emotions, he must reject polite society, he must ignore the complaints and needs of those who care about him, because if he gives in, if he allows himself to live in the real world instead of in the world of the hat, he will no longer be a great artist. He thinks his mission as an artist gives him universal absolution. But Dot blows a hole in his arrogance in the song “We Do Not Belong Together.” She says to him, “You have a mission, a mission to see. Now I have one, too, George.” (She's talking about raising a child, another act of creation.) Dot is saying to him that creating art may be important, but other things are important too. (Interestingly, their two missions are what Marie will sing about in Act II -- “Children and Art” -- the only two things worth leaving behind when you die.)

            “Finishing the Hat” is not about the creation of art any more than Fiddler on the Roof is about the Russian Revolution. “Finishing the Hat” merely uses the creation of art as an excuse for George's behavior. His argument is an eloquent one, but it's pure bunk. And perhaps he doesn't even really buy it himself. Yes, some great artists were nasty people, and other great artists were friendly, kind, compassionate people. Creating art is not a legitimate excuse for being a heartless, cruel man. George is asking us to feel sorry for him, poor misunderstood, innocent artist that he is, but his argument is not compelling enough. And perhaps that's Sondheim's greatest achievement with this remarkable song ‑‑ it is beautiful, even a little seductive, but we don't accept George's excuse. If we did, if George himself accepted it, then there would be nothing for him to learn, no reason for him to grow, and no reason for the story to continue. George must know or at least suspect, that it's bunk.

            But could this song just be about art, and not all this other stuff? Well, Sondheim doesn't just stop the story in the middle of a musical for meditations on related topics. Songs like “Finishing the Hat,” “Beautiful,” and “Lesson #8” let us see George trying to figure things out, trying to learn. To ignore that is to ignore the fundamental action and structure of the show, which is, after all, about George and his relationships, not the nature of art..

Apples and Oranges

            Jules and Louis exist as counterparts to George, as yardsticks against which to measure him. Both Jules and George are talented, serious painters, but Jules represents convention (in Act II, as well, in which the same actor plays the museum director) and George represents artistic defiance, aesthetic revolution, and the intellectualization of art. Jules believes that art should be magical somehow, that an artist should be inspired, touched by a muse -- he says in “No Life” that George's “touch is too deliberate.” Jules doesn't like art that has been planned out or constructed. He likes art that is utterly emotional. Jules' art is safe, commercial, palatable, normal. He tries to help George, encouraging him to paint more conventionally, recommending his work for art shows. He likes George, maybe even envies his freedom. He respects George and is happily surprised when George asks for his opinion. George is an artist's Don Quixote; Jules paints pictures that people buy. Maybe Jules is what Dot wishes George would be, an artist who also has a life. But then, he wouldn’t be George.

            Louis and George are paired up as rivals for Dot's affections. Like Jules, Louis is safe and conventional. George is passionate but Louis is dependable. Being with George is like living in a funhouse. Being with Louis is a life with signposts, easily discernible, a life in which one knows exactly what to expect. Dot is bored by Louis, but she can depend on the fact that he'll be there tomorrow.

The Happy Villagers

            In his book, The Dramatists Toolkit, Jeffrey Sweet notes that in almost all musicals the central conflict comes down to whether or not the protagonist, who begins as an outsider, can assimilate into society or a particular social group. Either he assimilates or he must be removed. In Sondheim's Company, Robert stands outside the social norm when it comes to relationships. All his friends are in couples, but he is not. The show can't end until Robert assimilates, deciding he too wants to be in a couple. In Sweeney Todd, Sweeney cannot (or will not) assimilate, so he must die. In The Music Man, Harold Hill learns to accept the ways of River City when he falls in love with Marian, so he can stay.

            In Sunday in the Park with George, the 19th century George does not assimilate. He refuses to follow the agreed upon rules of the society in which he lives, so he must be removed. He dies at age 31. But it’s interesting that the world into which he is expected to assimilate is incomplete. None of the people around him in Act I are fully drawn characters – because we only see them as he sees them, and as he says himself, he doesn’t paint faces. In other words, he’s only interested in their form, not their humanness. Their stories are begun – the affair between Franz and the Nurse, the affair between Jules and Frieda, Yvonne’s suspicions, the Celestes and their soldiers – all interesting, funny stories worth exploring, and yet they are left unfinished, just glimpses, as if we’re just eavesdropping. They are just raw material for George, not people he wants to know, definitely not people he wants to be like. He refuses to connect with these people – his greatest problem -- and so he is removed.

            In Act II, the 20th century George is dealing with a different social group. His conflict is not with society at large but with the artistic community. At the end of Act II, he learns to reclaim his artistic vision and impulse, and he is assimilated back into the art world as the characters from Seurat's painting, representing the world of art, gather around him and welcome him back. In Act I, Dot was a part of regular society (though only tenuously), but George was not. They could not be together. But in Act II, Dot is now a part of the world of art because she is now a figure in the painting. When the modern day George joins that world at last, the two of them can finally be together.

Into the Words

            There are so many textual themes to watch for in the script and lyrics. The most prevalent is the theme of light. George is constantly talking and singing about light. Dot complains about light, about the heat of the sun in the first scene, about the glaring lights in her fantasy about the Follies Bergeres. But George's work (in either century) doesn't exist without light. His medium is a visual one, and vision doesn't work without light.

Making the Connection

            Another theme deals with connecting. Dot says to George in her first song, “Before we get through, I'll get to you, too.” And indeed she will. In her fantasy sequence in her first song, she implies that she wants not just love, but “connection.” The show's climax in Act II is when George and Dot's love song finally blossoms fully. Sondheim says Sunday in the Park With George is a love song developing over two hours. Like many of Sondheim's shows, Sunday is about connecting -- in fact the word “connect” is peppered throughout the score -- and it is only when Dot comes back to George (actually his great-grandson) at the end of the show that he can connect. Sondheim is making a statement about love and about artists building on that which has gone before them. And in a way, he's established that both Georges are, in a way, the same person, the Artist as an icon.

            George cannot connect. Even in his painting, there is not connection. No one is looking at each other. No one even looks at us (or at George as the artist). In the show's first scene when George is painting Dot, we see why this is so. George consciously avoids connecting. He tells Dot, “Look at the water, not at me.” Dot see this as well, as she tells us that if you want to find “connection,” you don't want to be a model (remember, George is the only painter she's ever modeled for).

            At the beginning, George and Dot “do not belong together” as Dot sings in the third scene; they both have a great deal to learn before they will belong together. We see how far away they are from each other when Dot says she wouldn't like being in the Follies (could this be a conscious reference to Sondheim's earlier show?) because of “all that color and light” -- the two things that most ignite George's passion for his art. And in rejecting color and light, she is implicitly rejecting George, who exists only for color and light. Their Act I song “We Do Not Belong Together” will in fact metamorphose into their song of connection in Act II, “Move On.” The last line of “We Do Not Belong Together” is Dot singing “I have to move on.” They both have to, but it will take one hundred years (and three generations) before they have learned enough to come back together.

            The two instrumental chords that begin “Move On” have represented conflict in the relationship between George and Dot (and by extension, between George's art and his life) throughout the show, in “Color and Light,” “Everybody Loves Louis,” “Finishing the Hat,” “We Do Not Belong Together,” and elsewhere. This “conflict” theme also accompanies Dot's wishing her body and her life were different in “Color and Light;” and George wishing the dog was different in “The Day Off.” But whereas Dot can't change her body, George can change the dog. He says to his mother in “Beautiful,” “Watch while I revise the world.” Unfortunately, he can only revise what the world looks like; he can't change what's underneath. It's interesting to note that when George sings, “Pretty is what changes. What the eye arranges is what is beautiful.” -- his belief (and Sondheim's) that art is making order out of chaos -- we hear his humming/painting motif in the orchestra. He is explaining his art to his mother, and the music underscores this by musically connecting us back to the scene in which he's actually painting. But again, he can only make order out of chaos on the surface. It seems that he can never make order out of the chaos of his and Dot's emotions. We hear the humming motif again as he finishes the painting in the Act I finale, his final interaction with Dot (though she will later interact with the other George).

Change

            The main word in the duet between George and his mother (“Beautiful”) is “changing,” another of the major themes of the show. In the context of the song, they're talking about trees being cut down (interestingly, George has “cut down” his mother's favorite tree earlier in the act by erasing it from his sketch), and about technology taking over, a theme fully realized in the great-grandson George's chromolume light sculpture. But the Act I George sees beauty in change and in the advances of science; one can only assume he would approve of his great-grandson's chromolume.

            Dot is also concerned with change. She's trying to change into what George wants her to be. She's learning to read and write; she's trying to learn to concentrate and be a better model. She's physically changing as she becomes pregnant. And the pregnancy changes her internally as well. She can no longer accept George's lack of commitment to her. Now that she will have a child, she needs stability. So she makes a huge choice: to marry Louis and move to America. As she says in Act II in “Move On,”

                        I chose and my world was shaken --

                        So what?

                        The choice may have been mistaken,

                        The choosing was not.

                        You have to move on.

            She knows at this point that change is essential to insure a future for her and her child. The only way George can make her stay is by changing himself, and he's not capable of doing that. George is unhappy because as he grows as an artist, he's not growing as a person. His inability to grow and change destroys his relationship with Dot. The situation has changed between them and he can't accommodate those changes.

            In the song “Beautiful,” it's interesting that George's mother wants him to “draw it all” to preserve their world before it goes away, because George doesn't draw things as they are -- he can't really preserve anything because he changes things the minute he draws them. To remind us of this, after the line “pretty is what changes,” we hear high up in the accompaniment George's humming theme, the music that accompanies George's painting or drawing. To his mother, changing represents the destruction of things; but to George changing represents the idealization of things. To George, changing is the essence of his art (“If the tail were longer” and “So black to you, perhaps. So red to me.”)

            The George in Act II is unhappy because his work is stagnant; he has lost the ability to change, to grow artistically. Until he learns how, he can't resolve his conflicts. His resolution comes from returning to the island where his great-grandfather began the journey of self-discovery, the attempt to connect. Though Seurat never achieves his goal, his great-grandson does, with a little help from Seurat's own words (as transcribed by Dot in her grammar book) and from the ghost of Dot. Finally George and Dot do connect, across time, through art. We know that George will finally find a way out of his artistic stagnation. He will finally “move on.”

Seeing Green

            Sondheim and Lapine play a lot with the theme of art vs. commerce. George represents art; Jules represents commerce. The musical motif for “Finishing the Hat” represents the creation of art in Act I; the same motif represents the creation of funding in “Putting It Together” in Act II. In fact, the entire song, “Putting It Together” is about the friction between art and commerce. During that sequence, Charles Redman, a museum director, mentions a commission to George and then says, “Hope you don't mind me bringing up business at a social occasion.” Of course, it's not a social occasion; it's a business occasion. Is Redman really not conscious of that? Is he just pretending not to know that? He's only there to scout George, and certainly George can't make another chromolume without another commission. In the original Broadway production, the use of cut-outs made an interesting comment. In Act I, the cutouts are used to create the art, as elements in the painting (trees, the monkey, other people), but in Act II, the cutouts are used to help George raise money.

Kids

            One of the most emotional themes in the show is children. Sondheim has been quoted several times saying the greatest regret of his life is not having children. “Children and Art” is certainly a testament to his strong feelings on this subject. There are so many children and references to children in the show: Dot and George's baby, which forces Dot to choose a dependable life with Louis; Jules and Yvonne's monster child, Louise; the song “Children and Art,” the centerpiece of the second act; the baby in the painting (Marie). In Act I, George tells Dot that he's living in his painting; perhaps he put his child into the painting so that he could be with her. In Act II, Marie laments that fact that the modern day George and his ex-wife Elaine never had children, that the family line will end with George. Of course it won't; their family line continues in Seurat's painting.

THE SCORE

Getting Through to Something New

            This score was ground-breaking (as much of Sondheim's work is) when Sunday in the Park opened in 1984. It was the first minimalist Broadway score, a score based on a very limited amount of thematic musical material, developed and mixed in endless variations. Just as Seurat used only a few colors in endlessly varied combinations to create a full world of color, Sondheim did the same with the score. Just as Seurat used only eleven colors, orchestrator Jonathan Tunick only used eleven instruments in the pit. (And let's not forget that Seurat's eleven colors -- plus white -- correspond in some way to the twelve half-steps in a musical octave.) Also, unlike most Broadway scores, it's packed with leitmotifs, short musical phrases that represent characters or ideas, a device Sondheim would continue to use in Into the Woods and Passion (he had used this device before but not to this extent). Very few of the numbers are easily discernible, traditionally structured songs. Apparently in early drafts for the show, Sondheim wrote that the score should be one long rhapsody, the label he later used to describe Passion.

            Just as the real Seurat was a mysterious loner who did not interact much with those around him, so too the musical Seurat sings mostly in soliloquy. It is rare that George (in either period) sings to another character, and when it does happen, it's because Dot has pushed him so far and the stakes are so high, that he has no choice. Consider the lengthy “Color and Light” sequence (he does sing to the figures in his painting, but that doesn't count), “Finishing the Hat,” “Putting It Together,” and “Lesson #8.” He only sings to others in “We Do Not Belong Together,” “Move On,” and “Beautiful,” and in all three he's only responding to another character who sings the bulk of the song. In contrast, most of Dot's songs are not soliloquies, her first song being the major exception.

Sunday in the Park

            The show opens with a series of musical figures, arpeggiated chords, which will be a prominent leitmotif throughout the show. They represent the creation of art. The stage is completely white and as these chords are played, George enters and the white stage becomes the park, and he brings Dot out. The creation of the famous painting has begun to the sound of these “creation of art” chords. On top of these chords, we hear the first quote of the “Sunday” theme, the melody of the first lines of the Act I finale, “Sunday.” Not only is Sondheim establishing this theme as important, he's also creating a framing device (how appropriate for a musical about a painting) beginning and ending the act with the same music. It's interesting that there is no overture and the first music we hear is not a song.

            The set which is made of portals and cut-outs will eventually become a re-creation of Seurat's famous painting. In the original production, everything on stage (except the actors) is completely flat, like the painting. The use of cut-outs popping up out of the floor, floating in and out of the wings, and flying in from above, is taken directly from the style of the baroque theatre; the difference is the amount of modern technology used to make it happen.

            Dot begins her first song, “Sunday in the Park with George.” The accompaniment figure for this song -- the staccato bass note followed by a dissonant chord -- will be used again later and represents how difficult art can be. It will be used for “It's Hot Up Here” in Act II, among other things. Halfway through the song, Dot goes to George and sings about how much she loves his eyes, his beard, his body, etc. The chords under this section are the “conflict” chords and will be extremely important throughout the score. Dot ends this section by saying that more than anything else she loves George for his art -- something that also cause her tremendous grief and which will destroy their relationship. When she gets to the word “painting,” the music changes to the accompaniment figure we'll hear in “Finishing the Hat,” George's later song about understanding an artist's passion.

            Already, within the first scene, Sondheim has established in our ears the main themes and motifs he'll use for the rest of the score. He's not only let us hear them, he's associated them very closely and clearly with certain ideas, conflicts, and characters. He's also established so many details about the world in which these characters live. The lyric of this first song tells us that Dot models for George a lot (“Why is it you always get to sit in the shade...”) and that she doesn't like it; that George is a frequent topic of gossip, and that Dot is connected to the gossip circuit; that George paints animals as well as people; that George is emotionally distant and obsessed with his art; that Dot and George are sleeping together; that the location of this scene is an island in the middle of a river (the Seine); that a big part of Dot's attraction to George is his art, his talent, but also his physical looks; that Dot has been with other painters; that Dot and George get up very early when they come here to work; that they live in the city; and other more nebulous details about Dot's personality and temperament. That Sondheim manages to work in this much information, gives us some good laughs, sets up both main characters, and then adds to the mix important musical themes is a testament to his genius. There's not another theatre artist alive who could do the same.

Back at the Studio

            There is a brief inset scene in which Jules and his wife Yvonne make fun of one of George's paintings in the song, “No Life.” At this point we find their derision arrogant and annoying. We already like George to an extent, and to see this pompous couple ridiculing his work is hard to take. Jules even compliments Yvonne on her more stinging put-downs: “It might be in some dreary socialistic periodical.” (There's a wonderful moment of self-referral here because it almost seems as if Jules is complimenting her on her clever internal rhyme, even though within the context of the scene the two of them aren't aware they are singing or rhyming. In fact, the word “periodical” creates two rhymes, the first half making an internal rhyme with “dreary,” and the second half making a rhyme with “methodical.” Perhaps Jules is complimenting Sondheim.) What we don't yet know is that they are right about one thing -- George does not have any “life in his life.” We will see as the show progresses that Jules and Yvonne are more right than we'd like them to be.

            They are also correct in their assessment of George's work as more mechanical and methodical than the paintings they're used to; George is consciously employing scientific principles to his work, not relying solely on emotion. His work is not spontaneous, born out of some burst of inspiration; it is carefully planned and plotted, just like Sondheim's theatre scores. In John Russell's book, Seurat, he quotes a friend of Seurat's, the poet Verhaeren, who says that Seurat did not want to be “carried away” by his work, that he was obsessed with always trying something new, something unknown, something unproven, again, much like Sondheim. Who's to say if this is good or bad, but it was certainly a bit radical for 1884. As to Jules and Yvonne's observation that there is no life in George's art, they couldn't be farther off the mark; in fact, George has thrown his entire life into this art.

            After this song, we go for the first time to George's studio as we hear the “Finishing the Hat” accompaniment figure again, the figure that represents George's feeling that others do not understand his work and his passions. This scene will set up the inherent conflicts between George and Dot, both musically and textually, the fact that Dot really can't understand George.

            “Color and Light, Part I” establishes a new motif, the staccato accompaniment figure that accompanies George's brush strokes on his canvas. This is the first time we've seen George paint (he was only sketching before) and this motif is the musical equivalent of George's physical brush stroke which create the pointillistic style he uses in his painting. There are two versions of this, both the single note version and a version which adds chords beneath the single notes. Both will be used again. This scene sets up the very different priorities that George and Dot have, which will eventually destroy their relationship. The song then sets up George's humming motif, which he hums while he paints. This will return in the Act I finale. Halfway through Part I of this song, we hear the “Finishing the Hat” accompaniment figure, as George explains to the people in the painting what he's doing. Even though real people can't understand him, he knows that the people he creates on his canvas will. This accompaniment figure is about people not understanding George; here finally are people who do.

            Just as we heard the “conflict” chords under Dot's description of George's body in the first song, now, in “Color and Light, Part II” they underscore the description of her own body, the conflict between how she perceives her body and how she'd like it to be. Maybe she thinks if she was prettier, George would pay more attention to her. The end of the section of “conflict” chords intensifies the greatest conflict of all: Dot hates too much color and light, and yet color and light is all George lives for. That's why it's the title of this very lengthy musical scene. After the “Follies” interlude, “Color and Light, Part II” continues with these two motivic accompaniment figures alternating.

            “Color and Light, Part III” continues the brush stroke motif and George's humming motif. The lyrics here (“Red, red, red, red, red, red orange...”) are a stream of consciousness verbalization of George's immersion in his color and light as he paints. The line, “yellow comma yellow comma” is interesting because it could be taken two ways. Is George aware of these words he's saying, and is the “comma” actually a grammatical pause, an acknowledgement of his mumbling? Or is the “comma” a reference to the brush strokes, which weren't dots at all but were little curved strokes in the shape of commas? It's interesting to note that he sings “num, num, num” here as he hums, while he rubs his numb wrist. In fact, the lyric to Part III of this song is full of George's subconscious ramblings about the things swimming around in his head: his numb wrist, Dot wanting to go out, Dot getting fat (she's really pregnant but he doesn't know that yet), and other things. Then we hear the “conflict” chords again, but this time interrupted. As Dot sings about why she loves George over the “conflict” chords, George's lines interrupt hers with completely different chords. Finally, George and Dot harmonize for the first time, because they are feeling the same thing for the first time, on the line, “I could look at her/him forever.” Their love, their attraction is the one they share. It is the one time they can sing together in harmony. The “Finishing the Hat” accompaniment returns as Dot realizes that she cannot understand him.

            After “Color and Light, Part III,” the conflict between George's art and life is vividly demonstrated. Though he has promised to take Dot to the Follies Bergeres, his painting comes first. When she reminds him of his promise, he replies that he has to finish the hat. Nothing -- literally nothing -- is more important to him than his painting. And really, Dot is foolish to keep believing it can be otherwise. This is nothing new for her. “Color and Light, Part IV” wraps up with the brush stroke motif as George returns to his painting and the scene ends.

            The first part of Act I has introduced George and Dot and their conflict. Musically, the score has established important themes for George, Dot, and their relationship. The second part of Act I will focus on the other characters in the painting.

A Little Gossip

            The music taking us out of the studio scene is “Finishing the Hat” again, framing this scene as the creation of art chords frame the act. The bulk of the gossip music is full of very dissonant chords, very odd melodic intervals, creating musically the seeming randomness of George's pointillistic style, and the completely unrelated people who will come together in George's great painting. It's interesting to note that the melody for the lines, “Artists are so crazy. Artists are so peculiar,” is almost the same melody as the lines, “That is the state of the art, my friend, that is the state of the art,” in Act II, in the song, “Putting It Together.” (In the later song, the phrase has added a few more notes, but it's still the same basic melody and outline.) In a way, the two statements are the same textually, too; in other words, you have to be nuts to make a career as an artist.

            Back in the park, George gets into an argument with the Boatman, talks to the Celestes, and sees Louis bring pastries to his friends; and we hear the creation of art chords. Why? Because George is watching everyone, getting to know them, getting inside them so that he can bring them to life on his canvas. To make this point more overtly, Part I of “The Day Off” shows us George getting inside the mind of a dog he's drawing. The song starts with the conflict chords as George finds the differences between the reality of the dog and George's ideal of the dog. As George draws his ideal dog, he returns to his humming motif. Now he steps into the dog's head and becomes him. He sings a duet between two dogs, both given voice by George. At first glance, this may seem a bit slapstick for the style of this show, but it's an important moment. George doesn't only understand the people he draws; he understands every thing he draws as well. We get another pointillism joke as George obliges the first dog by adding some pointillistic ants.

            The rest of “The Day Off” lets us get inside the heads of the people who populate George's world, for the most part using musical ideas established by the two dogs. This part of the show establishes the reasons each of these people have for being on this island on this Sunday, also setting up relationships, conflicts, and other information which will make the final tableau make more sense than the audience thought possible. George sings, “Everyone's on display on Sunday,” which will become literally true in Act II when they are all part of the painting, hung in a museum. It's even true here, on another level of reality, since they are all on stage in a musical in front of an audience. Sondheim has also snuck in another pointillism joke when the nurse refers to George's mother as “dotty.”

            Dot sings “Everybody Loves Louis,” built initially on accompaniment figures from “The Day Off.” But when Dot sings of her relationship with Louis, the music returns to the conflict chords that usually describe George and Dot's relationship. These chords return later in the song when Dot compares Louis to George, and the end of that section returns to the “Finishing the Hat” accompaniment. The song, “The One on the Left,” finishes the section built around “The Day Off.”

            Now alone in the park, George sings “Finishing the Hat.” The song starts with lines sung earlier by other characters as George flips through his sketch pad. As he looks through the sketches of the various characters, he gets inside their head and he sings their thoughts at the moment he captured them. Then the conflict chords return as Franz's line, “She looks for me,” becomes George's line. For a moment, he has become one with Franz, finding a commonality between them. Franz was speaking of the Nurse, but George is speaking of Dot. He says he had thought that she had understood, but like other girlfriends, she had not. This is set to the brush stroke accompaniment, illustrating George's art, which is what Dot can't understand. When he gets to the line, “But if anybody could,” the music turns to the main “Finishing the Hat” accompaniment figure, which we've already heard a lot. This is a figure that represents an understanding of George's work, and it underlines George's explanation of why his work has to dominate his life. George's great flaw, which is connected to one of the show's most prevalent musical themes, is that even though he knows why he screws up relationships, he still can't change. Usually, when a character figures out what's wrong, he can fix it. But here, understanding does not mean resolution.

Hard to Say Goodbye

            The third section of Act I beings as we return to the studio, using the main “Sunday in the Park with George” motif in the scene change. This scene introduces “We Do Not Belong Together,” the moment when the conflict comes to a head, the moment when the tension in the relationship reaches critical mass. Something must happen. This is the same music that will be used at the end of the show to accompany the final resolution of this conflict. The scene begins with dialogue, Dot and George arguing, over the conflict chords. When George defends his work, the music changes to the brush stroke figure. The conflict chords return as we see the fact that neither George nor Dot can deliver what the other wants. Dot wants George to talk about his feelings, but he can't (“Why do you insist you must hear the words when you know I cannot give you words?”). This is the meat of the conflict and the music reflects that. The main body of the song starts with a new accompaniment figure.

            Interestingly, this new accompaniment figure is built on the second arpeggiated chord from the beginning of the show, part of the creation of art motif. George and Dot's relationship has been built quite literally -- emotionally and now musically -- on George's work. George uses Dot as his model. Dot is attracted to George because of his painting and his talent. And here, the music that signals the creation of art throughout the show (in the first studio scene, in the act I finale, and elsewhere) becomes the accompaniment to the song that discusses how George's work keeps them apart. This is one of the many conflicts set up but not resolved in Act I. In Act II, this accompaniment will return for “Move On,” a song in which George's work brings him and Dot back together again.

            The problem George and Dot face here is that Dot's priorities have changed since she became pregnant. She can no longer afford to put up with George's crap. She has to think of her child and her child's future now. She sings to George, “You have a mission, a mission to see. Now I have one too, George. And we should have belonged together.” George's mission is to create art. Dot's mission, now, is to build a future for her child. Dot and George should have belonged together because they should have been a family, raising their child together. George can't be part of a family, so Dot must create a new family for herself and her child. There are only two things worth leaving behind when we die, Marie will tell us in Act II: children and art. George will create the art and Dot will raise the child.

            At the end of the song, there is an instrumental section, based on the conflict chords, which leads us back to the park for the last scene in the act. The melody over the chords is from the next song, “Beautiful.” It's interesting that, as George stands alone and abandoned, this snippet of melody in the flute is the music that will lead up to the word, “solitude” in the next scene.

The More Things Change

            Back in the park now, George and his mother have their first real conversation, in the song “Beautiful.” George's mother, alternately senile and lucid throughout the play, worries that the world is changing too quickly, that George must draw it all so that it can be remembered. Perhaps she sees her own mortality in the march of time, and she hopes that she might find some scrap of immortality as a part of George's art (another connection between children and art). The literal source of her worry is the erection of the Eiffel Tower in the distance, a structure many Parisians thought was ugly when it was built, a symbol of the destruction of nature by machines. This provides a wonderful link to Act II, when the other George's art will be made literally with machines. Even here in the 1880s, George is “modernizing” his art with his new scientific approach to painting. George's mother worries that her time -- and she herself -- will be forgotten, but we already know that she was not forgotten. She exists in the painting and here in the musical. Marie will pass on the family history to the modern George, and Sondheim and Lapine will preserve this moment (even though the details may be fictional) for us.

            But the song opens lots of questions. What exactly is the song about? It seems to touch on many things, some easy to discern, others less obvious. Is it about the difference between what things really are (pretty) and how George perceives and idealizes them (beautiful)? Notice the way George and his mother remember the events of his childhood so differently. Is the song more generally about point of view, George's vs. his mother's, nature vs. science, George's vs. Dot's? is it about science in the guise of the Eiffel Tower (and maybe also about George's pointillism) encroaching on nature? Is in fact the Eiffel Tower a symbol of George's new “scientific” approach to painting through his pointillism? He calls the tower a “perfect tree” in the song. (Later in his career, Seurat did a painting of the Eiffel Tower.)

            One passage in particular makes an interesting, if complicated, point. George sings:

                        Pretty isn't beautiful, mother.

                        Pretty is what changes.

                        What the eye arranges

                        Is what is beautiful.

George contrasts “pretty” and “beautiful,” but what is his point? Does he (or Sondheim) think that beautiful is better than pretty in some way? Many artists would argue that pretty is only a surface quality, while beautiful goes much deeper, involving the mind and emotions, perhaps even changing the viewer in some way. Surely “what the eye arranges” refers to his practice of “drawing only what you want to see.” Does it also apply to the idea that the viewer's eye mixes the colors of George's painting, literally arranging small brush strokes of color into recognizable forms and secondary colors? “Pretty,” representing the actual state of things, is changeable. “Beautiful,” representing the ideal state of things does not change. The ideal always remains the same because it is never realized and therefore can't fade or age. George changes what is pretty when he draws it, but once he paints it, it no longer changes. It is frozen in time.

            “Beautiful” is a perfect set-up for the Act I finale, “Sunday,” in which we leave the actual “pretty” park and enter George's “perfect,” idealized park, in which he “arranges” reality, people, and objects into a park the way he sees it. Up until this point, we've seen George's mother as senile, maybe even a bit crazy; and yet she is like George in that she often sees what she wants. Is Sondheim underlining a comparison between these two with this song? In this too brief moment, what can we see about George's relationship with his mother? Does he fail here just as he does with Dot? It seems that despite the way she avoids him earlier in the show, here his mother does acknowledge that his art is important, that it matters in the grand scheme of things, perhaps even that she is proud of him.

            This song obviously has tremendous import. Its position just before the Act I finale gives it great weight. The fact that it's George's only personal moment with his mother in the whole show means that this message is important to George and to Sondheim (whose relationship with his own mother was difficult and painful). There are many rich layers of meaning in this lyric, and perhaps the song will mean different things to different people, depending on whether or not they are artists or know artists, how they view their own landscape and its evolution, whether or not they fear death, what their relationship with their mother is like. More than most of Sondheim's lyrics, this one is closer to pure poetry, full of images, thoughts, philosophy that will fit differently on each person who hears it.

Harmony

            As Jules and Frieda enter, we hear “No Life” in the underscoring, illustrating the fact that while everyone else is living, taking chances, risking what is important to them, George just sits and draws. As much as we hated Jules and Yvonne for their comments when they sang “No Life” early in the show, we see now that they're right. George has forever lost Dot now, as well as his child. Other people are falling in love, having sex, having affairs, and George, by his own admission, can't look up from his sketch pad.

            At the end of the first act, all hell has broken loose. All the conflicts and tensions that have been set up during the act come to a boil, people fighting, yelling, the boatman chasing Louise, and all watched passively by George and his mother. But it's time for George to create art from the chaos of this world. We hear the creation of art motif from the first moments of the show. Everyone on stage freezes. George says “Order,” and everyone turns to him. He in is control now. He will make art of this. As the motif continue, George recites the words that describe the creation of art: order, design, tension, balance, and harmony. As he does, the people in the park, the figures in the painting all go to a place and a pose that they held at some earlier point in the act, the point at which perhaps George first saw them or sketched them. When George finally says the word, “harmony,” the main accompaniment of the song begins, an accompaniment without the dissonance of the other songs. The people stroll through the park, singing. As they move, George directs them, arranges them. By the end of the song, as the melody and harmony build to a thrilling climax, each character finds his place in this space, in this “perfect park” that George has created, and for the first time in the show, they sing together in harmony.

            It's important to note that this is no longer the park in which much of the Act I action has taken place. It is now George's park, the park in his painting which has only a passing connection to the real park. In this “perfect park,” things are no longer as they were; now they are ideal. They are as George wants to see them. Bickering becomes merely visual tension. Attraction becomes balance. Sondheim and Lapine give us several clues that this has happened. This is the first time that George conducts and directs the characters. They no longer have independent minds; they are George's figures. This is the first time they all sing in (more or less) traditional harmony instead of the dissonant cacophony we've heard thus far. The descriptions of the park are of the elements of the painting. The water is no longer part of the Seine; it's now “blue, purple, yellow, red water.” It's triangular. The grass is no longer covering the island; now it's “elliptical.” The shadows no longer fall naturally; now they are “arranged.” We hear George's humming motif, a motif we only hear when he is creating art. Most tellingly, they walk through the shadows, towards trees, “forever” [emphasis added]. This one word clues us in to the fact that this is George's painting, his masterpiece. This Sunday afternoon on the island of La Grande Jatte will not last just one afternoon.

            It will last forever.

            At the very end of the song, after the singing has stopped, we hear the creation of art motif and then the same three chords that opened the song, moving toward each other in great dissonance, until they meet in one final harmonious chord. Over the ringing of the last chord, we hear the two-note “Sunday” motif. The painting is complete. The act is over.

            But it's important to remember that the many conflicts are not resolved. George has created his masterpiece, but he has not learned much yet, and he has not reconciled his real life with his artistic life. Perhaps the lessons he needs to learn can't be learned in just one lifetime. So his story and life, and his need to reunite with Dot, will be carried on in Act II by another George, his great-grandson, who in many ways, is really the same George.

Act II

            Act II opens with the exact same image that closed Act I: the tableau of the painting. No one on stage moves. There is silence. The score says that the audience should feel the tension, waiting for something on stage to happen. But it doesn't. Finally, music starts. It's the accompaniment from the first song, “Sunday in the Park with George.” In Act I, this was a song about how hard it is to pose for a painting. Now, reformed as “It's Hot Up Here,” it's about how hard it is to be in the painting. These people are no longer real people in the park; they are now figures in a painting. In a way, this music has become a theme representing the old saying, “One must suffer for one's art.” The chorus uses new music, but the verses use the same music Dot did in the first song. The lyric goes for every possible laugh, describing in detail how awful it is to be stuck in a painting forever, unable to move, trapped with the same people for eternity. These people no longer live; they only exist as George perceived them, not as they really were. They cannot “run amok,” they cannot make choices, do as they choose anymore. They're stuck there “in this gavotte,” or in other words, in George's pre-arranged, carefully positioned tableau.

            Once again, the show indulges in a “day in the life” perspective, only instead of observing the people whose images end up in a famous painting as we did in Act I, this time we're observing the images themselves. As much as these people hated each other in real life, they hate each other even more now, a hundred years later. Louise wants her glasses that George took from her. The boatman stinks. Jules is flirting with Dot and Yvonne can't do anything about it. People don't think George has captured their best side or that he painted them in proper proportion. And they don't like now being controlled completely by George, their free will forever usurped. Everyone's a critic (and in fact, several of them will be critics in the next scene).

            In fact, the things they're complaining about are precisely the things Seurat was most careful about: light, design, composition, and balance. The tension among these characters is more profound than ever. They say that “the outward show of bliss up here is disappearing dot by dot,” in other words, Seurat's careful creation of tension among the elements in his painting is still going strong. It's here that we may wonder if Seurat really can have both tension and harmony at the same time. But that's exactly where the magic lies. Just as he has taken separate independent colors and put them next to each other for the eye to blend -- “divided, not mixed on the palette, mixed by the eye” -- he has done the same thing with the people. He has taken independent figures, all drawn at different times on different days in different spots, and he has arranged them next to each other on the canvas. They are separate, not interacting, and yet when we step back they do blend, becoming a full, integrated work of art. And Sondheim and Lapine have done the same thing by creating these many disparate characters and then bringing them together this way.

            What's interesting is that though time continues for us, it doesn't for them. They still want the same things they wanted a hundred years ago -- the soldier wants the girls, Jules still wants a romp in the tall grass. They haven't changed because they're stuck in this one moment forever, just as the modern day George is stuck artistically and personally. Their stagnation is like his, but they have an excuse. There's an old drama device playwrights use to maintain dramatic tension in a scene; for each character on stage, they ask why doesn't that character leave, what keeps him there, what does he want? In this case, the answer is a joke: they don't leave because they're stuck in a painting. Time has stopped and yet they have an awareness that time continues outside their world.

            The similarities between the two acts is almost overwhelming. The music in Act II is directly based on the music in the first act, even presented in the same order for the most part. The modern day George's worry that his chromolumes are beginning to be more than “variations on a theme,” that they have become perhaps nothing more than repetition, has a connection to Sondheim's score which includes lots of musical repetition, but only in the interest of minimalist development, and almost never exact repetition. Sondheim is in control of repetition where George is not. And it's this minimalist repetition that helps binds the two acts together, making each one incomplete by itself.

            After the song, the characters come forward one by one and talk about George -- in the past tense. He died at age 31. Up until this moment, we've mostly only seen things through George's eyes. But now we get an interesting view into the opinions of others about George. We find out that Jules did indeed respect him and considered him a friend, that the women found him sexy and mysterious, that they all wanted to be in his painting for their own shot at immortality.

Back to the Future

            The story flashes forward one hundred years to 1984. The scene is the auditorium of the Art institute of Chicago, where the Seurat painting hangs. Seurat's great-grandson, also named George, enters pushing a wheelchair containing Marie, the modern George's grandmother and Seurat's daughter, now 98 years old. The modern day George (from here on out, I'll refer to the Act I George as Seurat) is an inventor/sculptor and we are the audience for his latest work, a light sculpture called Chromolume #7. After a slide show about Seurat and his work, narrated by George and Marie, they turn on the Chromolume, accompanied by a synthesized, sequenced musical score. Hidden inside the fast complicated music are the brush stroke motif, the creation of art motif, and the “Sunday” bugle call motif, all from Act I.

            Midway through the presentation, the chromolume shorts out. George has to explain and apologize while the machine is fixed. He says to us (as we, the audience, play the role of the audience at the museum), “No electricity, no art.” Perhaps Seurat's mother was right; perhaps science and technology are taking over and becoming too important. This sets up for us the notion that the modern day George has lost his way, that he's no longer in control of his art or his artistic vision. While they're trying to fix the chromolume, museum director Bob Greenberg steps forward to entertain the audience. He mentions the fact that the museum has sold its air rights to raise money and that tours are available after the presentation of the new condominiums above them. (We laugh at this monologue, but the Museum of Modern Art in New York actually did this.) This is a great set up for “Putting It Together” and the theme of commerce vs. art.

            The next scene is a reception afterwards in the room where the Seurat painting hangs. This is a musical scene, incorporating singing, spoken dialogue, and underscoring, called “Putting It Together.” Much of this piece consists of cocktail chatter about George and his work (and, just for fun, a number of French words thrown in here and there). Appropriately, it is set to the same music as the gossip scenes from Act I, when the denizens of the park gossiped about Seurat. There's a wonderful connection between the two Georges in this piece, because the melody set to the words, “putting it together” is the same melody (minus one note) that Seurat sings to the words, “finishing the hat.” They share the same creation music; significantly though, the 19th century George is actually creating the art while the 20th century George is working to finance it. Our century, Sondheim seems to say, has corrupted the artist and his art; the creation isn't possible anymore without the schmoozing. And who better would know that than a Broadway composer and lyricist, who has spent a career going through the torture of backer's auditions, New York Times reviews, and other fiscally necessary evils?

            The connection between art and science is presented as both awful and funny, as George's technician tells him he's leaving the art world to go back to NASA, where there's less pressure. We laugh at the unintentionally awkward comments made, at the tensions between certain people or over certain topics, at the degree to which George must schmooze people he obviously can't stand. But even as we laugh, we also understand how difficult it is for George to be not only artist, but also marketing expert, fundraiser, and celebrity. Certainly the modern day George understands how to promote himself and his art better than Seurat did, but the relationship between art and the real world is still an uneasy one.

            George's conversation with art critic Blair Daniels underlines two threads running through the show. First, she says she liked seeing Marie on stage with George at the presentation of the chromolume because it added a necessary humanity that she apparently think has been lacking in his work. Like his great-grandfather, George is accused of creating work that is too cold, too mechanical, devoid of human emotion. The other thread is the acknowledgement of the show's stage tricks. In the original production, there are jokes throughout Act I about the stand-ups that fly in from above, pop up from below, sail in from the sides. Seurat's mother complains of the missing tree that disappeared when George decided he didn't like it there. The soldier talks to a cardboard companion. Here in Act II, George has been making his way through this reception bringing up cut-outs of himself to schmooze with people as he makes his escape. Yet here as he talks to Blair Daniels, he keeps trying to pull a new one up but it never appears. Finally after several tries, he runs into the wings, and returns with a portable cut-out which he slams down in front of Blair. Unlike the rich folks and jealous artists, George can't escape an art critic; she has too much power, too much influence.

            The bugle call motif, the humming motif, and other motifs from Act I show up in the accompaniment. Part XVII of the piece uses an unusual chord we heard earlier in “Finishing the Hat,” just as art critic Blair Daniels finds George. There are seventeen discrete parts to this musical scene, each one a mini-scene of its own, each related musically to the others. The scene is almost a one-act musical.

            After the reception, we hear the relationship/conflict chords as George speaks to his ex-wife Elaine. Marie knows she won't be alive much longer and she has to impart an important lesson to George before she goes, but she doesn't know how to get through to him. When George is left alone with Marie, sitting in front of their family tree on canvas, this seems the right time. She sings “Children and Art.” Aside from another instance of the conflict chords, and an accompaniment figure related to “Finishing the Hat” in the middle, this is all new music. Before the song, Marie says to Blair Daniels that there are only two worthwhile things to leave behind when you die: children and art. The painting is both a family tree and a great work of art. Marie knows that George is the last of their family line; George has inherited his great-grandfather's talent and passion, but he won't be passing those things on. George needs a connection to the past, to those who've gone before him. We all stand on the shoulders of those who've gone before us; but to do that, we have to have some connection to them. If George could learn from the past, he might not be doomed to repeat the difficulties Seurat faced. If each generation is condemned to start from scratch, we'll never get anywhere. At the end of the song, George begins to understand. He says to himself “Connect, George, connect.”

Once On This Island

            A short instrumental reprise of “Children and Art” returns us to the island for the last scene. George is there to present the chromolume in tribute to the island where his grandfather worked, in a kind of collaboration through time, even though that island is forever changed. It is a Sunday afternoon.

            George has come full circle, returning to the exact spot where this musical began, on the island where his great-grandfather, his other self, did his greatest work, and George has with him the red book connecting him to Dot as well. George reads/sings “Lesson #8” from Dot's red grammar book, reading sentences about Marie, the Marie after whom his grandmother was named. He begins for the first time to find a real connection to Seurat, to put himself in Seurat's place. This is the beginning of the most important sequence in the show, the time when George will finally learn what he needs to learn. He speaks of himself/Seurat in the third person, putting himself in Marie's place, objectifying himself, making himself someone who is acted upon instead of someone who acts. He finally realizes that he must connect to his past, to his great-grandfather. But has his metaphorical family tree on this island been cut down? Was his “cutting down” of his mother's tree at the beginning of the show a portent of things to come (even though he did put it back, in the Act I finale), of George's cutting himself off from his family tree in Act II?

            Dot appears, to sing “Move On.” She is the conduit through which the two Georges can connect. She learned so much from Seurat -- some of which she wrote in the red book which the modern day George now holds -- and Dot will now pass on what she learned from the George in 1884 to the George in 1984. Just as in Assassins when Sondheim and John Weidman represented the assassins’ influence on each other by actually physically placing them in each other's presence, here Dot's physical presence represents her influence through the red book. As is already more than evident, this show does not pretend to historical or physical reality; it is about spiritual and emotional reality. What's really happening is that George is reading Seurat's words, written down by Dot, given to Marie, then passed on to George. Here he stands, where his great-grandfather once sketched, and at last he can connect. For dramatic purposes, we actually see Dot on stage, and we hear her sing.

            The modern day George is having an artistic crisis as well as a personal one. Seurat did not have artistic crises. He had an unshakable belief in his work, even when no one else did, a belief in the importance of an artist's vision, in the singular artistic perspective that an artist brings to his work when he perceives the world through the prism of his own personality. When Seurat sang, “There's nothing to say,” it meant that he was unable to verbalize the feelings Dot needed verbalized. Here in Act II, when George sings (to the same music), “I've nothing to say,” he means as an artist. Seurat's main block was personal communication, but George's is artistic communication. Perhaps together, the two Georges almost make one healthy man.

            Dot must instill (or re-instill) Seurat's artistic conviction, the courage to risk, in the modern day George. The music of “Move On” is the same as “We Do Not Belong Together” in Act I, and the two songs even share bits of lyrics. Ironically, though in Act I Dot accuses Seurat -- accompanied by this music -- of not having any feelings, here in Act II, the modern George sees -- in the same music -- the feelings Seuurat had but could not verbalize. When he looks at Dot, he sees “the care and the feeling.” Seurat expressed his love through his work, not through words. But the Act I song doesn't end; the music slowly segues into “Beautiful.” It doesn't end because the problem is left unresolved. But here in Act II, the conflict established in Act I, in 1884, is finally resolved, and here the song can end. The true resolution comes in the wisdom of Seurat now passed on to George through Dot:

                        Anything you do,

                        Let it come from you.

                        Then it will be new.

                        Give us more to see...

Apparently, Dot has gained a great deal of wisdom herself during her hundred years in the next world. She is a confident, intelligent, articulate woman, a woman who has grown emotionally and intellectually since we saw her last. She is now the woman George Seurat wanted. He's dead, but in his place the modern day George can reconcile with Dot. As in most Sondheim shows, these two characters don't get to harmonize musically until they have reconciled. Aside from one moment in “Color and Light” when they sing of their incredible mutual attraction, Dot and George don't harmonize until this song, when they are finally in emotional harmony as well as musical harmony.

            The theme of making a choice, whatever the consequences, is a thread throughout many of Sondheim's musicals. Here in Sunday, Dot sings:

                        I chose and my world was shaken --

                        So what?

                        The choice may have been mistaken,

                        The choosing was not.

We have to make choices without knowing where they may lead, she's telling George. To stand paralyzed at the fork in the road, or to live in regret over the choices you've made, is not to have lived. Yet in Merrily We Roll Along, we watch as Frank makes innocent choice after innocent choice without thinking of the consequences, exactly as Dot suggests, and his life ends up in ruins. In Follies, Ben looks back with barely hidden bitterness over the roads he didn't choose and the life they might have led to. In Company, Robert doesn't want to make any major life decisions without some guarantees as to the outcome; so his life becomes stagnated and empty. The central concept of Into the Woods is making choices and suffering the consequences, both to the chooser and to others. In A Little Night Music, almost every character has made the wrong choice of a mate and are living in relative unhappiness with their choices, and yet here, they all get a second chance.

Connect the Dots

            Finally George recites the magic words, the words Seurat began the show with, the words Dot recorded faithfully in the red book. And as the characters in the painting return, as the painting comes to life in front of George, as they reprise the Act I finale, “Sunday”, he recaptures the beauty of his great-grandfather's work. As implied in the song “Beautiful,” there is a difference between what is pleasant to look at and what stirs the emotions. George is no longer just looking at his great-grandfather's painting; it has come alive for him and, we can assume, so has his artistic vision. We can assume that Dot appears to George now because he now believes for the first time that Marie was right, that the painting is his family tree. When the characters all bow to him, and he to them, we know that he has finally connected to his past, to his family, and to the island. They bow to him on the word “forever,” because that's what art is about, after all, saying something that lasts long after we're gone. Through the painting, Seurat lives “forever,” just as the people in the painting do, and just as the modern day George can if he can find his way artistically again. When the figures in the painting sing of strolling “on an ordinary Sunday,” two things race to mind: that this is certainly no ordinary Sunday, and that perhaps this is an ordinary Sunday and that there is magic even in the most ordinary of times and places, if you only know how to see it.

            But perhaps this is not the real Dot who appears before the 20th century George. Perhaps this is the Dot of the painting, a perfect Dot who lives only in Seurat's “perfect park,” a Dot infused with both Seurat's calm and resolve, his clear understanding of art, his deep love for Dot (as observed by the modern George), and also Dot's rich emotions, her love, her enthusiasm for living and experiencing the world. Certainly her manner is different, her speech more eloquent, and she has an inner peace and wisdom the real Dot never had. All the good things from both Seurat and the real Dot have come together in this Perfect Dot; she is the final consummation of their love. She is a combination of a real person (or two real people) and a work of art; perhaps her name has even foreshadowed this moment for us (which might placate the critics who think her name is too obvious). Like Marie, the Perfect Dot is the product of the coupling of Seurat and the real Dot, and so perhaps she represents Marie, and the passing to George through the family tree the accumulated wisdom of this family. This Perfect Dot is, in a way, acting as a stand-in for Marie, finishing the job Marie began, setting George back on the right track.

            This is certainly not the only reading of this scene, but it's well supported by the text and by the original Broadway performance of the scene (which gives us some strong insight into what the show's creators intended). Remember that at the end of the first act, we've clearly left the real park for the “perfect park,” as evidenced by the song lyric and the choreographed behavior of the characters as conducted by George. Here in Act II, the real park no longer exists the way it once did (it’s been commercially “developed”), so it's safe to assume that when we see the empty park again, the buildings gone, it must be the “perfect park,” and within it, the Perfect Dot, the Dot not only created by Seurat in his painting but also the Dot created by modern day George in his head, knowing only as much as Marie told him (particularly in “Children and Art”) and he observed in the painting. George's image of Dot is the quiet, peaceful woman in the painting, no expression on her face, no conflict, no sorrow, just a woman looking out at the water.

            There is certainly an argument to be made that the real Dot matured -- was forced to mature -- when she moved to a new country and raised a daughter. But a more practical than romantic marriage to Louis and the challenges of adapting to an entirely new country and society probably wouldn't have given her the profound sense of inner peace she has at the end. And she probably hasn't matured while being stuck in the painting, with no outside forces or events acting on her, with nothing at all to effect change in her. And we have to acknowledge that once George finished the painting, there were two Dots ever after: the real Dot who moved to America and raised Marie, and the Perfect Dot who lived on in the painting. This peaceful, wise Dot at the end is not just an older Dot; it's a special Dot, a different but parallel Dot, one created by Seurat, by Marie, and by George.

            Finally, we see that Seurat's magic words, the words Dot transcribed in her book, don't just apply to painting; they also apply to this musical. Order, design, composition, tension, balance, and harmony describe Sondheim's score, Lapine's book, the sets, the special effects, and the lighting. These words also apply to life. George has to learn to infuse his life and his work with a clearer design, with a healthy tension, with a more thoughtful composition, with genuine balance, with light and harmony. Like Sondheim's Company, this show does not spell out for us explicitly what will happen to our protagonist after the curtain goes down. It's enough that we know he understands, that he's made some decisions, that he will move on. George is ready to begin anew. He has returned to the “so many possibilities” of the “blank page or canvas.” Perhaps he will try again with Elaine. Perhaps he'll find someone new and build a life with her. Maybe he'll even have children.

            Or maybe he won’t.

Other Resources

            Vocal selections, the full piano-vocal score, and the script for Sunday in the Park with George have all been published and are easily found. There are 250 numbered, first edition copies of the published script signed by Sondheim and Lapine, and as of this writing, some copies are still available in a New York bookstore called Richard Stoddard Performing Arts Books. These first editions include some material that was later cut from the production and from subsequent printings of the script. A videotape of the original Broadway cast is commercially available as well. The painting is on display at the Art Institute in Chicago and is truly breathtaking to see. Music Theatre International also has a great Teacher Study Guide available.

 

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Excerpt (expanded and revised) from Deconstructing Harold Hill by Scott Miller (Heinemann Publishing, 1999). All rights reserved. Miller is also the author of Strike Up the Band: A New History of Musical Theatre, Rebels with Applause, Let the Sun Shine In: The Genius of HAIR From Assassins to West Side Story, and Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll, and Musicals.