Photo by Jeff Busby
Sunday in the Park with George
Playhouse, Arts Centre Melbourne, until July 27 2013
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Conversation la la la … I reply that I design book covers, so the next question is, How do you think of the idea?
Stephen Sondheim, for the painter Georges Seurat: Order, design, tension, balance, harmony.
I say, Yes I read the book and toy with ideas and colour and type, and walk the dog.
Sondheim/Seurat, painting a hat: Entering the world of the hat,
Reaching through the world of the hat…
How you watch the rest of the world
From a window
While you finish the hat
And sometimes I succumb to saying, I dunno, it just comes…
Sondheim/Seurat: Look, I made a hat…
Where there never was a hat
In Stephen Sondheim’s extraordinarily rich Sunday in the Park with George, he gives Georges Seurat, the Post-Impressionist Pointillist painter, and his great-grandson George a song each about the creation of art. This is easy material for pseud’s corner, infectious with pretension dandruff. Sondheim slips away and does it with effortless obliqueness for Georges, and attacks it with liberating directness for George.
Georges Seurat’s troubles and obsessions, in art as in life, comes to a focus in his struggle to paint one hat in his enormous work, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of la Grand Jatte, but there resides his joy, too. Finishing the Hat is a long lyric but deep and exact:
Mapping out a sky.
What you feel like, planning a sky…
And how you’re always turning back too late
From the grass or the stick
Or the dog or the light…
And when the woman that you wanted goes,
You can say to yourself, “Well, I give what I give.”
But the women who won’t wait for you knows
That, however you live,
There’s a part of you always standing by,
Mapping out the sky,
Finishing a hat…
The melody is melancholy and inward turning. Here is Mandy Patinkin’s famous performance as Georges, singing what is truly an art song, hitting notes of frustration and triumph:
It’s not for nothing that Sondheim titled his annotated volume of lyrics Finishing the Hat and volume two Look, I Made a Hat; it’s personal.
If Finishing the Hat is also a paean to an heroic age of artistic achievement replete with sacrifices (Seurat died at 31, never having sold a painting), for great-grandson George, an American artist, Sondheim provides a song about the tricks and traps of making collaborative art, especially expensive, difficult, experimental art … like, say, a Sondheim musical.
Putting It Together is a set-piece introduced by a smattering of conversational slivers:
I mean, I don’t understand completely / I’m not surprised.
But he combines all these different trends. / I’m not surprised.
You can’t divide art today / Into categories neatly
What matters is the means, not the ends
That is the state of the art, my dear…
This is trenchant commentary — incomprehension, trends, conflation of trends, the means (medium) overwhelming the ends (the artwork) — leading into the acerbic tone of George’s own lines about the business of art:
Art isn’t easy
Even when you’re hot.
Advancing art is easy,
Financing it is not.
A vision’s just a vision
If it’s only in your head.
If no one gets to see it,
It’s as good as dead.
Under all this bubbles an irritable dit-dot musical riff, appropriately like a bit of Philip Glass, very modern in 1984 when this was premiered, an echo from the earlier Georges’ humming (bumbumbum blue blue blue more red more blue). Then Sondheim/George shifts into the nitty gritty, and the melody launches into release:
Bit by bit,
Putting it together…
Piece by piece
Only way to make a work of art.
Every moment makes a contribution,
Every little detail plays a part.
Having just a vision’s no solution,
Everything depends on execution:
Putting it together-
That’s what counts!
There’s a lot more in there:
satire (Link by link / Making the connections… / Drink by drink);
nuance (Art isn’t easy. / Every minor detail / is a major decision):
comedy (So that you can go on exhibit- / So that your work can go on exhibition-).
(And much more goes on in this show, as in the plangent song Children and Art, those being the only worthy legacies. Of course, Sondheim ha sno children and neither did the real Geroges Seurat.)
There are so many interesting strands in these two songs about art and the theme of the artist now and then. If Georges Seurat had to defy the conventions of the day in his art, his great-grandson is suffering from a loss of nerve and imagination, and the criticsm is that he hasn’t done anything innovative for a while. If the old Georges was a lonely hero, the new George is drowning in collaboration. But in the end they both must make the connections — one in dots of paint, the other on the dotted line. Work is what you do for others / Art is what you do for yourself
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Sunday at the Playhouse with George
The Victorian Opera production at the Playhouse is well worth seeing. The Herald Sun was ambivalent, Theatre Press loved it, Time Out was scathing (“The set design by Anna Cordingley is frankly awful,” “[Director Maunder] has turned a fragile and graceful work into something crass and bawdy”), and Arts Hub wrote, “there is not one weak link in this production.”
I think the Herald Sun is misguided and Time Out is just plain, egregiously wrong. Faults this production may have: it is not seamless and the artwork for the Chromolume#7 segment is pretty bad (was that put together by a real artist? See this great Harvard version for comparsion), and Alexander Lewis muffled a couple of the punchlines, eg Where there never was a hat — but we felt we saw a good show that Sondheim would not regret. (Though, I wish they, or Sondheim, could drop the two frivolous profiteroles, The Day Off, the dog song, and It’s Hot Up Here, the painitng characters’ song.)
I had some doubts about the set and costumes but saw their virtues as it went on. The costumes are garish: elements of the painting tranferred to fabric in shades of daffodil to apricot to pomegranate, then pinks into lilac and violets. The set design is simple and clever, see pic above, with dropping panes and sheets of Seurat’s art blown up, which works very well, contra-Time Out. (Constant Gardener, his favourite bit: “The set.”) The staging was a bit rowdy maybe, but then the stage is small.
The leads, Alexander Lewis as Georges and Christina O’Neill as his lover Dot are excellent. O’Neill vamps it up but then transforms into an affecting, yearning presence. Lewis is agonised and self-absorbed as Georges, and then nervy and desperate as George, the former usually scowling, the latter faking his networking smiles. As a bonus, (without the beard) Lewis also looks like a short Hugh Grant with more edge and bones. Nancye Hayes as Georges’ mother hilariously channels Maggie Smith.
The end of Act I when the painting of la Grande Jatte literally comes together with its swelling reprise of the opening number Sunday is very satisfactory and a piece of music and theatre I always find very affecting. I was moved, readers. Try not to sit in the wings as we did, you lose that frontal effect. But the Playhouse is intimate, it will look pretty good from everywhere.
If you can’t make it to the Playhouse watch the classic Broadway version with Patinkin and Bernadette Peters: