SONDHEIM AND SEURAT, a tale of two sundays
Saturday, March 18, 2017 8:55 PM
Seurat and Sondheim: Two Sundays, Two Artists
Of these two artists, it was Sondheim who first crossed my path. A musical theatre major at Webster University in his junior year, I was assigned scene study work from Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s Sunday In The Park With George. I was George. I was also twenty-two. My very simplistic relationship with Sondheim’s wildly complex score began here. Wait — I’m selling myself short. It wasn’t that I was simplistic, or that my education was lacking, it’s just that at twenty-two years of age my exposure to musical theatre first hand had been touring companies of “Cats” and “42nd Street.” Don’t get me wrong, both are charming musicals in their own right, but neither are of the pedigree of a work by Sondheim. Shortly thereafter, George Seurat and I crossed paths.
As the university library did not have access to Sondheim’s musical score, several of my classmates ventured up to Chicago that Thanksgiving to make copies of the music we required for our Sunday In The Park scene study work. As Seurat’s most famous work is on permanent display at the Art Institute of Chicago, we also thought it would be a great idea to see “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grand Jatte. So we went to the museum, stood before the painting, then went out drinking. It was Thanksgiving break, I was a junior in college — Seurat’s monumental achievement really had no effect on my twenty-two year old sensibility. And it wouldn’t for another twenty-seven years, when I would return to Webster Conservatory to complete my degree.
Clearly, my relationship with these two profound works of art was naive at best. I would over time grow to love Sondheim’s magnificent score. And it was through countless listenings of the CD time and time again, that I developed an ear, or rather, a penchant for creating lyrics. Now, as an artist, I can’t blame Sunday In The Park With George for the development of my writing talent into the very specific medium of lyricist, but I can blame Stephen Sondheim. From his Sunday score, I found my way to all of Sondheim’s major works and personally? I was growing from a Broadway chorus boy into someone who wanted more than just to learn and perform. What was happening, as I grew, was the development of my desire and natural creative outlet into a different kind of artist. I no longer wanted to tell someone else’s story, I wanted to tell one of my own. I wanted to start creating — choreography, words. It didn’t matter to me, I just wanted to create.
And as I evolved, as a storyteller, my relationship with Sondheim’s Sunday In The Park shifted dramatically as I began to listen to him as an artist telling stories through lyrics. From the brilliant, telling rhyme schemes of “If you want instead when you're dead/Some more public and more permanent expression/Of affection” (Sunday In The Park With George) to the emotionally wrought reveal of:
I had thought you understood.
It's because I understand that I left,
That I am leaving…
Then there's nothing I can say,
Yes. George, there is:
You could tell me not to go.
Say it to me.
Tell me not to go.
Tall me that you're hurt,
Tell me you're relieved,
Tell me that you're bored-
Anything, but don't assume I know.
Tell me what you feel!
What I feel?
You know exactly how I feel.
Why do you insist
You must hear the words,
When you know I cannot give you words?
Not the ones you need.
(Sunday In The Park With George)
By now, I am in my early-30s, toiling over lyrics for musicals yet to be written while struggling with addiction. As an artist, one who has become dependent upon narcotics, one’s own well often dries up, leaving you desirous of artists who inspire you and fill that well — Sondheim was no exception. But still, I have no relation with Seurat or his painting. As my addiction grew, I would turn time and again to musicals for inspiration and for cheer, for fuel and for fire. Other lyricists would seep into my artistic fold, but none nearly as inspiring at Sondheim. I would project myself into his musicals, imagining myself the various sundry characters, belting out his lyrics and melodies as I would drive for miles, sometimes hours in the search for narcotics.
Now, as does happen with time, intentional or not, I grew. My appreciation for the musical matured. And a far deeper understanding of lyric and storytelling evolved. A return to New York, a very lonely and isolating experience when one has not wealth with which to fund their existence, I again relied solely on music to power me through walking the hard-hitting streets of Manhattan trying to figure out just exactly what it is I needed. As a human being, as an artist. Then the choice to return to school was made and suddenly I was looking at art, at theatre, at storytelling, and the musical with a very different eye than the one I had when I first attended Webster University. And my relationship with Seurat’s “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grand Jatte" suddenly became a whole new experience. As did art. And those who create art.
At Webster 2.0, I learned everything in art happens for a reason. Every artist has a choice, and every artist puts their choices into the medium of their choosing because that is what art is. As a painter, you brushstroke a certain way to achieve a desired effect. As an actor, you inflect your voice to reflect a specific emotion. As a filmmaker, you choose that image because that image says something. It isn’t just King King on a skyscraper, it’s King Kong on the Empire State Building. And it isn’t just that, it’s King Kong at the very tippy top of the Empire State Building — there’s nowhere to go, he can’t get any higher. He can only go down from there because to stay there would be certain death, he can’t survive up there. There’s a reason why the filmmaker chose that image and it’s iconic. It is with this newfound eye (thanks, Webster!) that I can now see art as it is meant to be — which requires two very specific understandings. Who the artist is, and why they chose what they chose. Which finally brings me, late-40s, to Seurat and his most famous painting, “A Sunday on the Island of La Grand Jatte.”
Painted upon a large canvas (7’x10’) and completed over a two-over time period, this remarkable achievement in artistry is many things. First and foremost, it is a stunning technical achievement in pointilism. Inspired by optical effects and perception, Seurat adapted Michael Eugène Chevreul’s scientific research on the theories of color to his painting. The technique, at the time called divisionism, consists of hundreds upon thousands of individual brushstrokes, or dots of color, that when unified optically in the human eye were perceived as a single shade or hue. Seurat believed this form of painting would make the colors more brilliant and powerful than standard brushstrokes (Wikipedia contributors). Seurat’s masterpiece is also a breath-taking model of forced perspective. Looking at it, the Island seemingly extends hundreds, even thousands, of feet from where the viewer stands. But at the same time, there is an undeniable flatness to the human beings in the painting. To put it quite bluntly, the painting has depth, the subjects do not. Which brings me to Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s Pulitzer Prize winning musical Sunday In The Park With George which strives, with great success, at giving these flattened individuals life. Sondheim even goes so far as to comment on their flatness, referring to one of the Two Soldiers just off center left in the painting as “The one on the right’s an awful bore” (Sunday In The Park With George). Which brings me to a theoretical perspective about Sondheim and Lapine’s creative exploration of Seraut and his world I could only possibly arrive at today, as opposed to, you know, thirty years ago. And now that I think about it, putting these ideas into this paper, it seems so obvious to me that while Sondheim and Lapine’s stunning achievement in musical theatre composition seeks to accomplish many things, it does set out to answer one singular question — do we ignore the muse or do we feed it? Only Sondheim and Lapine would risk such heady contemplation.
The musical opens with Seurat, who pitches us, his all-too-willing audience, the basic challenge of what it is to create art — “To bring order to the whole”. He then ushers onto the stage, and into his painting, a woman. In a dress. Posing for a picture being painted by Seurat, who sketches her just on the other side of the stage. Her name is Dot, she is the Muse. The painter is Seurat — and he is ignoring her. He is ignoring her, and her needs, for the sake of his art. In the painting, this character Dot becomes “Woman with Monkey and Parasol,” painting right, in the foreground. She has a parasol in one hand, a monkey on a leash in the other. Let’s consider her for a moment and the implications of Seurat’s choices.
Remember, Seurat is the artist, the painter. As Lapine so humorously reminds us, he, the Artist, controls everything you see, so why a parasol and a monkey, I wonder. When there are so many millions of choices Seurat could have adorned his muse with, why those two? Deconstructing these choices, the parasol represents protection from the harshest of elements, the sun, while the monkey represents something unruly, something wild — and she has it on a leash. Let’s also consider her immediate vicinity. The same arm, her right, which holds the parasol, also holds the arm of a man. Much like the parasol, the man, too, protects. Is Seurat saying that A Man is the proper, aka right, choice for a woman in 1860s France? If that is the case, then what is her other option, what does she have “on the other hand?” A monkey. On a leash. And just ahead of that monkey, another animal — a dog. As this is the strongest, most large image on the canvas, is this Seurat’s big statement? That the choice all women wrestle with is this — do I cling to the security of a man, a husband, or do I explore the wilder side of my existence, choosing to run with animals (a metaphor for sexuality) but one that must be contained, or kept on a leash, if she is to maintain appearances? I grant you, this is a heady conceit, but as an artist, now nearing fifty, an artist who understands two very specific ideas about art 1) everything is a choice, and 2) everything has some sort of symbolic meaning, I feel what I offer up as interpretation is valid. Just as valid as any other viewers’ perception and experience with a work of art. That said…
If this is the conundrum Woman faces, security or sexuality, then we must look at the narrative created by Lapine/Sondheim between George and Dot — do we feed the muse or don’t we? Time and again, George refuses to meet Dot’s needs. Dot’s very first lyric deftly defines her place with George, and his placement of Dot. She moans, “George, why is it you always get to sit in the shade? While I have to stand in the sun? Hello, George! There is someone in this dress” (Sunday In The Park With George ). He ignores her. Act One, Scene Three. George, after promising to take Dot to the Follies, refuses to do so, again ignoring her request. Even in Lapine’s staging, when George runs into Dot and the New Man on Her Arm, Louie, George turns and runs in another direction, again ignoring her needs, or even to acknowledge her needs. This woman needs to be loved and George refuses to even give her that: “There's nothing to say. I cannot be what you want” (Sunday In The Park With George). She goes, he is alone. With his painting but without his muse.
What then ensues is an argument between George and George’s Mother about change. In art, in perspective, old school versus new school, to Eiffel or not to Eiffel. For George, an artist who only sees his vision and not those who love him, or how his lack of affection affects those within his field of vision, he is unable to, as Lapine's staging tells us, truly organize, wth ease, the chaos that is humanity. As the curtain falls, we are left with the final image of act one —Seurat’s painting. Isolated and alone. On a museum wall in Chicago.
But Lapine/Sondheim’s meditation on art, it’s inception and legacy, is far from over. Whereas Seurat’s painting ends, on a wall in a museum in Chicago, our relationship with that painting continues. And it will continue for as long as long as it hangs on that wall in a museum in Chicago. It will continue to inspire, it will continue to confound. It will be what it is and it will become what we want it to be. When act two opens, it is a hundred years later. And although forever preserved in a white frame on a wall in a museum in Chicago, the subjects of Seurat’s painting are also too preserved. And like the humans Lapine/Sondheim imagined from Seurat’s choices as a painter, the characters onstage tell a different story of what it is to be forever on display. They have no choice, no voice. No opinion on how they are remembered, no thoughts on anything other than they’d rather be somewhere else. They’re only in one of the greatest works of art ever to be painted — sheesh! It’s alarming, really, the narcissism and ego Lapine/Sondheim choose to reveal about human beings, which brings us smoothly into act two, scene two — a deliciously satirist take on those who do and those who don’t. Those in power, and those at their mercy.
My personal relationship with this musical takes on a different spin at this point. Initially I, a former dancer who’s been involved with many an artist, identify with Dot in the first act. But as I’ve grown into a writer and choreographer, that newer, older self now identifies with George’s great-grandson — the ever stereotypical artist struggling not only for funding, but for recognition as well. As Sunday In The Park dives into it’s second act, Lapine/Sondheim do something so brilliant, I must declare their stroke of genius. The ego so boldly announcing itself in “It’s Hot Up Here” must suddenly sublimate itself if George’s great-grandson is to succeed. In the juxtaposition of these two sequences — “It’s Hot Up Here” and “Putting It Together,” Lapine/Sondheim posit a much bigger question… Why do we allow the subjects of art incredible leniency with ego but don’t forgive ego in the artist? Unfortunately, Lapine/Sondheim do not answer that question, but instead give us the politics of contemporary art:
Link by link,
Making the connections...
Drink by drink
Fixing and perfecting the design.
Adding just a dab of politician
Lining up the funds but in addition
Lining up a prominent commission,
Otherwise your perfect composition
Isn't going to get much exhibition.
Art isn't easy.
Every minor detail
Is a major decision,
Have to keep things in scale,
Have to hold to your vision-
Every time I start to feel defensive,
I remember lasers are expensive.
What's a little cocktail conversation
If it gets the funds for your foundation,
Leading to a prominent commission,
And an exhibition in addition?
(Sunday In The Park With George)
Which brings us around to the musical’s original question — to feed the muse or not to feed the muse? George’s great-grandson, who has no muse, stuck on Chromosome #7. George Seurat, shortly after his muse leaves, takes ill and dies. Struggling with the politics of art and his patience as an artist, George’s great-grandson is unable grasp what his own grandmother is trying to tell him: without the muse, where are we to find inspiration?
Did I ever tell you who that was?
That is your mother.
That is correct!
Isn't she beautiful?
There she is, there she is,
There she is, there she is —
Mama is everywhere.
He must have loved her so much.
(Sunday In The Park With George)
No one knows this better than me, who, after my last impassioned love, wrote several hundred Shakespearean sonnets. That love was my muse, and he propelled me to create so much beauty. I may never have that again, but I had it once — and that’s all that matters. This is something George’s great-grandson just doesn’t grasp until he comes face to face with the muse herself.
The final scene of Sondheim and Lapine’s epic musical occurs on the Island of La Grand Jatte, where George’s great-grandson meets, through the beauty of theatre, his great-grandmother, Dot, and rediscovers what the true Artist’s journey is — to capture life as it is. To find inspiration where you live and to see beauty where others might not. What George’s great-grandson learns, and we, the audience, as well, is that art isn’t in the beauty of the subject, but rather in the abstraction of the artist’s interpretation of the subject. George’s great-grandson reads from a book, the one his grandmother claimed belonged to Dot, Seurat’s own words…
“Order. Design. Tension. Composition. Balance. Light.”
Dot, I cannot read this word.
If I could pare down art to one word, it would be this — interpretation.
One last thing. As art is ever evolving, relationships with works always changing, and one piece illuminates another, my final, interpretive observation about Seurat’s A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grand Jatte just occurred to me, thanks to Sunday In The Park With George. Clearly the focus of Seurat’s painting, “Woman with Monkey and Parasol” has no feet. Of course, it could easily be said her feet are hidden by her dress. But the laws of physics and light paint a different picture altogether. The way the dress is drawn, how the shadow of the dress forms on the grass — we should see her feet. Especially in light of how Seurat has placed the monkey at the hem of the dress — we can see his feet, why can’t we see hers? Perhaps Seurat’s true intention is that this woman, this strict and austere figure caught between security and sexuality, isn’t grounded in reality. Her feet aren’t on the ground and therefore, her choice between sexuality and security is a misconception. Maybe she can have security and sexuality? All in the same moment.