Sunday In the Park With George: An Appreciation

Poster for Sunday In The Park With George Update: The videos linked from this post have been removed from YouTube. (Yay, lawyers! Happy now?) But the original production of Sunday is available on DVD from Netflix and Amazon.

Sunday In The Park With George is a musical play written by Stephen Sondheim (Sweeney Todd) and James Lapine (Into the Woods). It's a largely fictional retelling of the life of French post-Impressionist painter Georges Seurat (1859 - 1891). George is played by Mandy Patinkin. Bernadette Peters plays the other principal character: in Act I, the model Dot, and in Act II, the elderly Marie. Other standout cast members include Brent Spiner, Charles Kimbrough, Barbara Bryne, and Dana Ivey.

(For those of you who saw the word "musical" and felt your stomach turn, let me be the first to say that Sunday is not that kind of musical. No chorus lines, no men in tights, no 'nother op'ning for a-nother show.)

The bulk of the story takes place during 1884-86, the years in which Seurat worked on his masterpiece, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. Seurat's light burned very brightly, but not for long. He created some of the most important works of modern art and died suddenly at the age of 31. La Grande Jatte hangs in the Museum of the Art Institute of Chicago.

I first saw Sunday In The Park With George in 1986, the summer after I finished kindergarten. My Dad and I were vacationing with his parents on the lovely Vancouver Island in British Columbia. One evening in our cabin, Dad and I were watching television when we came across Sunday showing on PBS.

Video removed.

Sunday excerpt via YouTube, about 8 minutes.

I was immediately enraptured by Bernadette Peters "concentrating" out of that heavy dress (a visual metaphor for letting her mind wander). Being five, I didn't sit through much more of the show after that. (I recall we flipped channels between Sunday and Grease.)

When we got home to Albuquerque after our trip, I was so excited to tell my Mom about the lady that thought her way out of her dress. Not only had my clever Mom seen the broadcast, she'd taped it. Over the next ten years I watched that tape so much I nearly wore it out.

Act I of the play takes place during the two years that Seurat spent painting La Grande Jatte. The principal state setting of Act I mirrors the composition of the painting, presenting the story as it unfolds in the mind of the artist. In the opening sequence, scenery slides into place as George sketches their shapes on his pad. (When he says , "Hmm. I hate this tree," one tree is pulled back into the wings. Another character soon wonders where "our tree" has gone.) All of the play's characters, except for the artist, appear in the painting. Their relationships unfold as the painting's composition falls into place. The costumes shimmer with subtle color variations, recalling Seurat's pointillist technique.

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Sunday excerpt, "Color and Light," via YouTube, about 9 minutes.

Act II finds Seurat's great-grandson, also named George (also played by Mandy Patinkin), presenting his own work of art to a contemporary audience. Afterward George takes us through a (stereo-) typical art gallery reception. All the familiar faces are there: the critic, the family members, the fellow and/or rival artists, the collaborators, the museum board member, the guy who doesn't get it, the art administrator and his colleague who comes to court the artist to his next opportunity. Having now seen Sunday as a professional artist, this is the scene that resonates most with me. Just as the George of Act I constructed his painting one dot at a time, the present-day George explains that "The art of making art / is putting it together / bit by bit."

Video removed.

Sunday excerpt, "Putting it Together," via YouTube, about 15 minutes.

A recurring theme in Sunday is the loneliness of an artist's life. Most creative work requires prolonged retreat into one's interior. We see George alienate others, accidentally or intentionally, resulting in isolation. George's art is a break from convention, widening the gap between his community and himself. This separation from others may allow him the objectivity to comment on society through his art, but his solitude is not a happy one. He tells himself, "Connect, George. Connect."

Sunday is available on DVD from Netflix and for purchase from PBS or Amazon.