Sunday in the Park with George, by Jewish lyricist-composer Stephen Sondheim and librettist James Lapine, is a portrait of a lonely artist, punctuated with a pointillist score. Were you expecting a cheerier plot perhaps? Or more hummable music? Sondheim, who grew up next door to Oscar Hammerstein II but never believed in his mentor’s vision of a “bright, golden haze on the meadow,” has been trying since at least 1970, with Company, to change the tune, tone, shape and substance of the American musical, as critic Guy Flatley once put it.
Sondheim’s revolution was complete with Sunday, which was snubbed at the 1984 Tony Awards (honored only for best scenic design and lighting), but went on the following year to win the Pulitzer Prize for drama, only one of eight musicals ever to do so. In Sunday, Sondheim’s titular character, the French painter George Seurat, is constructing his pointillist masterpiece, “A Sunday afternoon on the island of la Grand Jatte,” which still hangs today in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. He is “bizarre, fixed, cold,” in his concentration, complains his lover and model, the aptly named Dot, a role Bernadette Peters originated and played here with no less warmth and wit by Brynn O’Malley.
Even as the giant canvass takes shape on stage (thanks to Daniel Conway’s clever staging and Jennifer Schriever’s neo-impressionist, blue-purple-yellow-red lighting design), George and Dot’s relationship is dissolving. “You will live forever in this painting,” he tries to reassure her, but being immortalized in his masterpiece is not the kind of love she needs – earthbound and tangible. After giving birth to his daughter, Marie, Dot marries a local baker and sets sail for America, leaving George alone in his studio to ponder: “How you have to finish the hat/How you watch the rest of the world/From a window/While you finish the hat.”
In a play about disconnection from other human beings in the service of creating art, “Finishing the Hat,” stands out as an intensely personal song, and I cannot help but think of Sondheim himself when I hear it, particularly the verse about “How it feels when voices that come/Through the window, go/Until they distance and die/Until there’s nothing but sky/And how you’re always turning back too late/From the grass or the stick/Or the dog or the light.” Jerry Herman, in his 1984 Tony Award acceptance speech for Cage aux Folles declared that the “simple, hummable tune” was still alive on Broadway, a snipe at Sondheim, who sought in Sunday to give musical theater audiences something more than a comedy of errors, a kick line, a falling chandelier or a jukebox score.
You may not leave Sunday humming or dancing, but its characters – with all their intelligence, humor and pathos – will linger in your mind, and “On an island in the river/On an ordinary Sunday/ Forever.” n Sunday in the Park with George is onstage at the Signature Theatre through Sept. 21, in the MAX Theatre, Shirlington. Tickets start at $40.