Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Garden of the Musical Theater: 'Sunday in the Park' with Sondheim

            There is so much life in the essentially melancholy story line of Sondheim's musical "Sunday in the Park with George." Including, perhaps, a story of noble dedication and sacrifice. Or, perhaps, of the costs of such sacrifices.
            Simply hearing a few phrases from "Maria" or "Some Day" can make you want to cry if you know "West Side Story." The theme from the Franco Zeffirelli film version of "Romeo and Juliet" produces a similar emotion in me. Musical moments from "Carousel" or and from the heart-break songs in "Les Miserables" have the same effect on those of us who love those shows.
            I  don't have a simple word for the emotion produced by the recurring theme in "Sunday in the Park with George," with music and lyrics both by Stephen Sondheim, likely to prove one of enduring works for musical theater from recent decades. Last weekend we saw the current production by the Huntington Theatre Company.
            How do you create a musical about a painting?
            The painting by George Seurat (known to art history as a "pointillist") bears the original title "Un dimanche apres-midi a I'lle de la Grande Jatte." It depicts an "ordinary Sunday" in a Parisian "suburban park." Sunday was the single day off in the miserable Victorian work week of the latter 19th century, but the range of leisure time diversions by today's standards was not wide. So people go to the park, and once there they complain how hot it is.
            The painting stands out even in the incredibly prolific era of 19th century French art as a masterpiece. It is filled with people and also with impersonality. It offers a point of view on both the richness and the constraint of the life we urban dwellers live: an unremarkable moment in the inner life of a socially respectable people spent in a public space. This is my understanding, at least, of the point Sondheim is making in a quoted remark in the Huntington Theatre's program (written by Charles Haugland): "... you start speculating on why none of them are looking at each other..." Contemporary subway trains can be just like that. Every elevator ride as well.
            The painting is a big canvas. Seurat employed the technique, largely of his own invention, of creating figures and backgrounds out of tiny dabs of unmixed color. Beside a yellow dab, he places a yellow-orange one. The idea, Sondheim states, is to let the eye mix the colors.  
            Sondheim's comments do not explain why he chose the painting as the theme, and setting, of his musical play. (I'm not sure such choices are explicable.) He credits the writer of the play's 'book' (storyline), Jim Lapine, with this 'key observation' on the painting:
            "Of course the main character's missing...The artist."
            Who is 'George' in this musical play? He's the creator who refuses to "engage," as we say today, with the scene that he is recording.
            He is polite, but always to the point. The point is how to stand or sit. To hold the neck up. To turn the head one way or another.
            The plot offered us in 'Sunday's' first act, the act that matters, is minimalist. In other works Sondheim has characters major and minor running around, hiding from each other, concealing stuff, revealing secrets at key moments. Here we have George, whose major song sums up the meaning of his life, his character this way: "I made a hat today."
            It's brilliant. He is his work. By telling himself to finish the hat -- all those little, perfectly executed dabs -- he has been true to himself, but not to his lover, his model, whom he has failed to take to the Follies that evening. "We will go to the Follies tonight," he tells her in a rare personal comment. But they don't.
            Theirs is the sort of affair in which one person does all the talking, and wonders alound what the other person is thinking. Does he care? George is a person whom others talk to, and some seek to define, but who resists all attempts to define him by the simple expedient of addressing only the needs of his art. His lover is having his child, but the artist doesn't claim the child -- or her. He allows her to marry a baker instead.
            Sondheim explains the ways his musical composition mirrors Seurat's pointillist technique of using pure colors and letting the eyes mix colors close to one another on the color wheel. The composer takes a similar approach by alternating major and minor keys: "If you listen to the alternation ... the alternation between a major third and minor third, if you justapose them, is exactly like juxtaposing yellow with yellow-orange or red with red-orange. "
            It's a way to evoke emotion in the listener, Sondheim says. "The ear blends them," he states. "That little major/minor alternation... the ear blends those two things and it comes to this unsettled, but very poignant chord."
            Poignant it is. I can't think of any better word to describe the way the music affects you, and stays with you. And of course, it also works because he matches the lyrics so perfectly to the emotional space created by those alternations.
            The result is deeply, enduringly melancholy -- a word that includes beauty in its cluster of shaded meanings.
            I can't say much for the second act of the show, which jumps a century ahead to our own time and is said by Sondheim to mirror the structure of the first half, both musically and narratively. This may be so, but compared to the first act, the second feels forced and cliched. The narrative is predictable and the characters trite. And there's no George, no model-mistress, no painting, and the park is nothing like what it once was.
            Even without these narrative strengths, the music remains as affecting as it is in the play's brilliant first half. By the end all I'm doing is listening to those "little" alternations. They're all I know, and all I need to know.
            The Huntington Theater Company production continues through Oct. 16.
            Here's the link to the theater's site: