Sunday in the Park with James (and Stephen, but Mostly James)

When Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters sang “Move On” for the very last time, I was in the audience. There were tears on stage, tears in the aisles. It was their last performance in the lead roles of a most unusual Broadway musical, Sunday in the Park with George. The first act of the musical tells the story of impressionist painter George Seurat and the women who figures so prominently in the famous painting, the one with the parasol, walking a pet monkey.

On June 12, 1982, James Lapine met Stephen Sondheim for the first time. By that time, Sondheim’s credits included eleven Broadway shows including Company, Follies, Sweeney Todd, West Side Story, Gypsy, and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Lapine had written and directed two plays and one musical, March of the Falsettos, but it was one of the plays, Twelve Dreams, that Sondheim had seen and liked. At that time, Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along was perceived as a flop, and the Broadway legend was considering a new career, designing videogames. Lapine was a former graphic artist and designer. Instead of following tradition–building a musical from the foundation of a story, a book, a biography–Lapine started with a series of images.

Sondheim: “I thought, this guy is so avant-garde. The way you find a musical idea is, you pick a book up; you read the book; you say, that would make a good musical; you get a producer; he buys it; and then you write it. The idea of coming in with a lot of disparate photographs and showing them on the floor and saying, “Does any of this strike your fancy?”–I thought, I’m the wrong generation for this guy; I’m just the wrong generation. I’m so traditional.”

Over the next few months, Lapine and Sondheim began to meet once a week. Lapine started writing. Sondheim completed the first song (the opening number, if I understand the book correctly.) By the following June, in 1983, there was enough material to run through a first act, at least in a workshop form. Lots of pieces missing, but the structure of the first act was beginning to take shape.

And here, before casting begins, before Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters and the music, design, costume teams arrive on the scene, we ought to pause and take stock.

“Before I read this book, I classified Sunday in the Park with George as one of many wonderful Stephen Sondheim musicals, but that’s a strange way to think about the work. In fact, it was James Lapine who wrote and directed the story, and put it together from scratch. Mostly, the actors hated the process because it took shape in a somewhat disorganized workshop. The production may have been clear, at least in some abstract sense, in Lapine’s head, but it wasn’t at all clear for the actors. “An audience was coming and watching a completely unfinished piece. All kinds of things weren’t written for my character, explained Mandy Patinkin, who played the lead character, George Seurat. And still, the majority of what I had to do was say noting, just draw, sit on the stage, say “I’ve got to finish the hat,” walk to another part of the stage, and say something else. I was in quite a state.”

Certainly, the title and the conception of the show–Putting It All Together–suggests the way that Seurat painted, not with strokes and outlines, but with dots. The dots don’t form a picture until the do. And then, the picture is magnificent.

It’s always interesting to learn about the making of a Broadway show from the individual perspective of those who contributed pieces and parts. For example, Scenic Designer Tony Straiges explains, “We had to figure out the rake of the stage to give the painting a certain perspective in the final tableau. We never did get the rake that would have looked the best because the actors would have gone crazy–it would have been too steep. So , our rake was a half-inch to a foot, an incline that actors could work with.”

Details matter. “Having players with the ability to change instruments within a few bars allows variations of color,” explains orchestrator Michael Starobin. “Because Sondheim stylized the song, ‘Beautiful,’ with a Ravel-like accompaniment, the use of a harp seemed like it might be called for. That was my first time using one, and I learned the often-ignored fact that a harp is not a piano and cannot be scored like one…(We chose to) use a French Horn for brass. Actually two French Horns: a regular F-one and a high-D horn, which, when you press a certain button, gives you high notes. We needed that for the final calls at the end of each act. I earned a reputation for not knowing how to write for French Horn because what I wrote was way out of range of the regular horn and very hard to play…When it worked it was great, but…I held my breath at the end of every show when a sub was on…We choose to use a trumpet in the original cast recording.”

On most shows, professionals do their jobs, solve problems, learn a few things along the way. On this particular show, Lapine was the student who learned the most, in part because he had never done anything remotely like this before, in part because of Sondheim’s stature and his constant need to provide what a partner would reasonably expect, in part because this was a most unusual show because it was based upon images and a light story, and and in part because it was so unusual for Broadway. When everybody behind the scenes learns a lot–saying things like, “I learned more on that show than…”–it’s an indication of something happening that’s outside of the routine.

It’s also an indicator that not everything is going to work. Sunday in the Park with George won a Pulitzer Prize, and it certainly appears on the list of forever favorite Broadway shows for many fans (myself included). But the second act still feels as though it ought to return to Playwrights Horizons for more workshopping. Both Lapine and Sondheim are responsible, of course, as this structure was a decision they made together. Early on, they decided that the second act would look at what happened after the painting, but the choice of situating that concept in the midst of a vaguely satirical view of the contemporary art world seems obvious, too on-the-nose, and ultimately loopy. I shudder when I hear the term “Chromolume Machine,” but I melt when I listen to Mandy and Bernadette sing, “Move On.” I love the opening number of the second act, which begins with the lyric, “It’s hot up here…” and goes on, full-cast, in the painting, where they were when the first act ended, with no place to go.

And so, a suggestion…James Lapine and Stephen Sondheim are still alive and well, still active, still capable. Wouldn’t it be fun–and unique in a way that’s consistent with this show’s history–to go back into writing and workshop, and rebuild the second act? Clearly, just about everyone involved with the show was interested enough to tell their stories to Lapine for this book. And they’ve all endured questions about why the second act plays as it does. Let’s get Bernadette and Mandy and the whole crew together again and make things right.

It’s been long enough. And we don’t have much longer. In the play, the future is 1984. Forty years on, maybe things look different.

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