A blank screen or an even smaller blank screen.
The challenge: Make sense out of 280 characters.
George Seurat is notable for employing the meticulous painting technique known as pointilism in works such as Bathing at Asnieres. Stephen Sondheim uses successive staccato notes throughout his sweeping and introspective score for Sunday in the Park with George to mimic the motion and impact of George’s brush repeatedly dotting the canvas. Literally and figuratively, these dots make up the bigger picture.
Seurat’s fictional great-grandson, also named George, brings a whole new depth to the color and light that Seurat harnessed when creating. He unveils a spectacular light machine called a chromolume as an extension of Seurat’s work. In his dual roles as the show’s book writer and original director, James Lapine made the subjects of Seurat’s A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of Le Grande Jatte three-dimensional before creating the equally compelling world of young George from scratch.
This show thoughtfully examines the emotional and artistic states of both Georges while redefining what it means to be and be with an artist. Act I focuses on Seurat in the 1880s and the lives of the people in the painting. Act II jumps a century ahead where the young George tries to make his mark in the modern art world.
I always wondered what kind of art the next Seurat descendant would be making in the present. Would he be a social media influencer courting followers with pithy tweets? Would he only understand pointilism if it was simulated by a Snapchat filter? Would this person identify or present as male?
Anything is possible for a potential third act of Sunday in the Park with George especially considering the success of the West End’s revival of Sondheim’s Company featuring a modern day setting and a woman in the lead role. For now though, the two-act Sunday… is more than enough to satisfy theatregoers.
It is certainly enough for Point Park University’s theatre department. This month, they are presenting Sunday in the Park with George in their new PNC Theater. At the helm is Tony Award-winning actor Michael Rupert, perhaps best known for originating the role of Marvin in the William Finn/James Lapine musical Falsettos or, for millenial Broadway fans, as the smarmy Professor Callahan in Legally Blonde the Musical. He returns to Pittsburgh after directing productions of Sweet Charity, Parade, The Crucible, and Ragtime for Point Park in the past.
“I enjoy coming back to Point Park because the staff and the students always make me feel they’re glad to have me. Also, I get to work with very talented designers and young, but quite talented actors with a drive and a passion that reminds me why I first got into the business years ago,” said Rupert about his return.
It was Off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizons that Rupert first encountered Sunday… when it had only one act. Reeling from the failure of Merrily We Roll Along on Broadway, Sondheim was reluctant to start work on a new musical, especially one with the relatively unknown Lapine. In examining the original painting, they wondered about the lives of the people in it and, most of all, its artist. The relative lack of information about Seurat’s life allowed them to take poetic license with his story and cast the woman with the umbrella in the foreground of the piece as his muse and mistress Dot.
When the second act materialized and Sunday… moved to Broadway in 1984, reactions varied dramatically. On one hand, a rave from the New York Times and that year’s Pulitzer Prize for Drama. On the other, audience walkouts and a shocking series of Tony Award losses to crowd pleasing musical comedy La Cage Aux Folles.
Some would say that Sunday… got the last laugh as it was preserved on home video by PBS and exposed artists of all disciplines to what Point Park cast member Courteney McClutchy feels is “truly life-changing theatre” that “showcas[ed] some of the best actors Broadway has to offer”. Sunday… continued to upward trajectory of its original stars and legends Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters before providing a fantastic star vehicle for movie star Jake Gyllenhaal in 2017.
Sondheim and Lapine (and Peters) struck gold again with their next show Into the Woods as it was also recorded and cited as the inspiration for many to pursue a life in the theatre.
A signature refrain from the show simply states that “art isn’t easy”. This rang true on many levels for scenic designer Johnmichael Bohach, who struggled to find the best way to realize the island setting on stage. Eventually, he and Rupert settled on a more stripped down design when they understood, like Seurat, Lapine, and Sondheim, that all they really had to do was “create a world in which the characters could come to life”.
“Finishing the Hat” is perhaps the most enduring song from Sunday in the Park with George. It’s a delicate and profound celebration of the creative process that Sondheim admits is one of his compositions closest to his heart. Point Park’s George, Alex Fetzko, loves performing it and hopes that by end of the song and the show that audiences “can walk away with a message or idea that they will talk about for quite some time.”
That’s been true for 35 years now, and I don’t see it changing any time soon.
Brian Pope is a playwright and pop culture obsessive who has been writing for Pittsburgh in the Round since February of 2016. His plays have been produced by his own theatre company, Non-State Actors, as well as Yinz Like Plays?!, Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, and Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company. He’s also served as dramaturg for City Theatre’s 2018 Young Playwrights Festival and as both stage manager and actor for Alarum Theatre. When he’s not making or reviewing theatre, he’s actively pursuing his other passions, listening to showtunes and watching television.