Understudies! To Love and Lose Genius: 'Sunday in the Park With George'

by Julie Klausner


After 1981’s “Merrily We Roll Along” flopped, Stephen Sondheim, American music’s last living Genius with a capital “G” (sorry, David Byrne!), lapsed into a depression so severe, he considered quitting musical theater to write video games and mystery novels instead. Yes, video games! Can you imagine the reception “Into The Woods for PSP” could’ve gotten at Comic-Con?

Here is what the man who, in his late 20s, wrote lyrics for “West Side Story” and “Gypsy,” before going onto reinvent Musical Theater entirely, said about his mental state during the period right after “Merrily” ran for 16 performances, then closed: “I wanted to find something to satisfy myself that does not involve Broadway and dealing with all those people who hate me.”

Keep this in mind when professional writers are accused of being too sensitive about Internet commenters, or when artists are accused by well-meaning friends of taking their reviews too seriously.

Soon after that, Stephen Sondheim did what any of us would have done — he felt awful, he did crosswords, and eventually separated from his longtime director and collaborator, Hal Prince. He spent three years freaking out and being miserable. He felt what it was like to fail.

And then, he started over. Inspired by the George Seurat painting “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte,” Sondheim began work with a new director, James Lapine, on the epic “Sunday In the Park with George,” one of the few musicals to have ever won a Pulitzer Prize, and probably my favorite of all of his shows.

“Sunday in the Park with George” is, more than anything else, a complicated valentine to the art of making art. The process of creation is a twisted alchemy that’s not easy to rally behind, even for those who haven’t been recently burned. But Seurat’s relationship with his paintings is depicted in the show as so loving, so inspired, so passionate and wide-eyed and intense, that it’s a joy to translate Sondheim’s generosity toward that character’s process as permission to himself to create again, even after the sting of lousy reception.

It is also a very sexy love story, harrowingly relatable to anyone who’s ever been romantically involved with an artist and wanted to steal the attention he had for his work and transform it — with Stevie Nicks-ian witchcraft if necessary — into lust for you. The principal characters in the first act are George Seurat and his muse/GF, Dot.

When Dot finally leaves George after what seems like ages of being taken for granted, they duet on “We Do Not Belong Together,” which is a punch in the throat. When Dot hurls out the word “NO” when she sings, “No! You are complete, George. You, all alone,” her delivery wields the kind of cruelty that Bill Murray implied when he fired his parting shot at Chevy Chase, post-fist fight. “Medium talent!” he spat, and Dot’s rejection of George has the same effect, but more hurt and heaving.

She had taken so much shit from this genius, who painted her and fucked her better than anyone, who made her feel smart and adored and even got her pregnant, but could never give her more than second billing to his relationship with his work.

Later in the act, George positions the characters he’d been painting throughout the show into his masterpiece, and they all stand perfectly still on stage in “La Grande Jatte” formation. And as he walks up to Dot, who poses in the front, he adjusts her hat and touches her face, and they share a moment together of sad realization that they do NOT indeed belong together in the way that most couples do; how one will pick up the kids after work because she’s more flexible with her hours, and the other is more outgoing to cover up for his partner’s social anxieties at dinner parties.

But here is the way that George and Dot do fit: together, they made this beautiful painting, because she inspired him, and he labored on it while he she was out living her life. It’s tragic because it’s not everything.

The second act of Sunday marked the first of Sondheim’s characteristic forays into the topical gravitas of reality, dying, getting older: everything sad and based in truth about what grown-ups are afraid of.

The exposition, rather high-conceptually, concerns George and Dot’s love child, Marie, who grew up in America after her mother fled to the states with her feckless husband, Louis, who raised Marie as his own. Marie, played by the same actress who plays Dot in Act One, is the grandmother to an installation artist, also named George, and played by the same actor who played Seurat.

Weeks after George’s gallery opening, his grandmother Marie dies. And soon after that, George finds himself in a state of creative crisis, having been invited to France to present one of his pieces and feeling like a fraud, a failure, and an artist with no ideas.

He gives up. He sits on a bench in the same park that Seurat once immortalized in oils. And then, Dot appears to him, having walked out of her painting and confused her great-grandson for the lover who painted her into it, years ago. She sings to George: “Move On.”

It is here that Sondheim shows what forgiveness is, what love can do. A talented young man, buried by bad notices and crippled with writer’s block, finds comfort in the tender sagacity of a muse, who tells him, “Stop worrying if your vision is new. Let others make that decision — they usually do.”

To say such loving things to a creative person stymied by the grim realities of making things in a commercial world is the ultimate intimacy. And when Dot/Marie pleads, smiling, “Give us more to see,” it’s a maternal kindness that somehow channels an inner voice within every artist — one that’s usually drowned out by self-loathing or doubt or snark or envy or just demonic apathy, whinnying “Don’t do that, it’s dumb” or “It won’t make you any money, what’s the point” or “That anonymous commenter who said you write like a high school freshman is right.”

And when that muse recedes again into wherever we live when our physical selves are gone, and all that’s left of us is what we’ve made for people to enjoy, or fight about, or do whatever art really does for people beyond the ones who make it, George is left on stage alone, with a big white canvas. It’s the same blank space that tortured him moments before. But now, encouraged by the wisdom of that small, kind voice, he instead smiles and rubs his palms together, getting ready to dive back into the process that, he suddenly remembers, has given him so much joy in the past.

It’s time to make something new.

Julie Klausner believes in life after love.