Between 1884 and 1886 (and briefly in 1889) the young, practically unknown painter Georges Seurat applied tiny dots of pure color to a canvas, knowing that clusters would form a different color in the eye of the beholder. When combined, the millions of dots created his masterpiece, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.
For his subject, he chose a middle/working class park on the River Seine — and an “ordinary Sunday.” Just umbrellas and bustles, some in shadow, the only movement a little dog in the foreground. And none of the 50 or so people looks at anyone else.
Why such a herculean, mural-sized effort for such a common subject? Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine wondered, what if Seurat’s figures could speak? What would they say about the July heat, their lives, this strange man obsessed with such an apparently banal scene? Why isn’t he painting the Eiffel Tower, rising toward the sky behind him? (Actually, he did, in 1889.)
Sondheim saw in Seurat a “creative artistic trancing out, that phenomenon of losing the world while you’re writing or painting or composing or doing a crossword puzzle or coming to a difficult decision or anything that requires intense and complete concentration.”
Today we call it “in the zone.”
Sondheim had the experience when inventing a game: “I hadn’t moved for 11 hours, had left the planet for 11 hours.”
Seurat sings about the experience in “Finishing the Hat”: “How you have to finish the hat. How you watch the rest of the world from a window while you finish the hat.”
Such an intense connection with art creates disconnections for Seurat in life, as his model/lover Dot (“Georges is very special. Maybe I’m just not special enough for him”).
In Act Two, Seurat’s great-grandson George is just as meticulous an artist, who also knows that, as four cast members sing in the “Julie Andrews version” of “Putting It Together”: “Art isn’t easy. Every word, every line, every glance, every movement you improve and refine, then refine each improvement.”
In 1884 Seurat refuses to escape from his art; in 1984, George can’t connect with it because politics and self-promotion now come first. Don’t advertise and you’re “suddenly last year’s sensation.”
All viewers want these days is “repetition. All they really like is what they know.”
“Broadway encourages repetition of formula,” Sondheim writes in "Look, I Made a Hat." Sondheim and Lapine wanted a musical that worked like a Seurat painting. Stand too close, expecting plot-points and rising action, it makes little sense. Stand back, way back, and connections — in the staccato notes, stream-of-consciousness speeches, and subtle relation of Acts One and Two — become clear in a new way.
The first-night critics who liked Sunday in the Park, and many didn’t, called it the first “Modernist” musical on Broadway. Actually it was one of the first Post-Modernist shows on the Great White Way.
Plays through — and must close — this Sunday, July 16.