A blank page or canvas.
The challenge: bring order to the whole.
So begins Sunday in the Park with George. Book by James Lapine. Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. The original Broadway production opened in 1984, and the Roundabout Theatre Company is currently presenting the first Broadway revival of it at Studio 54. This current production is a transfer (more or less) and a slight expansion of the critically acclaimed Menier Chocolate Factory (London) production from the 2005-06 season. I attended the show earlier tonight. I could go on and on for pages and pages about the show, the original production, the current production, the plot, the painting, etc., but I’d rather try to put into words some ideas, some ramblings that came into my head tonight as I watched the show. The show just started previews this past Friday, and does not officially open for a few more weeks. So, I’m going to refrain from reviewing it… Well, at least not comment in detail about it.
At its core, Sunday is about Art, Artists and Relationships. The Art here is Painting. The Artist here is a somewhat fictionalized George Seurat in Act 1, and his most definitely fictionalized great-grandson, also named George, in Act 2. The Relationships run the gamut: Artist and Subject, Man and Woman, Lover and Lover, Mother and Son, Mother and Daughter, Mister and Mistress, Man and Himself… However, none of that can begin to cover what happens during the course of the show’s two acts, and my apologies to those of you reading this post who may not be as familiar with the musical as I am. And, yes, Sunday in the Park with George is a show I know backwards and forwards.
All it has to be is good.
I never saw the original production of Sunday in the Park with George on Broadway.* The first time I saw the show was when it was broadcast on cable television in early 1986, and then again a few months later when it aired on PBS. By the time I had seen the show on TV, I was already infatuated with it via the cast album. Seeing the show, however, made me fall in love with it. The timing could not have been better. I was in my Senior year of high school. I wasn’t sure where I wanted to go to college, or that I even want to go to college at all. I wasn’t sure if I really wanted to pursue Music on more than just a casual level. I kept asking myself, “What do I do next?” Well, the work of Lapine and Sondheim, coupled with that iconic physical production, answered that question for me. I learned it was OK to be an Artist, a Musician; at the very least, to pursue Music as a career. I also learned it was normal to be confused about the future, to not know what’s coming next. To find the joy in the possibilities. And so I went to college down in Richmond, VA, majored in music (piano performance), and graduated. Then came the usual post-graduation question, “Now what?”
Work is what you do for others, Liebchen,
Art is what you do for yourself.
After college, I somehow picked up a few decent gigs music directing and playing for shows in and around the DC area. However, my steady source of income came from working as a clerk at a music store in their sheet music department. It was an easy job for me since I had been one of the store’s more frequent customers; consequently, I was already familiar with their stocking and ordering process even before I was hired. That kept me solvent for a while, although I did end up buying quite a bit of music at the employee discount. In the fall of 1996, I was asked if I would be interested in playing the local auditions for the upcoming production of Sunday at Arena Stage in Washington, DC. -Yes! I was then brought up to New York City to play the auditions there. After a short break in the process, I started playing rehearsals in March, then moved on to playing keyboard in the pit for the run of the show. The show opened in April, and closed June 15, 1997. I had basically been with the show for almost seven months – from practically Day One to Closing Night.
The whole experience is one I will treasure forever. I discovered a lot about myself. A lot. It was also the first time I truly felt like a Professional Musician. It was my first Real Gig! And, best of all, I was making money doing what I loved. I was also blessed with a Dream Cast (at least in my head it was a Dream Cast), and a lot of close bonds were made – especially since I had met the members of the cast at their initial auditions. I was there from their Day One. I still remember after the final performance, after we had all packed up our stuff and were heading up to the cast party, going up to hug Sal Viviano, who had played George, and starting to cry. And cry. I know I cried for at least five minutes. Then I did the same thing a couple of minutes later when I ran into SuEllen Estey, who had played Yvonne/Naomi. They were tears of Gratitude, of I’m-Going-To-Miss-You, of I-Don’t-Want-This-To-End.
Alas, the very next morning, I found myself driving my grossly over-packed Ford Escort station wagon to my next gig. In the Amish Country of northwestern Indiana.
Pretty is what changes.
What the eye arranges
Is what is beautiful.
A few years later, after working here and there, I ended up back in Richmond. And in a relationship. My first. A couple of months after we had moved in together, I started to get calls for work out-of-town. At first, it was like an adventure. If our schedules aligned, He would come out to visit me on the road: it was a get-away for him, and a reunion for us. As my out-of-town gigs became more regular, the long-distance periods of our relationship took their toll. After being together for three and a half years, he sat me down one day to have a Talk. It was over.
At that time, I was working up in DC at the Kennedy Center. I was brought on board as one of the rehearsal pianists for their Sondheim Celebration (lovingly referred to as "Camp Sondheim") during the summer of 2002. I started off with the opening production of Sweeney Todd, and finished with the closing production of A Little Night Music. A true Dream Job if there ever was one. The Talk occurred when I had gone back home to Richmond one weekend – which for me was basically from Sunday night to Monday evening (since I had to be back in time for rehearsals Tuesday morning). Understandably, it was rough going for a while, and I only shared the news of the break up with a few very close friends. However, one of those friends very sagely pointed out to me that even though He no longer wanted me to be a part of his life, He was still taking care of me. He had had the Talk while I was in the midst of a high point of my career. I was working with great people, and working on great material. Yes, I was at a lowpoint in my personal life, but, professionally speaking, I was on Cloud Nine. One helped to balance the other one out. (Thank You, He.)**
The second production of Camp Sondheim was Sunday in the Park with George. In the middle of the first act, George, portrayed this time around by Raul Esparza, sings a song called, "Finishing the Hat". It is a verbalization of the struggle that the Artist is going through while trying to balance his Work and his Life, his Art and his Love.
"And when the woman that you wanted goes,
You can say to yourself, "Well, I give what I give"
But the woman who won’t wait for you knows
That, however you live,
There’s a part of you always standing by,
Mapping out the sky,
Finishing a hat…"
For the first time, I started crying in the middle of that song. I had always loved that song – especially playing it (those rolling thirds fit so well under my fingers) – but it was the first time I had really understood it, gotten it. Sitting in the audience that night, I was George. My Life and Art had come to an impasse. By the time the final chorus of "Sunday" came around I was a blubbering idiot. And I broke into sobs during the final words of the show:
"White. A blank page or canvas. His favorite. So many possibilities…"
And there have been many amazing and wonderful possibilities since then.
I chose and my world was shaken–
The choice may have been mistaken,
The choosing was not.
You have to move on.
Which bring us – well, me at least – back to earlier tonight. I was totally prepared to blubber like an idiot while watching the show. I even made sure to place some extra Kleenex in each of my pockets before I left my apartment. Did I cry? Of course, I did. Did I cry as much as I thought I would? Actually, No. But I did cry at different times, and for different reasons.
It’s amazing how one’s thoughts, one’s views, one’s opinions, one’s reactions to something or someone can change over the course of time. This is particularly the case with Art – Visual and Performing. Theatre has it’s own set of variables in this regard, especially when you’re dealing with different productions of the same show. In Sunday, there is a given that the Painting comes to life. That given is then interpreted and presented by a set of actors, directors, designers. Consequently, those very same lines, those same lyrics, those same melodies can be perceived differently from production to production, sometimes even from night to night. We must remember that we, the audience, also figure into this equation!
So, in short – to bring this long post to a close – when I left the theatre tonight, I felt good about what I had done with my Career and my Life so far. Has it all been good? Has any of it been perfect? No. But it’s been Mine. And as I stood at the stage door, exchanging well-wishes and hugs with my friends and colleagues…
"Anything you do
Let it come from you.
Then it will be new.
Give us more to see."
*I almost did get a chance to see the original Broadway production. In the spring of 1985, my high school’s Thespian Society planned a trip to New York City. Sunday was on the ballot for the musicals we could choose to see. Alas, after the votes were tallied, it appeared that most of my classmates, my fellow Thespians, wanted to see The Tap Dance Kid. But that’s a topic for another post. Or not.
**After a bit of time had passed, He and I became friends again, and have stayed friends. In fact, I’d say in some ways we’re closer now than when we were together as a couple. To quote Mr. Sondheim one more time: "We’ve always belonged together. We will always belong together."