Art isn't easy.
Just ask legendary Broadway composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim. In 1984, he and renowned theater writer/director James Lapine baffled audiences and critics with Sunday in the Park with George. This show, which was a mostly fictional account of how French impressionist Georges Seurat created his most well-known work, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, divided critics at the time and was a commercial failure, despite earning Sondheim a Pulitzer Prize. Today, the musical is widely regarded as one of the most daring and challenging achievements ever to grace the Broadway stage.
Veteran television director Terry Hughes brought the original Broadway cast production to television audiences in 1986, and now this taped performance is available on DVD courtesy of Image Entertainment. How does it fare?
Facts of the Case
Before we get into the nuts and bolts, friends, let me make one thing crystal clear: For most people, Sondheim is an acquired taste. Sure, his work has been produced on Broadway, and, yes, he penned the eminently hummable standard "Send in the Clowns." Regardless, Sondheim does not write for lazy audiences, and Sunday in the Park with George is absolutely no exception. A master wordsmith and lover of puzzles, Sondheim is notorious for infusing his lyrics with double, sometimes triple, meanings that demand multiple listenings and complete attention. While his music is gloriously melodic and lovely, growing out of the story and characters, good luck finding it alongside Andrew Lloyd Webber's stuff on any Best of Broadway compilation albums. It ain't gonna happen, folks, and God bless Sondheim for that.
With that said, let's take a look at Sunday.
Act One is set in 1880s Paris, France, where a socially detached Georges Seurat (Mandy Patinkin) struggles to give birth to not only a new painting, but to a new style of painting, called pointillism. In layman's terms, pointillism involves applying thousands of tiny dots of pure color on a large canvas and letting the human eye, from a distance, naturally blend the colors. The only person capable of loving Seurat despite his inability to connect with people is his girlfriend, aptly named Dot (Bernadette Peters), but even she's being pushed away.
Act Two flashes forward to an American art museum in 1984, where A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte is on display, and where Seurat's great-grandson George (Patinkin again) is frantically preparing to unveil a new work of his own with the help of his grandmother, Marie (Peters again).
Sondheim has said that the show's first act is about the making of a painting, while the second act is about the life of that painting. Many people apparently didn't make that connection, arguing that the musical as a whole would have been better without the second act. I disagree. The second act, while less plot-driven than the first, is what gives the show its weight. The first act is about a man who refuses to compromise his artistic integrity for the sake of acceptance, while the second act is about a man who does nothing but compromise his artistic integrity for the sake of acceptance. The two acts need each other for the show to exist. Also, there's a reason that these two characters are related by blood and portrayed by the same actor.
Sunday is probably the least accessible of Sondheim's work, which is saying a lot when the composer's repertoire includes Anyone Can Whistle, Pacific Overtures, and Assassins. But don't let that dissuade you from giving it a shot. Lapine has written four compelling lead characters in Georges, Dot, great-grandson George, and Marie, and they are marvelously brought to life by Patinkin and Peters. Each character's struggle—whether it be to connect with others, one's self or one's canvas—is very human, and the impact those struggles have is always believable.
Lapine, who also wrote the book of the musical, populates both acts with a colorful assortment of supporting characters, most of whom are fictional. One of the nonfictional characters is Jules, a real-life contemporary and critic of Seurat's. He is played by Charles Kimbrough (Murphy Brown's Jim Dial). His wife is played by Dana Ivey, an actress who pops up in minor film roles all the time. Ivey in particular shines, especially in one brief but poignant exchange with Dot. Trekkies should also be on the lookout for Brent Spiner in a small but amusing act-one singing role.
And now the music. Oh, the music. Sondheim has crafted a delicate and even playful score that is the aural equivalent of Seurat's pointillism. He punctuates most of his Act One scenes with short melodies that last just long enough to establish a character or scene before disappearing. Many viewers may find it frustrating that few of the catchier tunes last longer than a minute, but that's not the point (so to speak). As with pointillism itself, each little component of Sondheim's score is serving a much larger purpose.
That's not to say that Sunday is without its big musical set pieces. Peters commands the stage during the show's dynamite opening number, and Act One closes with an astonishing musical recreation of Seurat's famed painting. Act Two includes Patinkin's tour de force, "Putting it Together." For me, though, the score shines most with the emotionally devastating "We Do Not Belong Together" and the wise "Children and Art." This material demonstrates why Sondheim was awarded that Pulitzer.
Director Lapine complements Sondheim's work by bringing a great deal of visual wit to the production, especially in Act One, during which the entire set is rendered as a painter's ever-changing canvas. He brought the same theatrical sensibility to Sondheim's Into the Woods a few years later, but that time with much greater commercial success.
Because Sunday in the Park with George was originally filmed for television audiences, it is presented here in a full-frame aspect ratio. It's a nice, clean transfer that won't disappoint anyone. The colors are a tad murky for a musical about a painting, but I suppose that's to be expected from a recording of a 20-year-old stage performance.
The only audio option is stereo, but for this program it works just fine. There's much less background noise than I expected from a live production, with only the occasional distracting cough or murmur from the audience. I was disappointed by the lack of subtitles, especially given how complicated Sondheim's lyrics can be.
For this edition, Sondheim, Lapine, Patinkin, and Peters recorded a commentary. All four participants were recorded together, making for a fine and informative commentary that I recommend highly. Patinkin tends to hog the mic at times, but even during those moments his comments are illuminating. Peters and Sondheim are longtime friends and collaborators, and their affection for each other is obvious. For this viewer, though, Sondheim would be a pleasure to listen to even without the other participants. This is one smart and creative man.
The package also includes rather extensive liner notes by Paul Salsini, editor of The Sondheim Review. These notes provide some useful background on Seurat and this production. It will lay a good foundation for you and enrich your viewing experience.
It's a real shame that more stage productions are not made available to the masses through the magic of DVD, but at least we have a recording of this fine show. It's listed at around $30, but you can find it for less with a little research. The quality of this landmark show makes it worth the purchase, especially if you have any interest in musical theater. The extras are just gravy. I also recommend checking out Sondheim's Into the Woods and Passion on DVD. They're not hard to find.
Not guilty. And anyone who ever again tries to bring charges against Sondheim and company will feel the wrath of this court. Case dismissed.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Image Entertainment
• Audio Commentary with Stephen Sondheim, James Lapine, Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters
Review content copyright © 2004 Bryan Pope; Site design and review layout copyright © 2015 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.