Saturday, March 29, 2008

Sunday in the Park and Bored

You are about to read a musical-theater blasphemy. Having seen the Roundabout's excellent production of Sunday in the Park with George last night, I am going to come out of the closet about something I've been afraid to admit to myself for many years: the musical itself is often a bore—and I'm not just confining this critique to the second act.

That second act is often the object of criticism, even for those who love Sunday: it feels forced, inorganic, too unnatural a departure from the self-contained first act. That's all pretty fair, though its culmination is breathtaking, even if one has to buy into its somewhat sentimental time-traveling to appreciate the 20th-century George's revelation of "all the possibilities." Its first act, so say the fans, is a beautifully realized portrait of disparate lives that the emotionally removed artist can only relate to by bestowing on them, through the solitary process of creating art, "order," "balance," "design," and "harmony." It's an awfully moving theme (and one of Sondheim's favorites): the individual's inability to "connect" with a world that views him as an other (Cf. Assassins, Company). And there are moments—“Finishing the Hat” is the primary one—where this theme comes to life with great poignancy.

The problem, though, is that in order for the plotless first act to work, these other lives must be given stage time, even though the details of these lives are, in a sense, immaterial. We need to see that these lives exist and that George watches them "through a window" rather than engaging with them, at least outside of drawing them. We do not need to know whether Franz and the nurse are in love or in lust, or whether Yvonne will tear Jules a new one when she discovers his philandering.

And that's a shame; it makes for vignettes that are trivial, and ultimately wearying, on their own. Had Sondheim and James Lapine (who wrote the book) dared for a messier first act, these snippets of human interaction might have been given greater depth. It would have drawn focus from George's autistic involvement in his art to the expense of his interpersonal relationships (which is the whole point), but it might have made for something more interesting than the eighty minutes of fleeting acquaintance with a roster of largely caricature-esque personalities.

Musically, too, Sunday feels almost defiantly dull (gasp!). It's often said that Sondheim is difficult: cerebral and, well, tuneless. With a few exceptions, this criticism is baseless. Cerebral, sure—the man is no accidental revolutionary—but tuneless? A Little Night Music, Company, Assassins, Sweeney Todd, Into the Woods, and even Anyone Can Whistle—these are all full of lush, haunting, and yes, even catchy, melodies. It may take a few listenings to let these songs grab hold of you, but never does one feel bored. The same cannot be said for much of Sunday. With some obvious exceptions ("Color and Light," "Finishing the Hat," and the ethereal "Sunday" come to mind first), the first act offers only isolated instances in which Sondheim shows his chops: a gut-wrenching chord or a transcendent belted harmony.

Perhaps this dearth of satisfying material comes from Sondheim's oft-postulated identification with Seurat. It is no accident that Sunday is arguably Sondheim's least accessible musical, and how fitting: Seurat was an artist maligned for his technique and subject matter; so is Sondheim. As Jules and Yvonne say, of George, "there's no life in his art." It's almost like Sondheim said to himself, "You want no life?" and then wrote George's mother's plodding ballad, "Beautiful."

Unfortunately, the time expended on the myriad characters in the park detracts from the level of subtlety afforded to what we're really interested in: George's relationship with Dot, who leaves him for the dull but emotionally available Louis the baker. Their break-up song, "We Do Not Belong Together," veers dangerously close to melodrama, which is most unlike Sondheim. The raw pleading of "Tell me not to go! ... Tell me what you feel!" (and for the record, the current performances by Daniel Evans and Jenna Russell are laudably under-indulgent) might have worked better had we had time to see their relationship in greater detail. But what should be a shattering duet feels too sudden amidst an act that is mostly an assortment of incidental stories that go nowhere.

There is much to be appreciated in Sunday. Not only is the classic individual-as-other theme gloriously realized, but as a meditation on what it means to be an artist, and all of the self-doubt, paralysis, and ecstasy that come with such a role, it is also uniquely thoughtful. To be sure, George’s awe-filled gasp as he faces the blank canvas in the show’s final moment is so viscerally moving, so loaded with inspiration and fear, that one almost forgets what one had to sit through to arrive at such a stunning apotheosis.


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home