The heroine of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s 1984 musical, Sunday in the Park With George, is named Dot. This tiny jape of Lapine’s has always bothered me: The French word dot (pronounced “doht”) means a dowry, the money a bride brings with her when she marries. In Molière’s The Miser, the title character plans to marry off his daughter to an old man she doesn’t love, who will take her “sans dot” (“without a dowry”). Lapine’s joke derives from his “Dot” serving as model and mistress to the painter Georges Seurat, whose canvases, when viewed close up, seem to be composed entirely of tiny, multicolored dots of paint; your eye only blends them into the colors and shapes of the composition when you step back. Seurat’s approach is sometimes called “pointillism” because the French word for “dot” is point.
The heroine’s impossibly un-French name is part of Lapine’s more elaborate tease, which posits a physical, as well as a spiritual, inheritance from Seurat, the George of Sunday in the Park‘s first act, to an artist today, the George of Act Two, a creator of electric light installations, which he calls “chromolumes.” (Seurat, steeped in the science of optical perception, called his technique based on the interaction of colors “chromoluminarism.”) In actual fact, Seurat had no surviving descendants; he died at 31 in 1891 of an undetermined disease. His two known offspring, by the model he lived with — whose name was not Dot but Madeleine — both died in infancy.
These unhappy realities get sidestepped, or ignored, in Sunday in the Park With George — a revival of which has just opened at the newly reconstituted Hudson Theatre — chiefly because Lapine and Sondheim are pursuing a different goal, one that doesn’t really have any connection to France, or to the troubled bohemian lives of its nineteenth-century artists. Their topic — an extraordinary one for a Broadway musical — is the artist’s drive to create and the personal sacrifices that entails, particularly in America, where the comprehension of art tends to be based on celebrity and money. Seurat, whose parents were well-to-do, was largely able to go his own way artistically. He stands as a touchstone, if not exactly an ancestor, for contemporary artists, for a variety of reasons: his resolute independence of spirit; his combination of a deep inwardness (he was a notoriously reclusive personality) with a keen sense of social observation; and his passionate insistence on giving his artistic vision a basis in scientific reality.
Seurat’s most famous work, the giant masterpiece A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, for decades now a prized possession of Chicago’s Art Institute, combines all these elements, which Lapine and Sondheim unpack in the musical’s first act. They set the growth of the painting in parallel to the withering of George’s relationship with Dot, whom Lapine imagines as the basis for the lady on the far right side of the painting’s canvas, walking her pet monkey on a leash.
The musical’s somewhat jokey fictionalizing of the human stories Seurat’s painting depicts functions as a counterpoint to its dark inner story, laid out in Act One and reiterated in modern dress in Act Two. Act One’s George neglects Dot, who reluctantly finds another lover, with whom she departs for America, pregnant with George’s baby. Act Two’s George, Dot’s great-grandson, makes a success of his “chromolumes” but turns down a fat commission to create yet another one (in Texas), preferring to search out a new type of work that he hasn’t yet envisioned. As a vision of how art functions in society, this is troubling yet true. Sondheim’s dazzling articulation of it — the artist’s private process in Act One’s “Finishing the Hat” and his necessary career-building efforts in Act Two’s “Putting It Together” — tunnel deep into the artistic psyche. Seurat, who might not recognize much of what Lapine ascribes to his painting, would more than likely have found Sondheim echoing his inner thoughts. He was a loner, respected but apparently not much liked by his colleagues.
Sarna Lapine, the librettist’s niece, has staged the new revival of Sunday in the Park With George, an enhanced version of a concert staging seen last year at New York City Center. With its orchestra visible behind a scrim upstage, her production holds many beauties but sometimes seems cramped when the full cast is onstage; the final tableau of Act One doesn’t fully reflect, as James Lapine’s original staging did, the breadth and ease of Seurat’s canvas. (Of the original’s ten Tony Award nominations, the sole winners were its set and lighting design, respectively by Tony Straiges and Richard Nelson.) The revival’s assets include Clint Ramos’s lush costumes and the truly brilliant realization of George’s “Chromolume #7,” a piece of superb teamwork by lighting designer Ken Billington and projection designers Tal Yarden and Christopher Ash.
The show’s principal assets, however, are its two leads, Jake Gyllenhaal as George and Annaleigh Ashford as Dot and (in Act Two) her now-elderly daughter Marie. Unlike the original’s George, Mandy Patinkin, who seemed to keep a fierce distance from others, Gyllenhaal, a warmer actor, touches each human encounter he rejects with a hint of loss as he dives obsessively back into his work. (One small caveat: His race through Sondheim’s rapid-fire lyrics sometimes shows the conscious effort involved.)
Ashford, pert, preening, and comically precise, poses him an appealing challenge — a sweetly tough-minded Dot, eschewing the vulnerability that was so much a part of Bernadette Peters’s personality in the role. The large and well-credentialed supporting cast’s standout performances include Penny Fuller as George’s mother, Robert Sean Leonard as a rival painter, Liz McCartney as a chatty foundation exec in Act Two, and Philip Boykin as the coarse boatman. But beyond all these, the star, manifestly, is Sondheim: What a paradox that a musical so full of humanity and light could be built on the relentless exactitude of his inner questing.
Sunday in the Park With George
By Stephen Sondheim
139-141 West 44th Street
Through April 23