Sunday in the Park with George is a musical with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by James Lapine. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for drama.
Following the critical failure of Merrily We Roll Along in 1981 (the show closed after 16 performances), Sondheim announced his intention to leave the musical theatre to write mystery novels. However, he was convinced by Lapine to return to the theatrical world after the two were inspired by "Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte", the masterpiece of the French Pointillist painter Georges Seurat. In discussing the painting, Lapine noted that one major figure was missing from the canvas: the artist himself. This observation provided the springboard for the creation of "Sunday", and the production evolved into a meditation on art, emotional connection, and community.
When the show first opened to subscription audiences at the off-Broadway studio Playwrights Horizons starring Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters in 1984, only the first act was written, and still with many holes. However, with input from audiences, the first act was fleshed out and the second act began development. Following its run at Playwrights, the show transferred to the Booth Theater on Broadway, but the second act was finished and the show "frozen" only days before the opening.
When "Sunday" opened on Broadway, it received mixed praise from the critics: a much more positive reaction than what greeted "Merrily" three years earlier. "Sunday" enjoyed a healthy box office, though the show would ultimately lose money. It was, however, considered a brilliant artistic achievement for Mr. Sondheim and, although "Sunday" was nominated for multiple Tony Awards, it won only two design awards. The big winner of the night was Jerry Herman's La Cage aux Folles, and in his acceptance speech, Herman announced that the "simple, hummable tune" was still alive on Broadway, a remark some perceive as a swipe at Sondheim's pointillistic score for "Sunday". Though widely shunned at the Tonys, "Sunday" won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Musical, and Sondheim and Lapine were awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, only the sixth time a musical has been so honored (in 1996, Rent became the seventh).
"Sunday" received its UK premiere at the Royal National Theatre in the early 90s with a cast headed by Philip Quast who received the Olivier Award for his performance and Maria Friedman. In 2005, the musical made its second appearance on the London stage at the Menier Chocolate Factory. This revival, starring Olivier Award-winner Daniel Evans and Anna Jane Casey, won unanimously glowing reviews. The production transferred to the Wyndham's Theatre in London's West End, with Olivier Award-nominee Jenna Russell replacing the unavailable Casey.
The cast, nearly all experienced Sondheim performers, are preserved on a recording by PS Classics. This 2-disc album, released in May 2006, is the most complete recording of the score, and contains a bonus track: the original, full version of "The One on the Left" (of which only a fraction survives in the final show) performed by Christopher Colley, Sarah French Ellis and Kaisa Hammarlund.
An interesting side note: In Jonathan Larson's musical, tick...tick...BOOM!, a musical number entitled "Sunday" is a deliberate homage to this show's finale, incorporating extensive lyrical, melodic, and harmonic sections. Larson, a devout Sondheim fan, even went so far as to call the song's tempo "Sondheimian."
1984 Broadway Cast
Note: During the show's run, Mandy Patinkin was replaced by Robert Westenberg, followed by Harry Groener. Mandy Patinkin returned to the show shortly before it closed. Bernadette Peters was replaced by Betsy Joslyn, followed by Maryann Plunkett.
2006 London Cast
The first act deals with the life of Seurat as he was painting what is considered by many to be his masterpiece, "Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte," as his obsession with painting emotionally divorces him from the people around him (most notably his lover, the ironically named "Dot.") As George gathers sketches and works on the painting, Dot - though pregnant with his child - finally leaves him for a more stable, but emotionally unfulfilling baker named Louis. George regrets his loss, but continues with his painting, "finishing" it in a tableau of actors at the end of the first act.
The second act opens with the same tableau, however rather than rapturously singing about Art (as they did in the first act finale), this time the characters sing about the torture of being trapped forever in painting, aware of the situation.
Following that interlude, the play moves into the 20th century, as another George (a fictional great-grandson of Seurat) presents his own art: a sculpture that presents both light, sound and pictures called "Chromolume #7" (Seurat referred to his art style as "Chromolumism" rather than "Pointillism"), presented as part of a retrospective of Seurat. Like the George of the first act, this George is also a struggling artist who has difficulty maintaining human connections (he is divorced), however, the thrust of the second act is more a satire on the financing of art. Whereas the first act had a song about Art together ("Color and Light"), the second act song "Putting It Together" is about schmoozing collectors and museums into financing an exhibition.
After the death of George's grandmother (Dot's daughter, played by the same actress), George goes to La Grande Jatte to exhibit his Chromolumes. Depressed by his isolation and failure as an artist, the play takes a surreal turn as George is visited by Dot, who addresses him as if he is the first act George. She persuades him to keep working on Art that interests him ("Move On"), even if it doesn't lead to critical acclaim or financial success. The play ends with George reading Seurat's artistic principles, while the tableau is again formed on the stage.
Available on the 2006 London Cast CD
1984 Original Broadway Cast Recording (RCA)
2006 London Cast Recording (PS Classics)