Sunday in the Park with George (1984)

By Sondheim, Stephen | The Sondheim Review, Spring 2012 | Go to article overview

Sunday in the Park with George (1984)


Sondheim, Stephen, The Sondheim Review


The Notion

Act One concerns the French painter Georges Seurat (1859-1891) and his creation of Un dimanche après-midi à l'Île de la Grande Jatte (A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte), which took more than two years to complete.* Act Two deals with the artistic crisis experienced by his great-grandson, an American conceptual artist in his forties, named George.

General Comments

Unexpected significant moments, moments which happen entirely by chance, keep life surprising and sometimes change its direction permanently - not events, mere moments. My parents' divorce, for example, was an event: it led to my meeting Oscar Hammerstein II and finding a channel into the work I was meant to do. Studying Latin at George School with an inspiring teacher named Lucilie Pollock opened me up to the fascinating intricacies of the English language; taking an elective music course at Williams College taught by an ascetic, eccentric professor named Robert Barrow introduced me to the logic of music and focused my interest for the next sixtysome-odd years - those were events. Running into Arthur Laurents at the opening-night party of a play I hadn't even attended, a fortunate happenstance that brought me the opportunity to write the lyrics for West Side Story - that was a lucky moment. So was going on a whim to a small theater half an hour outside central London to see what I thought would be Grand Guignol but which turned out to be Christopher Bond's version of Sweeney Todd. And another was in 1982 when I went to see Twelve Dreams at the New York Shakespeare Festival. It was a play based on a case of the psychoanalyst Carl Jung in which a little girl had twelve dreams presaging her death, and was written and directed by James Lapine, whose work I had seen only once before (a piece called Table Settings). I was stunned by the mixture of sophisticated reality and fanciful incident couched in graceful dialogue, as well as by the elegant imaginativeness of the staging - so much so that I determined to meet him and raise the possibility of collaborating with him on a musical.

I did nothing about it. I'm neither aggressive nor enterprising by nature, and for all I knew he had that condescension toward musicals common to young playwrights and old academics, particularly young off-Broadway playwrights and old university academics. And even if he liked musicals, I feared he might have an antipathy toward mine. But the seed had been planted and it blossomed fortuitously a few months later when I got a telephone call from Lewis Allen, a producer of plays and movies, asking me if I would be willing to meet with a young off-Broadway playwright named James Lapine, who had a project in mind that he'd like to write with me. Somewhat taken aback by the coincidence (I like to think it was kismet, not coincidence), I met with him and discovered that the project was a musical adaptation of Nathanael West's novel A Cool Million. This made the kismet even more startling, since A Cool Million was one of the very few non-mystery novels I had read since graduating from Williams thirty-two years earlier. Burt Shevelove* had turned me on to it, partly because it was sarcastic and satirical, two qualities I enjoy, and partly because it was short, a quality I enjoy even more. (I had liked West's Miss Lonelyhearts for the same reasons.) The story was a version of Candide, even bleaker than Voltaire's, set in Depression-era America. I thought that musicalizing it would be a fine idea, but I pointed out to James that Lillian Hellman, Leonard Bernstein and a raft of lyricists had written a musical version of Candide already. He wasn't familiar with the show, but when he'd read and listened to it, he agreed that once was enough.[dagger] Nevertheless, we got along so well together we decided to look for something else to write.

As we talked and came to know each other over the subsequent weeks, we found that our tastes were surprisingly alike. …

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