Magazine article The New Yorker

Finishing the Hat

Magazine article The New Yorker

Finishing the Hat

Article excerpt

Daniel Evans and Jenna Russell, who star in the Roundabout's upcoming revival of "Sunday in the Park with George," at Studio 54, were exhausted one recent Wednesday after rehearsing a song called, fittingly, "Putting It Together" ("Art isn't easy," a lyric goes). The musical, by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine, is about the artistic process: specifically, how Georges Seurat, from 1884 to 1886, put together his neo-Impressionist masterwork "A Sunday on La Grande Jatte." Many of the show's characters are extrapolated from figures in the painting--sunbathers, soldiers, men in top hats, women with parasols, a monkey--that Seurat sketches on his weekend visits to the park (or, in the monkey's case, the zoo).

Serendipitously, several of Seurat's studies for "La Grande Jatte" (the painting hangs in the Art Institute of Chicago) were on display at the Museum of Modern Art, as part of "Georges Seurat: The Drawings." Evans and Russell, along with their director, Sam Buntrock, agreed to take an after-hours tour. They were greeted by Jodi Hauptman, the exhibition's curator, who led them into a hushed gallery. "Seurat died at thirty-one, of diphtheria," Hauptman said. "He was notoriously quiet, and he didn't keep diaries. He wrote very few letters."

"Actually, Sondheim and Lapine loved that," Buntrock said, "because the audience wouldn't have any expectations. Steve says that if you did a musical about van Gogh you'd expect a number where he cuts his ear off."

Evans, who plays Seurat, was drawn to a Conte-crayon sketch of a woman taking an evening stroll. The paper, Hauptman explained, was handmade and embedded with a grid. Seurat would draw against the grid, in diagonal strokes, giving his images a kind of shimmer. What he wanted white he left unmarked. "The highlights here are all just paper," she said, pointing at the moon. "They're made from leaving things blank."

Evans gasped. "He must have looked at something and known the depth of his tone the minute he began," he said. Evans spends much of the play sketching the other actors, a skill that did not come naturally. "I'm atrocious," he said. The production originated in London, where Evans took drawing lessons, sketching pint glasses and the dome of St. Paul's Cathedral. The goal was to learn "how to see. …

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