Stephen Sondheim premiered his play Sunday in the Park With George in 1984. It is the instantiation of art as a musical, being a stage play about George Suerat’s most famous painting. I wonder if he would have done it after reading the 1989 assessment of that painting by Professor Linda Nochin of the New York Institute of Fine Arts.

Nochin’s assessment was that the 1886 painting created in Paris, Sunday on La Grande Jatte, was imbued with no meaning to be interpreted, story to be actualized or hidden meaning to be discovered. “In Seurat’s painting,” she wrote “there is almost no interaction between the figures, no sense of them as articulate, unique, and full human presences.”

What more daunting prospect could there be for Sondheim as the songwriter, or James Lapine, who wrote the book? How to create a musical about a painting that has no meaning and thus seems pointless? Even though they did not have the dubious benefit of reading the analysis by Nochin (who died last year), they actually incorporated her anti-utopian zeitgeist in the musical: a pair of gauche American visitors to France (comically portrayed to great effect by Brian Coughlin and Amber Quick) utter the most important lines in the play. “Paris looks nothing like the paintings. I don’t see any passion.” Nothing like grabbing the bull by the horns! By grappling with the essence of the painting, they created a musical where hidden meaning could be discovered: a musical that is ‘nothing like’ any other.

How an audience interprets what they see and hear during this lavish production at the Zach Theatre in Austin is very much informed by their individual knowledge of art history. This can hardly be said of any other musical, which sets Sunday on a plinth of its own in the canon of American musicals. This is reflected in the fact it won the Pultizer Prize for Drama in 1985, but failed to win more than two minor Tony awards (it was beat out that year by La Cage aux Folles, ironically another French upstart).

The play is bookended by ‘white canvas’ upon which Suerat, portrayed with intensity by Cecil Washington Jr., uses his paintbrush to conduct the orchestra into creating his painting on stage through the use of design, composition, light and harmony. This has been brilliantly envisioned by producing artistic director Dave Steakley through the use of panels that gradually fill in an empty black stage that only holds the members of the orchestra. With each brushstroke a different sound, and a different colour. Act one ends in a visual tour de force, with the cast members assuming the pose and relative positioning of most of the people Suerat painted.

Several audience members voiced the opinion that the end of Act 1 seemed like a fitting end to the musical, a view I shared. Watching the sometimes muddled second act did not change their opinion or mine.

Suerat’s model in the musical, played with verve by Jill Blackwood, is named Dot, a not-too-subtle pun based on the fact Suerat’s painting was the first great canvas done in pointillist style. And like the painting, looking at this musical too closely will reveal nothing but meaningless dots, which is why a synopsis of the thin plot is pointless (another pun).

I heartily recommend visiting the Zach Theatre to see this most unusual production so that you can connect the dots for yourself.

Sunday in the Park With George plays thru June 24, 2018. Visit their website:

Photo credits: lead photo of Brian Coughlin and Amber Quick by Kirk Tuck

second photo of Cecil Washington and Jill Blackwood by Kirk Tuck

By Dave

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