For some poor, unfortunate individuals, musical theatre is the audible equivalent of fingernails upon a blackboard. They perceive it as a trite, pointless art form. The goal of this regular feature is to introduce readers to worthy, quality contributions to the musical theatre genre in the hopes of increasing the art form’s appreciation.
Stephen Sondheim is considered the greatest living musical theatre composer and lyricist. Practically every young, up-and-coming composer cites him as a major influence. “No One is Alone,” “Being Alive,” and “Send in the Clowns” are among his most famous musical standards. I could probably make every entry in this section comprised of nothing but Sodheim moments (I won’t, but I could).
For Sondheim’s detractors (and there are more than a few), his compositions, and through extension, Sondheim himself, appear too cerebral, too cold for any emotional attachment to develop towards his characters. Hearing his cool, articulate, emotionally detached manner during interviews does little to offset this impression. His musical and lyrical technique is flawless, but he holds the listener at arm’s length. However, this criticism is unwarranted. There is an emotional center at the heart if his best songs/ shows, and his flawless technical precision enhances, not hinders, it.
With that in mind, I present you with one of my favorite Sondheim compositions from one of my favorite Sondheim shows (Sweeney Todd is probably my favorite, but this one comes close). The show is Sunday in the Park with George and the song is “Finishing the Hat.”
Sunday in the Park with George involves two separate acts telling two separate but connected narratives. In Act I, pointillist painter Georges Seurat struggles to find a balance between satisfying those in his private life (namely his mistress, who is appropriately named Dot) and his quest for artistic fulfillment.
Act II finds his great-grandson, also named George, struggling to find a balance between artistic fulfillment and financial success. The show presents the two separate, struggling artists striving for the same goal: a work of art in which they can take pride and find fulfillment.
The song “Finishing the Hat” takes place near the end of Act I. Georges, separated from Dot as a result of her frustration with his inattentiveness, sits in the park painting the work the audience knows will become his masterpiece, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. Lost in his work, he examines the sketches he has made of the park’s visitors and repeats lines we have heard these characters uttering. Finally, he stops and finds himself expressing both his grief and frustration that Dot cannot accept his lifestyle as well as the ecstasy of artistic creation.
Check out the song in the link below from a televised production featuring the original cast:
I love the conflicitng emotional impulses this song has at its core. One one level, it is a celebration of getting lost in art. On another level, there’s the difficulty for those around you that accompanies such a lifestyle. Note the four uses of the word “window” that occur within the song’s two verses. In the first verse, it indicates the outside world from which Georges feels emotionally detached and physically separated, because he creates the world upon his canvas. It’s a pleasant, appealing thought, but with a tragic, melancholy undertone, because he knows those on the outside world will not wait for his return to reality. They will leave him alone with his painting, which is satisfying but lonely. In the second verse, the word “window” represents a portal into the artistic world he creates for himself, and the word implies freedom and rapture, not detachment and distance.
With these two distinct uses of one simple word, Sondheim is able to present not only the artist’s dilemma but, more importantly, the artist’s reward: the artist get to create a hat “where there never was a hat.”
Sunday in the Park with George has two cast recordings available to purchase: the original cast featured in the above recording (Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters, not to mention Brent Spiner) and a revival recording featuring the 2008 Revival cast. In addition, the full show featuring the above clip is available to purchase on DVD. It is highly recommended.
So what do you think, guys? Are you a Sondheim fan? Do you think this a Broadway moment worthy of coverage? Is there a Broadway moment you think we should have done instead?