SATURDAY IN THE MUSEUM WITH GEORGE By Peter Filichia
So would the man manning the information desk at the Art Institute of Chicago know what I meant?
He could be pardoned if he didn’t, for I would be asking my question in a purposely oblique way.
I did smile nicely to show I really wasn’t out for trouble. Then I posed the question:
“Where can I find Sunday in the Park with George?”
Now, I could have more accurately asked, “Where’s Georges Seurat’s Un dimanche après-midi à l’Île de laGrande Jatte?” If I didn’t care to be that obscure-slash-pretentious, I would have more chummily queried, “Where’s A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte?”
However, I did want to see if he’d recognize the name of another great work of art.
Stephen Sondheim has written many masterpieces, five of which have won a Best Musical Tony. Only one, however, has received a Pulitzer Prize, and that’s the musical inspired by the aforementioned painting that has been a mainstay at the Art Institute since 1924.
The museum man was quick to crisply say in an “I-certainly-know-the-answer-to that-one” voice: “Up those stairs, through those glass doors to Room 240.” Up I went and saw at the end of the corridor the 1886 masterpiece, nearly seven feet tall and ten feet wide — oh, yes, in perspective and yes, in the light.
(I was hoping one of my readers would be here, too, smiling and saying in a voice approximating Emma Goldman’s, “I’ve been waiting for you.”)
The painting has so many more characters! As Peter Stone pared down the actual number of Congressmen in 1776, Sondheim and librettist James Lapine eliminated quite a few subjects seen in the painting. Three did wind up in the stunning first-act finale but as cut outs and not played by actors.
To the immediate left of Dot is a woman with a nosegay. The way that she’s looking at it suggests she just got it from The Love of Her Life. No one could say that she has, as Seurat’s paintings were alleged to have, “no life.”
A woman north by northwest of Dot appears to be strangling a man. Maybe that’s the real Dot who’s been driven to murder because George hasn’t been paying enough attention to her.
Thinking of Sondheim’s magnificent song, “Finishing the Hat,” I saw that Seurat actually had twenty-three to complete. He also had to paint five umbrellas. Considering that this Sunday seems to be a day on which rain is no threat, we can applaud these people for knowing what harm the sun can do.
On the opposite wall from the painting is a tiny sketch which is but one of nearly five dozen that Seurat made while planning the work. Here “Dot” is facing right, not left, and isn’t with a man, but is talking to a heavy-set woman. Ten people are in the foreground. Not all of them made the finished painting; you could say, in a manner of speaking, that they were dropped out-of-town.
It was fascinating, but I had to turn around and see The Real Thing once more. This time I started seeing some of the actors who played the parts of the masterwork’s subjects:
Mandy Patinkin (George), whom I once interviewed before an audience who laughed heartily after I mentioned that I’d seen him play a transsexual in The Knife and joked that “the recurring image of you in that dress caused me to sleep with a night light for the next six months.” Patinkin responded with a famous two-word expression that will never be confused with “Merry Christmas.”
Bernadette Peters (Dot), whom I once introduced at a memorial service as “a performer you’d think would have abandoned Broadway after two of her first three Broadway shows each ran one mere performance.” Afterward she came up to me and asked, “What were the two shows?” When I reacted in astonishment, “You don’t remember?” she said, “I think La Strada ran one night.” Indeed it did – “and the other,” I said, “was Johnny No-Trump,” a 1967 play. “Oh, yeahhhhh,” she said as the show came back to her.
The funny thing is that Johnny No-Trump was Peters’ Broadway debut. Wouldn’t you think that she’d never forget that despite the show’s outcome? Still, when you’ve had as many triumphs as Peters has amassed, I guess you do forget “little” things like a Broadway debut.
Nancy Opel (Frieda, Betty, Young Man), whom I most remember seeing at the party Cameron Mackintosh gave for Miss Saigon’s 4,000th performance on November 2, 2000. “I’ve given up the business!” she crowed. “I’m working in an office and I’ve never been so happy.”
Six months later she was appearing in the off-Broadway (but soon to be Broadway) production of Urinetown. When I spoke to John Rando, its director, about Opel’s announced retirement he said, “One day she called me from that office and screamed, ‘Get me out of here!’”
William Parry (Boatman, Charles), who three years ago played the lead in my play Adam’s Gifts. What a superb job he did in portraying a latter-day Ebenezer Scrooge.
Seeing the painting made me come full circle with the musical. In 2013 I went to Paris and spent a Saturday night marveling at The Theatre du Chatelet’s production of Sunday in the Park with George. The next morning I awoke with nothing to do on my “day off.” Suddenly I realized that this was Sunday! I’d go to the Ile Grande Jatte!
It’s a long ride by subway, but I got there. And if you think that the place looked built-up and crowded in the musical’s final scene (where “Move On,” one of Sondheim’s most beautiful songs occurs), you should see the actual island. Houses and buildings seem to be less than a yardstick away from each other.
The actual painting is framed with a border of red, orange and blue dabs that of course came across as purple when I stood back a bit. A plaque on the left told me that Seurat added this border two years after he’d ostensibly finished the work. I’d say that if you’re planning a production of Sunday, put this around your proscenium arch.
What the Institute should put nearby is a Chromolume to give some historical perspective. It wouldn’t be out of place, because Seurat never embraced “pointillism” or “neo-Impressionism” as a way to describe what he did but preferred to call his technique “chromo-luminarism,” which puts the focus on “color and light.” That, of course, became Sondheim’s most adventurous attempt and achievement in a dazzlingly atypical score.
In the solid hour that I spent in front of the painting, I saw dozens upon dozens of people who came to pay their respects to its splendor. I had to wonder how many wouldn’t be here if they hadn’t known the musical. I’ve a feeling that the Institute’s coffers have been a little fuller since Sunday opened in 1984 — a year that another famous George told us to beware. But 1984 couldn’t have been too bad a year given that it gave us Sunday in the Park with George.
As I left, a whole new group of people who represented many races and different ages was filing in. And when I saw that plenty of parents had brought their kids, I don’t have to tell you which of the show’s songs went through my head.
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Monday at www.broadwayselect.com and each Friday at www.mtishows.com. His book The Great Parade: Broadway’s Astonishing, Never-To-Be Forgotten 1963-1964 Season is now available at www.amazon.com.