Mapping Out a Sky

The Rep is producing Stephen Sondheim's masterpiece Sunday in the Park with George in January, and they asked me to write program notes, so Sunday and all its issues have been swimming around inside my head for a while.

It's one of those shows so rich and complex that it inevitably reminds me how often people don't dig deep down into the bone and sinew of the more complicated works of musical theatre, either because they're lazy or they don't know any better. But I have very high hopes for the Rep production -- they've got a great cast! Deborah and I got to talk to two of them, Rob Bohmer (George) and Chris Hietikko (Jules), for our radio show and they really, really get it.

When New Line produced Sunday back in 2003 (with brilliant, lusty, vivid performances from Todd Schaefer as George and April Strelinger as Dot), I realized that, as much as I loved the original production, it was colder and more restrained than I think this show ought to be. I think George and Dot are passionate, complicated, intense people, and I thought Mandy and Bernadette didn't always allow themselves to really go for broke. There was just too much restraint for my taste. (I think Jim Lapine made the same mistake with Passion.) It never felt carnal enough for me. Their big knock-down-drag-out fight ("We Do Not Belong Together") didn't feel visceral enough, painful enough, destructive enough. The stakes just weren't high enough for a fight like this between people this intense over problems this long-simmering. How long has this two-way resentment been building? Months? Years? Bernadette Peters found that place but Mandy Patinkin didn't. When Bernadette and Mandy performed this song, it was a dramatic scene; when Todd and April did it, it was a fucking fight.

And in that same vein, one key moment I found lacking from Mandy was his central character song, "Finishing the Hat." Many Sondheim fans see this song as a declaration about the creation of art, and about the perpetually over-romanticized loneliness of artists. But if you listen carefully to Sondheim's lyrics, it’s doubtful that either of those things is really what he was writing about. We're sucked in by the poetic lyrics, the soaring melody, just as George is sucked in by the seductive world of his obsession, but there is more going on here...

I think the song is more about George self-justifying his behavior toward Dot, by hiding behind the noble pursuit of art. He is outside the rest of us, he's saying. He thinks he's Nietsche's superman. He's telling himself (and us) that it's okay for him to be thoughtless and cruel to Dot (and to others) because he has something more important to do than worry about people's feelings.

He has Art to create. He has to finish the hat.

And in that light, the song takes on a much darker tint, it becomes more psychologically complex, and it also serves a much clearer dramatic purpose in the narrative, as George stumbles through his complicated feelings. This is the proof we needed that George is not equipped or ready to be in a relationship, and so Dot's decision to leave for America may be the best thing for her. Throughout "Finishing the Hat," the title phrase (standing in for the making of art in general) is always part of a larger thought, not standing alone by itself, and through its context we can see that Sondheim is telling us something very specific about George, more so than about the creation of art.

After all, this is Sunday in the Park with George, not Sunday in the Park with Art. Musical theatre is about human emotion.

At the beginning of the song, George says:
      Let her look for me -- good.
      Let her look for me
      To tell me why she left me
      As I always knew she would...
George really believes (or wants to believe) that Dot is the one at fault here, not him. The main idea of this song is set up clearly here at the beginning, as it is with most Sondheim songs. This is not a song about art; it's a song about blame. It's a character song, not a philosophical treatise. George is deeply hurt, which means that he cares more for Dot than he admits or the hurt wouldn't be so deep. George goes on to say that no one can possibly understand the motives for his behavior. Maybe, he reasons, that's why people always think it's his fault, when he knows it's always someone else's fault.

George imagines how nice it would be if anyone could understand the act of making art, could understand his compulsion to put his work above all else, could understand “how you have to finish the hat.” In other words, it's not his fault he's inattentive, insulting, thoughtless, rude, hurtful -- it's his art's fault, because it forces him to be those things. (Sounds like something Newt Gingrich might say.) Or maybe it's other people's fault for not being perceptive enough to understand him. Like I said, it's a song about blame. He justifies with his art the fact that he watches the world rather than participating in it, which by implication justifies the fact that he refuses to play by the rules of the real world. After all, he's not a part of that world, so why should he live by its rules?

And yet we'll see at the end of Act I, when he finishes his painting (and that hat), that he's not really a part of the world of his art either; he is outside of it too. There is nowhere he belongs.

George sees the real world, the people in the real world, as somehow inferior -- almost as obstacles. So George refuses to interact with them in any meaningful way. He believes he must keep himself at a distance so he can fully observe. He thinks “it's the only way to see.” The only way to create art, he believes, is to remove himself from the world -- and thereby ignore its rules and conventions. Or maybe that's just a massive rationalization.

Late in the lyric, he says:
            When the woman that you wanted goes,
            You can say to yourself, “Well, I give what I give.”
In other words, if she can't handle it, that's just tough. She knew George's rules coming in, and if she can't live by them, that's her problem and not George's. Blame. It doesn't even occur to him that he should change his behavior. That's not even an option. He knows that anyone who gets close to him figures out the most basic truth about him: no matter what he's doing, there's always a big part of him that is never really there, not in the world, not in the moment, a part of him who's standing back, watching, not interacting, not empathizing, just observing. And that's his justification for being the way he is. It's not because he's a jerk (he tells us); it's because he's an Artist. He really believes (or is it just rationalization?) that he must submerge his emotions, he must reject polite society, he must ignore the complaints and needs of those who care about him, because if he gives in, if he allows himself to live in the real world instead of in the world of the hat and the painting, he will no longer be an Artist.

Or is he just such an emotional coward and cripple that this is his bullshit excuse for hiding from the world and walling himself off? He thinks his mission as an artist gives him universal absolution. He's wrong.

George is asking us to feel sorry for him, poor misunderstood artist that he is, but his argument is not compelling enough. And perhaps that's Sondheim's greatest achievement with this remarkable, complicated song -- it is beautiful, even a little seductive, but we don't accept George's excuse. If we did, if George himself accepted it, then there would be nothing for him to learn, no reason for him to grow, and no reason for the story to continue. He's the protagonist, so he must learn something by the end of the story. George must realize at some point, or at least suspect, that his argument is bunk...

But could this song really just be about the creation of art, and not all this other stuff?,  I hear you ask.

Well, Sondheim doesn't just stop a story in the middle of a musical for meditations on related topics. Songs like “Finishing the Hat,” “Beautiful,” and “Lesson #8” let us see George trying to figure things out, trying to learn, trying to connect. That process of personal evolution is the fundamental action and structure of the show. George's struggle is so profound and so fundamental that it literally takes a hundred years, three generations, and two Georges to resolve it. Notably, the story’s final resolution comes not from the creation of a piece of art, but from human connection -- even across time.

Like I said, this isn't really a show about art.

You can read more of my thoughts on Sunday in the Park in my book Deconstructing Harold Hill. and in the Rep's program notes. The show runs at the Rep January 4-29. If you haven't seen it before, you should really make any effort to see it. It's a genuine masterpiece of the art form, right alongside similar works like Fellini's 8 1/2, Woody Allen's Stardust Memories, Bob Fosse's All That Jazz, and Stew's Passing Strange.

Long Live the Musical! And Happy New Year!


Andrea | December 28, 2011 at 5:52 PM

Bravo! I always learn from your posts, Scott. Thank you.