The painter Georges Seurat (1859–1891) developed a technique that, he believed, would more accurately reflect the colors we live with: pointillism. Instead of mixing colors on their palettes, the pointillists would apply a limited number of primary colors to their canvases in the form of small dots of paint, the idea being that if one stood back far enough from the resulting paintings, the observer’s eye would “mix” the colors in a way that created a wide variety of secondary colors. As an Art Institute curator of an exhibit focusing on La Grande Jatte explains, “When the complements red and green are put side by side, for instance, the red will seem redder and the green, greener. Seurat was also aware of how the optical mixture of colors in the eye was different from their mixture on the palette. Juxtaposing related shades of a color on a canvas (yellows and greens for example) will create a more vivid and luminous effect than if the colors had been blended on the palette.”
Seurat’s study of the citizens of Paris taking their Sunday rest and play in the park on the Île de la Grande Jatte was begun in 1884. It took the artist two years to complete the work. A very large painting, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte measures about 7 by 10 feet. Stephen Sondheim has spent a good number of hours studying the painting at its gallery in the Art Institute in Chicago. Again, each expanse of color on this large surface was created by choosing which colors to employ and how large or small each dot should be and how close to its neighboring dots it should be placed; in the painting there are, as Sondheim has observed, millions of decisions that have been made, reconsidered, adjusted, or corrected. “Art isn’t easy” is more than a phrase in one of the songs in Sondheim’s musical about Seurat and art.
Seurat was able to exhibit La Grande Jatte with other Impressionist painters in May 1866. The room where the painting was hung was to the side of the main exhibit, and it was not especially a large gallery: there may not have been sufficient distance from the work (or enough good light) for the viewers to interact optimally with Seurat’s pointillist technique. While the exhibition won over some fellow Impressionists, for the most part it was not as successful as Seurat would wish.
Seurat died at the age of 31 of unknown causes—perhaps a rare form of meningitis—five years after La Grande Jatte was first exhibited.
Stephen Sondheim had seen James Lapine’s Twelve Dreams at the New York Shakespeare Festival in 1982 and was “stunned,” he writes, “by the mixture of sophisticated dialogue, as well as the elegant imaginativeness of the staging”; Lapine had both written and directed the play. Sondheim made a note to contact Lapine to explore a possible collaboration, but then neglected to follow through. The composer was going through a rough patch. The reviews for his previous musical, Merrily We Roll Along, had been “very sneering and hostile”—he told The Guardian’s Laura Barnett that he considers the time the low point of his career. “For a few months, I thought, ‘I really don’t want to be in this game any more.’”
A few months later, a telephone call from a producer brought Lapine and Sondheim together to work on possibly adapting Nathanael West’s novel A Cool Million, a project that did not go anywhere. Once together, however, Sondheim and Lapine found they had much in common and began to consider other ideas. They thought they might try to create a musical based on a theme with variations. They reviewed photographs and paintings, and Lapine suggested A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, an image he had employed in an earlier project about Gertrude Stein. Sondheim remembers their conversation:
We commented on how much Seurat’s depiction of the island looked like a stage set. We discussed the curious fact that of all the fifty-some-odd people in the painting, not one of them is looking at another one, and speculated about the reasons for their avoidances. We realized that we were talking about a theater piece, possibly a musical. James said, “What’s missing is the principal character.” “Who?” I asked. “The painter,” he replied, and we knew we had a show.
Sondheim and Lapine began working, using the less commercial (and constraining) environs of the off-Broadway company Playwrights Horizons, with which Lapine was associated. The play’s shape moved from the theme-with-variations to a more formal two-act structure. In Act One, the audience meets Seurat and his mistress-and-model, Dot, as well as the visitors to the park who, often unknowingly, become models for Seurat’s project. The songs and the story deal with making art and the relationship between art and life. The climax of the act is its final moments, when the actors take the positions of their characters within the stage’s frame and become the painting itself.
Act Two takes place in the present, where we meet Seurat’s great-grandson, himself an artist named George, who, in the original production, was performed by the actor who plays Seurat in the first act. (All of the actors from Act One show up as new characters in Act Two.) The contemporary George is an inventor-sculptor, using a series of complex machines called Chromolumes to create exciting sculptures of light. (Sondheim and Lapine took the name for George’s light-emitting machines, “Chromolumes,” from “chromoluminarism,” a term used to describe Seurat’s technique [also called “Divisionism”] of painting, where the separation of colors into individual dots interacted optically.) George displays his work at a reception in the gallery where La Grande Jatte is on exhibit—a kind of homage in light, and it is a spectacle, indeed, except for one hitch (as noted in the stage directions):
MUSIC begins to increase in volume and intensity. STROBE LIGHTS begin emitting from the machine along with side shafts of brilliant light. Colors begin to fill the stage and audience, creating a pointillist look. Just as the sphere begins to illuminate, producing various images from the painting, there is a sudden EXPLOSION of sparks and smoke. The lighting system flickers on and off until everything dies, including MUSIC. There is a moment of chaos in the darkness.
After some electrical work, the Chromolume (#7) is repaired and emits an astoundingly wonderful light show of lasers and dots of light.
At the reception that follows, George is constantly on the move, going from patron to patron, attempting to raise money to fund his next art project. (It’s almost as if he’s running for office.) He feels distant from his friends and family and, hoping to become inspired and reconnect with his life and art, George makes his way to Paris. He goes to the Island of Grande Jatte and Dot, Seurat’s model-mistress appears, and the musical ends with a kind of reconnection with the past and family and a rediscovery by an artist of his art.
Playwrights Horizons, where Sunday in the Park with George was first performed for a 3-week workshop, was a 150-seat Off-Broadway theatre. “Their stage,” writes James Lapine, “has very little width, no stage left wing space, and no fly space.” The original production was full of interesting solutions to the problems this space presented, for the musical is, if anything, a play that requires a major scenic effect: the creation, subject by subject, of a living representation of a major work of art.
The set was built using a forced perspective. The stage itself was literally framed at the proscenium, so Seurat could step in and out of the “canvas” he was creating. Cut-outs of painted figures and trees rose up from the stage floor. Some cut-out figures were brought onstage, while others tracked on from the wings. (As Seurat drew or erased elements in his sketch book, corresponding cut-outs would appear and disappear.) Slide projections were employed, placed onto the surface of a scrim. In the final moments of Act One, during the number “Sunday,” as Seurat completed the painting, he would, writes Lapine, “dash about carrying on the cu-outs and placing them in approximation of the painting,” while actors moved in and about the set, taking their places, as well.
The other major scenic event was really a lighting set piece: Act Two’s Chromolume #7 and its lighting effects. The prop is described as “an immense white machine” with a control console attached. The Chromolume is the source of a dazzling array of lighting effects, which stand in sharp contrast to the stillness and composition of Seurat’s painting.
The Playwrights Horizons production offered Sondheim and Lapine room to grow and think and experiment, and the 1983 gestation attracted enough interest to support the mounting of a Broadway production. The show opened at the Booth Theatre on May 2, 1984, and received mixed reviews. It was a relative success, however, and enjoyed a healthy box office, was nominated for 10 Tony Awards, won the 1984 Drama Desk Awards for Outstanding Musical, Book of a Musical, Lyrics, Direction, and Orchestration. Sunday in the Park with George was also awarded the 1985 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, only the sixth musical to have done so. The original production closed on October 13, 1985, having been performed 604 times on Broadway.
A London production was mounted in 1990, and fifteen years later, Sunday was produced in London again. The 2005 production was well received and won five Olivier Awards, including that for Outstanding Musical Production.
In 2008, the London production was brought to Broadway at Studio 54 for a limited run (which was extended three times). As in the London staging, the producers took advantage of modern theatre technology, making use of new lighting instruments and projections. Writing for The New York Times, Jason Zinoman described the effects: “In this… intimate production, live actors talk to projections, scenery darkens as day turns into night, and animation seamlessly blends into the background…In this new version, thanks to 3-D animation, the painting, currently the crown jewel of the Art Institute of Chicago, slowly comes together onstage. A sketch emerges, then color is added, and the rest gradually comes into focus, piece by piece.”
Since 2002, Sunday in the Park with George has enjoyed major productions in Chicago, Washington, D. C., Seattle, and the Ravina Festival in Highland Park, Illinois.
The IU Theatre production will open in the Ruth N. Halls Theatre April 12 for 8 performances, under the direction and choreography of George Pinney and the musical direction of Terry LaBolt.
Meet the M.F.A.s
Amanda Wray (Lighting Designer for A Sunday in the Park with George) is a third-year M.F.A. student in lighting design from Kingwood, Texas. She earned her B.F.A. in design and technology from Baylor University. For IU Theatre: Richard III, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Hair, Angels in America, and Language of Angels (Lighting Designer), The Pillowman and The School for Scandal (Sound Designer), Intimate Apparel, Spring Awakening, Cabaret, Lysistrata, and Hay Fever (Master Electrician), and Rabbit Hole and Anything Goes (Assistant Lighting Designer). For the Indiana Festival Theatre: Damn Yankees and Ah, Wilderness! (Lighting Designer), and The Comedy of Errors (Master Electrician). Prior to IU, she was a technical theatre teacher at Saint Mary’s Hall in San Antonio, Texas, where she the lighting designer for several shows including You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, The Real Inspector Hound, Don Quixote, and Coppélia. Other design credits include: Bye Bye Birdie, All My Sons, and The Importance of Being Earnest. This summer she will the Master Electrician at Utah Festival Opera & Musical Theatre. For more information, please visit her website: http://www.amandawray.weebly.com.
Dan Tracy is a third-year M.F.A. student in scenic design. For IU Theater he has designed In the Next Room or the Vibrator Play, Pillowman, and Spring Awakening. Prior to coming to IU he was the assistant prop master and teacher at the University of Michigan, Prop Master at Seaside Music Theatre, and prop artisan for Actors Theatre of Louisville and New Harmony Theatre. Dan is also an accomplished event designer for Andretti Autosports, Indy Racing League, Delta Faucet, Energizer, NFL Players Association, Rolls Royce,Indiananpolis Zoo and others. From Indianapolis, Indiana, Dan has designed at the Phoenix Theatre, Civc Theatre of Indianapolis, and this summer will be designing for the Indiana Festival Theatre at IU. In his down time Dan can be found working on his house, gardening, and chasing after his 2-year-old son. In the fall he will continue his work free-lancing in the Indianapolis area with Indianapolis Repertory Theatre and various other event companies.
Putting It Together
Amanda Wray and Dan Tracy recently sat with me to discuss the work they’ve been doing to prepare for the production that will serve as each of their respective thesis projects, Sunday in the Park with George. Dan’s approach to creating Seurat’s painting, which takes up all of Act One, is along the lines of the 2008 Broadway revival, where computer animation and projections became the means by which the audience saw La Grande Jatte come together. He takes this approach, however, with a hint of regret. “I think the old way is nice,” he told me. “Sometimes a massive computer effect takes focus away from the actor, from the human qualities you might experience when Seurat moves cut-outs into place. We will not be as high tech as the recent Broadway production: for one thing, we don’t have the time or resources to create as many 3-d effects as they did. But on the other hand, just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. We’re going to scale back some of the animation, because too much of it may distract from what is going on in our story.”
Dan and Amanda have both been preparing as much in advance of the technical rehearsals as they can, and some of that involves study and training. Dan is working on computer animation by studying the AfterEffects computer program with an animation student at IUPUI (Dan lives in Indianapolis). Amy, meanwhile, is learning as much as she can about the lighting area’s recently acquired GrandMA light board. “We’ve already used it for Cabaret, Damn Yankees, and Spring Awakening,” she said, “but the controls and the board’s capabilities are still new to most of us. We’re hiring a professional lighting board programmer who’s used to working this type of board to help us lock in the lighting cues and effects during the level set. I could do it (and I have done it), but we simply do not have the time to be digging through the board’s user manual while we’re setting cues.” Amy’s main work in Act One will be to control things so the actors are illuminated, but the projections are not washed out. “There will be a lot of side light and high angles for the front light, especially as we get closer to the projection screen. I want to support the way the painting is presented. Of course, we’ll also use gobos and the front light to give an impression of pointillism.”
Amy’s showcase, of course, will be the Chromolume in the second scene of Act Two. Dan has created a series of animations, where dots are layered on top of special effects near the Chromolume itself. “The video will build with the music,” Amy says, “then we’ll take the effects into the audience.” The idea is that the lighting extravaganza will move from the stage into the Halls Theatre, and the Chromolume will dominate the space. “We’ve purchased two new moving lights,” Amy says, “and we’ll be using them with two “color blasts” we acquired from Rob Shakespeare when he upgraded his Light Totem at the IU Art Museum. We’re trying to make the source of the light non-specific, to give the effect of an all-encompassing world of light.”
There is, however, only so much preparation that can be done ahead of the week right before the show’s opening night. There is only so much work that can be done before a computer or in a lighting lab, and the designers won’t know what needs to be fixed until the they are actually in the Halls Theatre. “We’ll have two days to review and one video rehearsal before we bring in other lighting cues on tech week,” they say. The technical rehearsals will focus on matching the intensity of the lights with the video, so each element can do its job. Dan anticipates a lot of color correction of the video he has prepared. There are multiple slides for one scene, and they will have to be color matched, so the audience doesn’t see Seurat’s lawn go from green to blue.
It’s a technically ambitious production, yet both these M.F.A. candidates feel up to it. They know, however, that the week before opening will be likely be a time of high pressure and little sleep. As Dan says, half laughing and half serious, “We are definitely going to be hating one another during tech week.”
The IU Theatre production of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s Sunday in the Park with George opened on April 12, 2013, and will play tonight through Saturday, April 20, at 7:30 p.m. in the Ruth N. Halls Theatre. There is also a Saturday matinee at 2:00 p.m. More information is to be had at the IU Theatre web site.
This post was based on an article published in the latest issue of Theatre Circle Insights, the magazine for members of the Theatre Circle.