One art-form I’ve not written about at all on this blog is the musical — which is surprising, because I do believe that it’s the greatest art-form of them all. Done well (which I admit is not often) musicals combine so much: music, poetry, visual design, drama.
Among the writers of musicals, one stands head and shoulders over all the others, and that is Stephen Sondheim. Now in his eighties, his body of work goes back to 1957’s timeless West Side Story (as a lyricist only) and includes classics like Company (1970), Sweeney Todd (1979) and Into the Woods (1987). Usually I’d pick the latter as my favourite — by a short head — and I’m very excited about the film adaptation, which opens near us in three days. But I just finished watching Sunday in the Park with George (1984) and I wonder whether it might be even better.
It’s an oddity — a musical based on a painting (Georges Seurat’s Un dimanche après-midi à l’Île de la Grande Jatte, above). Like the painting itself, the show was hated by many of the critics and audiences who saw it early in its life, yet it has gone on to be wildly successful and acclaimed. It won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1985, one of only eight musicals ever to have done so.
Act 1 is a wholly fictional account of the creation of the painting; as with Into the Woods, the first act is completely self-contained, and an audience could go home satisfied at half time; yet, also as with Into the Woods, it’s the second act that contains the real motive of the show, and most of the emotional power. It tells of Seurat’s fictional 20th Century descendant (also named George), a light sculptor struggling to create something new.
All of this sounds like arid territory indeed for a musical — especially if, when you hear the word “musical”, you think Seven Brides for Seven Brothers or The Wizard of Oz. The struggle of the artist to create could scarcely be further removed from the typical concerns of musicals — and it could hardly be less promising material to spend two and quarter hours with. But then a dozen people arguing in a room sounds like poor material for a film, and Twelve Angry Men is ranked #7 of all time at IMDB. It just goes to show that the seed of a work (whether music, movie, book, concept album or tech startup) is nowhere near as important as what the creators do with it.
That Sunday works — and it doesn’t just work, it flies — is down to sheer genius on the part of at least three people. First, of course, is composer/lyricist Sondheim. Then there is orchestrator Michael Starobin, whose sparse, impressionistic soundscapes provide a perfect complement to Sondheim’s allusive melodies. Finally, starring as George, Mandy Patinkin’s performance is evocative and deeply emotional. (That’s not to downplay the contributions of playwright James Lapine or co-star Bernadette Peters.)
You could complain that the story doesn’t quite hang together. You could argue that comic-relief numbers such as Everybody Loves Louis represent a failure of nerve, and dilute the intensity of the show. You could quibble that the conclusion — artists must move on to stay alive — sits uneasily with the recreation of a 100-year-old painting. Yet all this seems unimportant in light of the sheer emotional power of the show. At least four of the songs (Finishing the Hat, Beautiful, Children and Art, Lesson #8) are just sensational — like scalpels cutting to the heart of their subjects (creativity, vision, intergenerational connection and loss). I spent much of the second act on the verge of tears.
If I had to pick one word to describe the show, it would be “luminous”. That applies to the visuals, of course, which are largely drawn from the painting itself. But it’s even more true of the music, which is coloured and shaded with perfect judgement. It helps that both Patinkin and Peters have very distinctive voices — by sounding like no-one else on Earth, they contribute to the surreal quality of the show. They sound like embodied archetypes rather than mere people.
But really, you have to see it for yourself.
[Predictably — if you’ve read previous similar tales of woe on this blog — there is no legal way to buy and watch the video recording of the stage-show in the UK. You can get it on Amazon, but it’s a region-1 DVD which can’t be watched over here except on an illegally modded player. I leave it to individual consciences to decide what is best done about this, but note in passing that the recording is not hard to find on torrent sites.]
All of this has left me even more keen to see the Into the Woods movie. I understand that some fairly significant changes have been made from the stage show — changes that perhaps are inevitable given the format shift, but which I can’t help regretting nevertheless. (In the same way, I understood why the chorus was cut from the movie version of Sweeney Todd, but I still wish it had been retained.) I’ll report when I’ve seen it.