Before I took my teenage plus-one to see the latest Broadway revival of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s Sunday in the Park with George, I thought it would be wise to give him a quick primer. It’s about Georges Seurat, a 19th century French painter, I told him. He was what you call a pointillist, meaning he composed massive canvases with tiny dots of paint, and the musical’s title references a painting he spent two years making, “Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.” (The 7-by-10-foot work hangs in the Art Institute of Chicago.) In 1984, when I was about the same age as my young guest, my mother took me to see the original Broadway production, and that’s mostly how I remembered it: A play about Seurat, with Mandy Patinkin in the title role and Bernadette Peters as his muse.
But one need not know Seurat to enjoy this enchanting production. Jake Gyllenhaal, bearded and intense with a rich singing voice, makes the character understood immediately: He is an artist blinded to life’s joys by his own work ethic, even as he spends his days observing other people at their leisure. (George is not a total prig, however, and Gyllenhaal lets loose with some silly business singing the voices of two dogs in the painting.) By contrast, the pointillist’s model and lover, the aptly named Dot, played with an endearing blend of comic sparkle and pathos by Annaleigh Ashford, wants the simple pleasures of going to the Follies and eating cream puffs. But she cannot pull George from his studio, and — practical girl that she is — may take up with the baker who keeps her in dough.
Dot wins our sympathy: She’s been a game model for George all day, and wants some fun with him at night. But, brush in hand, he brushes her off saying, “I have to finish the hat.” And he is back to work, Gyllenhaal singing the colors and miming staccato dabs at an invisible canvas, as the onstage orchestra accompanies his movements from behind a scrim featuring projections that cleverly evolve to show Seurat’s progress on the painting.
Here, and in the second act — which jumps ahead 100 years — I realized my pre-show synopsis wasn’t totally accurate: This isn’t a show about Seurat. Setting aside its biographical liberties, Sunday in the Park is a show about making art. Not the glamorous part, or the sexy-muse part, or the mystical-inspiration part. It daringly sets to music the laborious and non-negotiable time that must be put in, inevitably to the detriment of other aspects of life, in order to create something wonderful. (No accident that Sondheim, a meticulous painter in musical notes and lyrics, titled his two annotated anthologies after George’s words: “Finishing the Hat,” and “Look, I Made a Hat.” His own conflicts with art, life, time, and legacy are here, too.)
“How you watch the rest of the world / From a window / While you finish the hat,” sings George. The message, which gives Sunday in the Park its heartache, is timeless. I was reminded of a tweet from Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda that blazed across the internet last fall, after his show had won all the awards and sold out seemingly forever. He shared a screenshot of a post he had written in 2009, long before Hamilton came to the stage: “[Lin-Manuel Miranda] is writing raps for Founding Fathers on a Saturday night,” and amended it from his 2016 vantage: “Good morning. You will have to say no to things to say yes to your work. It will be worth it.”
Will it? Sunday’s Act II makes some amends across time, and the leads are tender and moving, even if the plot gets a bit smudgy. Here, the same actors return in different parts. Gyllenhaal (whose beard transfers nicely from the belle époch to the techno-art ’80s) is now George, an artist working in light installations, while Ashford is now his grandmother, Marie. The characters from the park and the painting show up, with smart costume updates by Clint Ramos to indicate who’s who. Pointedly, the actor who plays Seurat’s prickly mother (Penny Fuller) in Act I portrays a professional art critic in the next act. (Other solid supporting players include Robert Sean Leonard as a rival artist, and Phillip Boykin as the boatman, the show’s working-class conscience.)
This production is smartly directed by Sarna Lapine, with an economical staging based on her 2016 concert version. (She is a niece of James Lapine, who directed the original production.) Previous incarnations have featured some memorable technical trickery — the image that had most stayed with me from 1984 was of Peters’ bustled dress continuing to pose upright on its own, even as she stepped out of it to dance in her bloomers. But this stripped down Sunday doesn’t lack for its own theatrical delight and instead lets the characters’ yearnings fill the frame. A-