With his tidy jeans, striped T-shirt, wire-rimmed spectacles and fair hair, he looks like a young professor at a good American university. In fact, he is the British director of Sunday in the Park with George, one of the most startlingly successful revivals of recent London seasons.
Talking with Sam Buntrock is a treat. He's young, yes, but with a broad knowledge of history and a healthy view of the theatrical present. With this much-acclaimed revival of the Stephen Sondheim–James Lapine masterpiece about love and its place in the making of art, he is making his Broadway debut. I asked if he was nervous about bringing an American show to Broadway (the musical opens at Studio 54 on Feb. 21). "No," he said firmly. Pause. "Er, yes. And no. Not nervous, exactly, just amazed. To be here, to be where musical theatre is meant to be, is just wonderful. It's their heritage. Just as Shakespeare is ours."
This production — the first New York or London revival since the Broadway and London originals in 1984 and 1990, respectively — started life at the Menier Chocolate Factory, a London theatre so tiny that the audience sits inches, rather than feet, away from the action. Buntrock had to cope with the intimacy of the space as well as the technical demands of constructing, through the evening, a believable rendition of Georges Seurat's pointillist painting "A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte." Astoundingly innovative, he and his design colleagues used projections and the technical tools of animation to tell Sondheim's complex and multilayered story in an entirely new way. "As an animator myself, the idea to use projection came instinctively. On a visual level, the story is the creation of a painting, and animation has let us depict that in a theatrical and spectacular way."
The technical approach settled, he went after the one actor he knew who could play George with the intensity the character needed: Daniel Evans. "Daniel has immense emotional intelligence as an actor, and George is such an enigmatic role. His approach unlocked the character for the audience. I couldn't have hoped for a better George." He is joined on Broadway by his West End co-star, Jenna Russell, and an otherwise American cast. "I had known David [Babani, the producer and artistic director of the Chocolate Factory] since we were both at Bristol University, and we'd worked together before, so I knew not only about his passion for Sondheim but that he wasn't afraid of a challenge. I wasn't too surprised, therefore, that he wanted to produce such a complex show at the Menier."
As soon as the sold-out run ended, it became clear that the show had to have a longer life; it transferred on a shoestring to Wyndham's Theatre in the West End. "That was great, and unexpected, but it had its hurdles. The show had initially been designed for such a small space, there was very little money, and I was concerned that expanding onto a larger stage might dilute the show." He needn't have worried. Those critics who hadn't made it to the Menier, and all those who had, hurried to see it at Wyndham's and raved anew. Sunday in the Park with George was Broadway bound.
The son of a well-known advertising creative director, Buntrock was taken by his parents to the professional theatre at an early age, but his personal introduction to the dramatic arts was an innovative solution to a childhood speech impediment. "I had a bad stammer and none of the usual therapies worked with me, so my mother enrolled me in a children's drama group hoping that if I spoke other people's words, it would solve my problem." It didn't — not entirely — and he still has a very slight stammer, which disappears as soon as he talks about any aspect of his work. Now, he says with a grin, it gives him an advantage that any director could use. "If people know you stammer, they give you a little more time to say what you're saying and they listen harder."
A school and a university with fine theatrical traditions followed, and Buntrock embarked on the young British director's customary route of small fringe productions and comedy gigs at the Edinburgh Festival before taking the profitable side-trip into animation that has proved so valuable for this production. "What really did it, though, was being hired by Sam Mendes as resident assistant director at the Donmar when he was artistic director there. I owe so much to him and it's such an important part of my career path."
He made the acquaintance of Sondheim's work early on. "I saw Into the Woods when it first opened in the West End and it knocked me out. It was that production that sealed my passion for theatre, made me determined to be a part of it.
"Bringing Sunday to Broadway is scary, sure, but in the best possible way. It's exciting because there is this cushion of New York professionalism surrounding me, coupled with the familiarity of the Sunday cast and creative staff from London and the unstinting support of the authors. It doesn't get better than this."