FROM THE ARCHIVES: Mandy Patinkin Opens Up About the Blurred the Line Between Actor and Artist

Special Features   FROM THE ARCHIVES: Mandy Patinkin Opens Up About the Blurred the Line Between Actor and Artist
 
Turns out: Mandy Patinkin prepared for this role in Sunday in the Park with George as if he were creating a Seurat canvas.
Mandy Patinkin
Mandy Patinkin Martha Swope/©Billy Rose Theatre Division, NYPL for the Performing Arts

Digging into the archives, we unearth the original articles printed in the Playbills of yesteryear.

In honor of the closing of the limited engagement revival of Sunday in the Park with George, starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Annaleigh Ashford, we take a look back at Broadway’s original Georges Seurat: Mandy Patinkin. In this 1983 interview, the Tony-winning actor for Evita talks about the challenge of creating Seurat with Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine at the same time as playing him, and what it was like to blur the lines between himself and his character.

Read More: WHAT HAPPENED WHEN MANDY PATINKIN WATCHED JAKE GYLLENHAAL PERFORM THE ROLE HE ORIGINATED?

The handsome actor greets yet another reporter. To put him at ease, she notes that this must be his fifth interview this week. He flashes a stainless smile. “You are the first,” he says sweetly, “ever.”

This artful charmer, Mandy Patinkin, stars in Sunday in the Park with George, the Stephen Sondheim-James Lapine musical now playing to packed houses at the Booth. Based on the life of Georges Seurat, the 19th-century painter of the famous “Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte,” the play dramatizes how he might have created his light-filled canvas of Parisians strolling on an island in the Seine.

Act 1 opens with a bearded Patinkin stage ready to begin his masterpiece. As he utters his craft’s sacred laws—“Composition…Balance…Light…Harmony…”—lush trees magically fly in from the rafters, a river, sailboats, and a shimmering lawn slide in from the wings.

As the act unfolds, so does the painting, as well as the drama of George and his mistress, Dot (named, in this play, for Seurat’s pointillist technique of painting tiny dots of basic color which fuse together in the viewer’s eye rather than on the artist’s palette). George obsessively sketches Dot along with the shopgirls, soldiers, tourists, and servants who eventually come to life on his canvas. In the end, the artist, torn between the pursuit of the perfect work and the desire for ordinary human happiness, loses his mistress but completes his triumphant design as the characters freeze into a living reproduction of Seurat’s masterwork.

The second act jumps 100 years to 1984 where a young artist, great-grandson of Seurat, also named George, finds himself in a jam. As avidly obsessed with color and light as his forebear, young George builds bizarre lazer-spitting sculptures. But having completed his seventh “Chromolume,” he knows he’s created his own cliché, and so struggles to break through to a fresh artistic vision. In this, he’s aided by the spirits of Seurat and Dot.

But why jump 100 years? It’s because had Seurat lived (he died at age 31 in 1891), he’d have finished his pointillist series and gotten stuck just as young George does, says Patinkin. “Look at guys like Picasso. They change. Drastically. And you can bet your ass that they go crazy in between,” he whispers with emphasis.

Patinkin’s betting zeal derives from the fact that he too rode an emotional roller-coaster while struggling for a clear vision of his role. Since Sondheim and Lapine had written only part of the script when rehearsals began, Patinkin, like Seurat, learned what it is to face a blank page. And just as Seurat’s canvas is unified by the surge of countless tiny dots, so, too, did the show achieve coherence “dot by dot” over several months. In this way Sunday in the Park is as much about its own rehearsal process as it is about Seurat’s painting.

That process brought as much torment as joy to the dark, combustible Patinkin. Sometimes collaboration was close and consensual as two minds winging in tandem. He brainstormed with Sondheim, for instance, to create George’s half of a duet with his mother. In it, she longs for the old view of Paris which is now marred by monstrosities like the Eiffel Tower. George’s response emerged from a long talk between Patinkin and Sondheim, which the composer ultimately rendered in such lyrics “Pretty isn’t beautiful, Mother/Pretty is what changes/What the eye arranges/Is what is beautiful.” Then, in a breath of youthful bravado, “You watch/While I revise the world.”

Patinkin was astonished and moved. “It was a complete poetic capsule of our entire conversation. No human being had ever taken something I’d said and turned it into a poem, let alone one with music.”

But in the midst of this collaborative happiness, Patinkin had the jitters. “I wasn’t used to working this way,” he says. “When I did Evita [for which he won a 1980 Tony], the script was there. You learned the songs. You did the play. There was none of this putting-it-together stuff.”

The Sunday script was still incomplete when the cast gave workshop performances in July 1983 at Playwrights Horizons. “There were big problems with the second act,” Patinkin says, “but when people pay to see my work, I’m used to having it together. So what was I supposed to do?...Well,” he says, talking to himself like a fairy godfather, “you got to go out there and do it anyway.” “Okay, okay,” he obediently answers, “I’ll go out there and do it anyway.”

Having gotten through this ordeal, he later had to face Broadway previews with the second act still in fragments. Word hit the street that they were in trouble. Bad enough, but then they had to postpone the opening. At this dark moment, Sondheim, who seems to work at his very best during the very worst, came brilliantly to the rescue.

One week before opening, the composer came up with two new songs, “quick to bring tears,” as one reviewer wrote, that do express how lost and desolate George feels.

Before those songs were in place, Patinkin says, “It was killing all of us because we knew that we were just inches away. Just inches. If you’re 3,000 miles away, then who cares? You figure, ‘We blew it. We ain’t gonna make it. It was an idea over a couple of drinks, but it’s just not coming together.’ This,” he says, “was a different story.”

But when the missing pieces were there, “the whole thing fell into line, just like the painting. You know: put the dog here; no, put the dog there; put the lady here, no, take the soldiers and put them back there; no, put the mother near the water and turn the nurse’s back to us—the way Seurat would have played with his figures. That’s exactly what we did.”

And when it all came together, he says, “it seemed that we had lived through his way of making the painting. And we felt so personally high when we had achieved what we wanted: something whole and clear.”

While the work may be clear, what is not is the line between the actor and his role. Though he’s had other major parts in plays and films like Yentl, Daniel, and Ragtime, Seurat is the character with whom he most closely identifies. “Who’s George and who’s Mandy?” Patinkin asks. “I don’t know. There’s no line and I wish there was. I cannot find the line.”

The audience may not be able to either. Patinkin bears a striking resemblance to Seurat: vigorous hair, purposeful gaze with its rare mix of sensitivity and swagger. Then, too, Mandy who’s married to actress Kathryn Grody and has a son, keenly feels some of the same life tensions that his Seurat does.

I want my work to be good like he wants his work to be good,” says Patinkin. “I want to be with my family like he wants to be with a family. He doesn’t want Dot to leave. He wants her more than anything. I want all of those things that he wants: good work and a good life. The simplest things in the world.”

The strength of Patinkin’s identification with the painter grew slowly as he prepared for the role: first learning to sketch, then visiting artists, reading books about Seurat and his theories of color and light. “He was a ‘chromoluminariest’,” he says, pronouncing the word with wonder. “Nothing was more important to him than the effect of the color and the light.”

Finally, Patinkin made a pilgrimage to the Art Institute of Chicago which houses the original “Sunday Afternoon on the Island of a Grande Jatte.” There, he spent five hours in front of the painting, talking to the figures in it. “I just tripped, like you’re on acid or something,” he says, “just talking to the painting. It was real. It was alive to me.”

When a school group came and the teacher explained that this was a painting by Seurat (“this is what he was trying to do, but as you can see, he failed”) Patinkin awoke from his reverie dying to throw punches.

Later near closing time, a more reverent mood overtook him. “I’d just spent hours looking at this work. I even got up on a chair to see which color dots he put where on a flowered hat because I sing about yellow commas and violet diagonals in the show. I wanted to know where they all were…All day long I’d listened to hundreds of comments about the painting. I knew we were going to be showing it in a theatre with 750 people a night, maybe for years, and I knew a lot more people would see this painting because of that, and I just stared to well, weep… I was hoping and praying that I would do justice to the work… I hoped that he would approve of what we were trying to do, and I just couldn’t get over the fact that he never sold a painting in his lifetime. To have made something like this and never knowing… I just hoped that he was present somewhere knowing how much joy his work had given to people.”

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