How Sondheim and Lapine Made a Masterpiece with Sunday in the Park with George

Special Features   How Sondheim and Lapine Made a Masterpiece with Sunday in the Park with George The Pulitzer Prize-winning musical is now at City Center in a series of benefit concerts starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Annaleigh Ashford. We look back at how the show was written and how it revolutionized musical theatre.
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Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters in the original Broadway production of Sunday in the Park with George Martha Swope/©Billy Rose Theatre Division, NYPL for the Performing Arts

“When I first hear a song sung, I’m worried that I’m going to be embarrassed by what I wrote,” said Stephen Sondheim while Sunday in the Park with George was in previews. “So I try to postpone the moment.” The quote is endearing, and more than a little absurd, coming from the patron saint of musical theatre—but in early 1984, Sondheim hadn’t quite hit apotheosis. His previous musical, Merrily We Roll Along, had closed on Broadway after a 16-performance run.

Then salvation came—in the form of a Pointillist masterpiece. In June 1982, Sondheim began a tentative collaboration with James Lapine, a young Off-Broadway playwright. In search of a subject, they began rifling through photographs and paintings, one of which was Georges Seurat’s A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.

The 1884 painting looked like a stage set, Lapine observed, but was missing the main character. “Who?” asked Sondheim. “The artist,” said Lapine. He laid tracing paper over La Grande Jatte and drew a constellation of arrows, each one pointing to an anonymous figure on the riverbank. “Mother?” he wrote. “Mistress? Butler?” It was like an existential game of Clue, a whodunit in which the answer was Georges Seurat.

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Georges Seurat painted A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte over the course of two years.

But who was Seurat? In their research, Sondheim and Lapine were able to gather a few crumbs about the notoriously secretive painter: Seurat worked at night, kept mum unless asked about his experiments with color, and had apparently gone to great lengths to prevent his mother from learning of the existence of his mistress Madeleine Knobloch, a model who appears in Seurat’s Young Woman Powdering Herself and bore him two children (both died in infancy). “When you have a character like that,” said Sondheim, “you can fill him out in any way you want.”

Sondheim delayed filling him in for as long as possible. To evoke the “rhythmic verve” of Seurat’s technique, he decided to write a shimmering, “Brittenesque” score; for a time, he toyed with the idea of assigning every white piano key a color on Seurat’s palette and “juxtaposing them the way he did in his painting, using the black keys to modify them the way Seurat used black and white.” Lapine wrote a draft of the first act, including potential song cues (“The dogs sing here”), as well as a series of made-to-order monologues so that Sondheim could “raid” them for lyric ideas. By the time actors gathered for a reading of the first act, Sondheim had only completed the opening chords of the score. “I was really dubious,” Lapine recalled. “I thought, Why isn’t he writing?

Bernadette Peters agreed to play Dot on the basis of one song and 30 pages of the first act; when rehearsals began for the Off-Broadway workshop in the summer of 1983, no music had been written for the second act. Curiously, this happened to be Sondheim’s ideal writing process. “I really don’t want to write the score until the show is cast and in rehearsal,” he once said. “Then I wouldn’t make any mistakes. Silly as it sounds, it’s true, because by then you know the qualities of the people that you’re writing for.”

On Sunday, he had his wish—and once the actors adjusted to it, their time at Playwrights Horizons took on a Scheherazade sense of wonder. In one version of the show, all the figures in the painting got solos. Another draft featured a lengthy detour to the 1950s, with a child actor playing the pre-Chromolume George. “This is a show that Steve and James were writing as we were doing it,” recalled Peters. “Every day we’d wait to see if a song would appear. I remember how exciting it was when ‘Finishing the Hat’ came in.” By that point, Sunday had already begun performances, and the creators were making nightly curtain speeches acknowledging the play’s unfinished nature.

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Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters in the original Broadway production of Sunday in the Park with George Martha Swope/©Billy Rose Theatre Division, NYPL for the Performing Arts

One afternoon, Sondheim told Mandy Patinkin that he’d written a new song for George. In search of an open piano, they left Playwrights Horizons and crossed the street to the basement of the West Bank Café. Sondheim sat down at the piano and began to play. “He was very nervous,” Patinkin said. “When he finished playing it and singing it, he went from a dry shirt to just sopping wet underarms, right in the chest bones—just drenched. He was worried about something. And we were in tears, all of us.” Patinkin performed “Finishing the Hat” that night, using his sketchpad as a crib sheet.

The song has haunted artists ever since—and not just those who make musicals. As a teenager, Stephen Colbert read the lyrics of “Finishing the Hat” aloud to his mother “to try to explain why I wanted to be an artist.” Joss Whedon, the man behind pop-culture juggernauts like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and The Avengers, has said of the song, “That’s my experience of being an artist: what I would say, but better than I could ever say it.”

“It’s one of the few songs that actually captures what it’s like to have a blank page and then put something down—the rush of it, the burden of it, and what it costs people,” says Jeanine Tesori. The Tony Award-winning composer of Fun Home, Violet, and Caroline, or Change was an intern at Playwrights Horizons during the original Sunday workshop. “It was the first thing I did after graduating from school,” she says. “My job was to get on the M49 bus and bring new songs by hand to [music director] Paul Gemignani; I would sit there with the manila envelope on my lap. And I never looked.”

Instead, Tesori gelled lights, went on coffee runs, and watched as, bit by bit, a masterpiece came into being. (Even after Sunday transferred to Broadway, the score kept changing; “Lesson #8” was smuggled into the show three days before the critics came.) For Tesori, Sunday in the Park with George was “seminal. I saw it 13 times, through all the changes, and it really did make me think, Maybe there is a place in this industry for me.”

The notion of reviving the show at City Center occurred to her in the spring of 2015, when she began working with Jake Gyllenhaal on the Encores! Off-Center production of Little Shop of Horrors. Tesori had coaxed Gyllenhaal to star in his first musical by delivering a potted plant to his dressing room during the Broadway run of Constellations. The plant was strewn with bloody Barbie-doll parts, and a note tucked into the soil read, “JUST DO IT.”

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Dana Ivey and Charles Kimbrough in the original Broadway production of Sunday in the Park with George Martha Swope/©Billy Rose Theatre Division, NYPL for the Performing Arts

“I thought he would say no,” Tesori says, “but it turns out that he really loves to sing.” During their first Little Shop session, Tesori was struck by the fact that Gyllenhaal’s “attention to detail, and his desire to work endlessly, matched mine. We could sit with the score and go for three hours.” (As Dot says of George, “He could look forever.”) One day, over kale salad and the sheet music for “Mushnik and Son,” Tesori mentioned Sunday in the Park with George. “I said, ‘That would be a great role for you someday.’ Then it just came together in his schedule that we could do it now, at City Center.”

The benefit concerts mark Tesori’s first project in her new role as City Center’s artistic advisor. Sunday in the Park with George is being performed with Michael Starobin’s original orchestrations, but the concerts differ from the original production in one crucial sense: the audience has evolved. The Broadway production opened May 2, 1984, and although it received a few positive reviews—as well as the Pulitzer Prize for Drama—the show was mostly met with bewilderment and hostility. Preview audiences walked out in droves, the Daily News wrote that the musical “doesn’t bear looking at or listening to for very long,” and the second act was so polarizing that The Wall Street Journal suggested it be scrapped altogether. (Sondheim’s response: “Without the second half, the show’s a stunt.”)

The New York Times’ Frank Rich was virtually alone in giving the show a rave. “Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine demand that an audience radically change its whole way of looking at the Broadway musical,” he wrote. With Sunday, and the more commercially-minded Into the Woods, they did just that. The musicals are like two yolks from the same sublime egg: in both shows, each song rises from the harmonic ashes of the preceding song; the second acts complicate, contradict, and devour the lessons of the first; and Bernadette Peters materializes as a ghost just in time for the 11 o’clock number. These formal innovations, so galling to contemporary critics, feel inevitable today.

Perhaps that’s because a generation of theatregoers came of age watching Sunday and Woods. Both musicals were preserved on videotape, and in the 1980s and 1990s, countless children followed the trail of breadcrumbs from Woods to Sunday. A startlingly wide range of artists grew up loving the show: “Difficult People” creator Julie Klausner began obsessively re-watching the Sunday videotape at age nine, and it became Josh Groban’s “all-time favorite musical” at age ten. Today, six-year-olds sing “Finishing the Hat” and post their performances on YouTube.

“There’s so much there that you can take in as a kid,” said Groban recently—and it’s true. To children, Sunday in the Park with George isn’t a lofty, inaccessible art piece that “feels icy to the touch,” as New York magazine claimed in 1984. It’s the story of a boy who loves to draw and a girl who is learning to read. As Sondheim waggishly put it, the plot of Sunday is simple: “Boy loves girl. Boy loves art. Boy loses girl. Boy gets both girl and art 100 years later.”

Matt Weinstock writes for the publications at New York City Center.

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Stephen Sondheim, Bernadette Peters, and James Lapine celebrating Sunday’s Pulitzer win outside the Booth Theatre. Sara Krulwich/Getty Images
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