U-M musical-theater program spending 'Sunday in the Park with George'
Photo by Peter Smith Photography
Inspired by the iconic painting “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte,” the groundbreaking musical—with a book by James Lapine—spins a fictional tale, focused first on artist Georges Seurat as he obsessively works on “Sunday” in 1884 Paris; and second on Georges’ great-grandson, a performance artist at a personal crossroads in 1984.
1984 also marked the musical’s Broadway premiere. And although “Sunday” would go on to earn the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1985, the original Broadway production (starring stage superstars Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters) earned mixed reviews.
Of course, this often happens to shows that take risks and breaks new ground, like “coming up with a completely new story for this painting,” said “Sunday” director Mark Madama. “So little is known about Seurat’s life, except for his painting style. So creating an entire world out of the people depicted in this painting, and tying them in to George Seurat’s life, is a pretty amazing thing. It takes the concept musical to another level.”Despite the recognition that “Sunday” has received, a common response to the musical is that the quality of the first act far outstrips that of the second, thus making it an uneven show. But Madama begs to differ.
“The first act is so beautiful, and it almost feels complete at the end, because (Seurat)’s made this painting,” said Madama. “But the truth of the first act is not him making the painting—that wasn’t the source of the drama. The drama comes from his relationship with (his mistress) Dot—his inability to complete himself, to be able to have a relationship and have a personal life; and that’s why second act is needed.”
Madama argues that generations later, when the second act takes place, Seurat’s great grandson George—who’s good at connecting with his public and his funders, but feels disassociated from his art and himself—finally manages to resolve the conflict introduced in the first act.
“The layers on this are just insane,” said Madama. “ The lyrics are so rich, and have so much to say about life. We were doing a run-through yesterday, and there’s a song in the second act, ‘Move On,’ and I told the actor who’s playing George, ‘You don’t need to act this. You don’t need to do anything. Just give over to this. Because we all go through these moments, 70 times a day, where we’re trying so hard to move on with our lives, and to not get stuck. And sometimes it’s something as simple as hearing the two words, ‘move on,’ and it’s like a smack to the head. It’s such a universal thing that you don’t need to do anything to express this to the audience. Just say the words, and they will get that instantly.’ It’s one of those moments that brings tears to your eyes.”
A special element in U-M's production of "Sunday" will be the involvement of U-M grad and Broadway veteran Alexander Gemignani ('01), who starred in the acclaimed 2008 Broadway revival of "Sunday"; he'll work with the student performers as co-music director (with Cynthia Kortman-Westphal) and conduct the pit orchestra at the performances. (As if this didn't provide enough of a direct connection, Alexander's father, Paul Gemignani, was music director of the original Broadway production of "Sunday.")
And while there’s little to no choreography in “Sunday,” Madama noted, “It never stays still. The only way to go about that is for these actors to understand their characters so much that you can almost just unleash them in their stories, using movement and blocking to get clarity. I’ll tell you this: in first looking at this, I thought, ‘This isn’t going to be hard to stage. There are no big numbers,’ and so on. But what you do have is people constantly running in and running out, and times when the whole cast is on stage as characters in a painting. And there’s nothing in the painting but that picture, but you’re setting up little romances and conflicts and interactions between the people. That’s really fun, just playing with the actors, and encouraging them to create and fill in the dots.”