Saturday, May 3, 2014

Flashback, May 1984: Sondheim’s Pulitzer Prize-Winning ‘Sunday’ Debuts

Sunday in the Park With George, with its first of 604 performances at Booth Theatre on May 2, 1984, put Stephen Sondheim back in the conversation as Broadway’s most innovative playwright, after the wrenching failure three years before of Merrily We Roll Along.   

Reviews were not uniformly admiring and he would be virtually shut out at the next Tony Awards, but the composer-lyricist who had overturned musical theater conventions in the prior decade with Company, Follies, Pacific Overtures and Sweeney Todd before long had something that had escaped him (and other composers) for a while: a Pulitzer Prize.

So savage were the reviews for Merrily and so swift its end (only 16 performances) that it’s a wonder Sondheim could get his head off the pillow afterward, let alone that he could attempt anything artistically audacious again. The experience had been so traumatic that it ruptured his two-decade professional and personal association with producer-director Harold Prince. From this point on, except for the musical Bounce 20 years later, Sondheim’s primary collaborator would be playwright-director James Lapine. The composer’s work process would change accordingly.

In an immediate sense, Lapine was an indispensable help to carrying out Sondheim’s vision for this latest musical, which was inspired by the Impressionist painting A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. With an extensive background in art (including an M.F.A.), Lapine was quite familiar with the two periods covered by the play: 1880s Paris and its modern equivalent, 1980s New York.

To mirror the Pointillist technique of painter Georges Seurat, Sondheim crafted songs that, when not rhythmic, were disjointed and staccato. (Even the name of the painter’s mistress, “Dot,” reflects the Impressionist style.) The technique was daring, especially in relation to Merrily, which was written as a series of 32-bar songs, in the traditional style that had dominated musical comedy since the early 20th century.

Sondheim’s intellectual justification for his musical choices did not always sit well with audiences, a fact he burlesqued in Merrily when producer Joe Josephson urges Frank and lyricist partner Charlie to come up with works that will leave playgoers “hummin' those hummable melodies.” It has been said that he was quite peeved when Jerry Herman, after beating out Sondheim for best score at the 1984 Tony Awards, told the audience in his acceptance speech, "There's been a rumor that the simple hummable show tune is dead on Broadway. Well, it's alive and well at the Palace [where his show, La Cage aux Folles, was playing]!"

Sunday in the Park With George represents a shift in Sondheim’s career for another reason: It was the first time he had tested his material in the modern workshop format, which one of his biographers, Stephen Citron, would aptly term “a sort of open-ended rehearsal period.” When Sondheim started out in musical theater in the Fifties, problems would be worked on frantically away from Broadway and the media in different cities.

Beginning with A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum in 1962, Prince and Sondheim would work with a small group of actors before mounting it. The composer was not to be rushed. As he told Robert Berkvist of The New York Times in a 1979 interview: “I'm a slow writer. I don't want to spend three weeks writing a song and then find it's the wrong song. I want to be sure it's the right song before writing it." This could drive Prince and others associated with his shows crazy, but their annoyance, at least, acted as a spur to Sondheim, who over the years has admitted to procrastinating.

The modern workshop format (which, in its more elaborate modern form, began when director Michael Bennett used it for A Chorus Line) had seemed to offer a different, less expensive alternative. But the same cost issues that had bedeviled out-of-town tryouts began to exert themselves here, as workshops became more elaborate. 

One of the people afflicted by this was Sondheim. He and Prince collaborated on six shows between Company in 1970 and Merrily We Roll Along in 1981. (And they might have had another show in there but for the heart attack Sondheim suffered mid-decade.) In contrast, Sondheim and Lapine worked on only four in a roughly comparable period.

As Sondheim admitted in his lyrics-with-commentary compendium, Finishing the Hat: Collected Lyrics (1954-1981) with Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines and Anecdotes, workshops progressed “from the simplicity of actors sitting around a table with scripts they barely had time to read and a composer singing solo at a piano to elaborately staged and choreographed semi-productions with skeletal sets and suggestions of costumes, complete with a small band and a large invited audience. What had begun as a learning experience for the authors became transmogrified into a thinly disguised backers’ audition….Workshops with carefully chosen lull-sized casts, staged to entertain deep-pocketed strangers, are virtually worthless, certainly nowhere near as instructive as a performance with one person reading and one person (or two, if it’s a team) playing and singing through the show. I’m pained to say that I speak from experience.”

In keeping with Sondheim’s determination to forge a new direction in his post-Prince career, Sunday marks a new perspective on his characters. Previously, his musicals (nearly all, remarkably, derived from original material rather than prior literary sources) had been outer-directed, delving into marriage, class inequality, and racism. Even Merrily, a show ostensibly about musical collaborators, ultimately concerns the corrosive impact of success on friendship and marriage, in the larger context of massive social change in America over the course of a generation. The main character, composer Franklin Shepard, subconsciously might have represented a way to vent lingering resentment at Sondheim's collaborator on the misbegotten Do I Hear a Waltz?, Richard Rodgers—whose manifest creative brilliance co-existed with sharp, even cold-blooded skill as a businessman. Merrily was sour in concept, and, for the composer and director who had been longtime friends, it ended sourly.

In contrast, Sunday is inner-directed: a show about the creative process. The first half of the play (most, including myself, would agree, the better half) might concern events from a century ago, but so little was known about the real Seurat that Lapine and Sondheim felt liberated to imagine his life in largely fictional detail.

And so, in writing about a 19th-century French painter, Sondheim may have created his most autobiographical work, a vessel in which he could pour his feelings about the frustrations and glories of the creative process. Solitary and private (by necessity for most of his life to that point, because of lack of acceptance for his homosexuality), Sondheim wrote out of understanding for an artist so obsessed with “Putting It Together” that no relationship could compete with the products of his easel.

Like much of the rest of the musical, “Finishing the Hat” vibrates with the composer’s and his subject’s tensions, the onlooker of life in painful yet triumphant proximity to the generator of creative life:

“There's a part of you always standing by
Mapping out the sky
Finishing a hat, starting on a hat
Finishing a hat, look I made a hat
Where there never was a hat.”

The show was mounted again, this time by the Roundabout Theatre Co., six years ago. (See my review here.) Enhanced production techniques still could not hide the fact that the second act was anti-climactic. But the musical remains, like its creator, challenging--and, despite the claims of the composer's frequent critics, moving.

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