Legend has it that Georges Seurat, the French neo-impressionist painter, may have saved the Broadway career of out superstar composer Stephen Sondheim.
In 1981, Sondheim’s “Merrily We Roll Along,” based loosely on a 1934 play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, closed to scathing reviews after just 16 performances. Discouraged by the experience, Sondheim announced his intention to leave the theater and write mystery novels.
His mind was changed when he and writer/director James Lapine saw “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grand Jatte,” Seurat’s enormous masterpiece of pointillism on permanent display at the Art Institute of Chicago. Lapine noted that the only character missing from the 10-foot-wide canvas was the artist himself. This set the pair’s creative wheels in motion, resulting in “Sunday in the Park with George,” produced in 1983 and credited as Sondheim’s comeback show.
The largely fictionalized account of the painting’s creation by Seurat, who died from diphtheria at age 31, will come to Milwaukee’s Skylight Music Theatre at the Broadway Theatre Center May 18-June 10. The production, Skylight’s final one for the season, is a labor of love for director Bill Theisen.
“From the moment I first saw the original Broadway production in 1984, I fell in love with it and thought it would be perfect for Skylight to produce,” says Theisen, the company’s artistic director. “Skylight has done 10 past Sondheim productions but never ‘Sunday.’”
The show follows Seurat (Sean Allan Krill) and his creation of the mammoth canvas, which eventually leads his lover Dot (Mary Alison Forbes) to desert him. Characters on the canvas come to life, each with his or her own backstory. In act two, the entire cast fast-forwards to the future, where Seurat’s grandson, also named George, struggles to pursue his own artistic visions.
“One of the things that most fascinates me about the show is what Lapine and Sondheim have created, studying the painting and creating all these individual characters,” Theisen says. “What they have given us is rather brilliant, and they were able to use factual elements about Seurat’s life as well.”
Striving to be true to the original artwork presented production challenges, Theisen says.
“The color palette is challenging, because there is so much orange in the world of Seurat,” he explains. “That was something costume designer Shima Orans had to figure out while still keeping the costumes interesting.”
The size of the original painting was a challenge for the Cabot Theatre stage. Pointillism’s unique approach to creating images comprised of millions of dots presented elements of both challenge and advantage, Theisen says.
“Sondheim says that he found great inspiration in Seurat’s pointillism style when he wrote the music for ‘Sunday,’ and that’s true when you hear the score,” Theisen says. “All of the underscoring written for the character of George when he is painting supports the style in which Seurat painted. The seamless way in which Sondheim incorporated this is almost genius.”
For Theisen, the play is not only about art, but also the universality of expression and the challenge of presenting a unique view of life. That’s as true for the show as it was for Seurat’s original work, he says.
“What I think is most important about the play is that it speaks not just to artists, but to all of us,” Theisen says, “It shows us what can happen when we pause in our work, take a breath and make a sideways glance and begin to see life once again as a blank canvas filled with unlimited opportunities.”