“Sunday in the Park” debuts at Yale

Stephen Sondheim’s Pulitzer Prize-winning musical, “Sunday in the Park with George,” debuted at the Off-Broadway Theater on Thursday.
Stephen Sondheim’s Pulitzer Prize-winning musical, “Sunday in the Park with George,” debuted at the Off-Broadway Theater on Thursday. Photo by Tory Burnside Clapp.

Art comes to life in “Sunday in the Park with George,” Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s Pulitzer Prize-winning musical that opened Thursday at the Off-Broadway Theater.

The 1983 musical was inspired by post-impressionist painter Georges Seurat’s “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.” When Lapine and Sondheim saw the work hanging in a museum in Chicago, Lapine was inspired to write the book for a musical that revolved around a fictionalized Seurat and incorporated the figures from the painting into the plot, said Noah Bokat-Lindell ’12, who plays Seurat.

Amid affairs between the painting’s characters, Georges struggles to balance his love for his lover, Dot, and his love for his work, Bokat-Lindell said.

The first act of the show follows Georges as he paints his masterpiece, despite receiving criticism from the surrounding artistic community for the pointillist style he pioneered. At the same time, Georges navigates his crumbling relationship with Dot, who is roughly based on the woman on the right side of the painting. Ultimately, Georges must decide between giving himself entirely to his career or to his romance with Dot.

Director Spencer Klavan ’13 said the show’s emphasizes the connection between two human beings.

“It’s hard to address that a person leaves you for himself rather than for someone else,” said Sara Hendel ’14, who plays Dot.

The second act of the show depicts Seurat’s great-grandson George as he accounts his own life as a struggling artist 100 years later — a portion of the musical that was not always performed, Klavan said. In the musical’s original Broadway production with Mandy Patinkin as George and Bernadette Peters as Dot, the second act of the show was not in fact staged until the final three nights of its first Broadway run, Klavan said.

“The two halves are very different,” he said. “The first [half] is more narrative and relationship-focused, while the second is more idea-focused. However, both deal with harmony and [human] connection.”

“Sunday in the Park with George” marks Klavan’s first foray into directing. In “Finishing the Hat,” a pivotal song by Georges after Dot leaves him, Klavan said he deviated from the original production by having Bokat-Lindell stand as he sings. In the original production, Georges remained seated on his stool for the entirety of the song, but Klavan said he wanted George “to be more confident in his choice to pursue his career over his lover.”

“The stool was too a safe a place to go back to,” Klavan said.

This is the first time the show has been performed by undergraduates at Yale, a rarity for a Sondheim show, Klavan said. This is likely because of its “incredibly challenging” technical requirements, he said, citing the necessity of lifting and pulling set pieces on and off the stage. To manage these needs, set designer Maggie Ditre ’14 created an intricate rigging and pulley system for the show.

Sondheim, best known for scoring musicals like “A Little Night Music” and “Sweeney Todd,” aimed to evoke Seurat’s painting technique in the show’s music, Bokat-Lindell said. In painting, Seurat used a pointillist technique, in which dots of color appear distinct up close but blend into a clear image from afar. By mixing staccato with longer notes, Sondheim created a similarly dotted but harmonious feel in his music, Bokat-Lindell said.

“Sunday in the Park with George” will run through Saturday.

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