Does anyone still finish a hat? Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine certainly had when Sunday in the Park with George made its Broadway bow on this day in 1984. The Pulitzer Prize-winning musical is one of the great musicals of that decade, a show written when Sondheim was working his way out of the pits of despair into which Merrily We Roll Along had thrown him. Working in a new creative context with a new collaborator at a time when he must have been questioning his own artistry must certainly have added something to Sunday in the Park with George, which grapples most profoundly with what it means to be both an artist and a human being.
To celebrate this blue, purple, yellow, red anniversary of a green, purple, yellow, red musical theatre gem, here’s my list of the five most graceful, sophisticated and imaginative moments that make the show so special to me.
For sheer beauty, there is little to top “Sunday” in the musical theatre canon. It is the kind of song during which one can hardly breathe. Sondheim sets a single sentence to music that swells and swells until it reaches its climax. And when your breath returns, the tears flow. Forever…
4. “Finishing the Hat”
“Finishing the Hat” captures – as does “Color and Light” earlier in the show – the simultaneous torture and joy of making art. It is such an intimate moment, stripping down the making of art to the instant when artists are at their most powerful and their most vulnerable: the moment of creation. It captures how artists, no matter the medium in which they work, get to a place of connection in which there is an understanding of everything that defines our humanity, ironically by disengaging themselves from the real world and people that surround them. Knowing that George can make a hat ‘where there never was a hat’ makes us understand why he treats Marie the way that he does. It also shows us how she hurts him as much as he hurts her. It sets up the layers of pain that come to light in “We Do Not Belong Together” and lays the foundation for everything that can happen when things come together on a perfect “Sunday.”
3. “Putting It Together“
“Putting It Together” is a song that I love as much for its life outside of the show as for what it says inside it. I first heard the Julie Andrews version created for the show that took its name from the song, which shifts the artist’s process to a performer’s. Different words, but the sentiment remains the same – a prime example of how specificity can prompt universality. While it perhaps doesn’t cut close to the bone in as obviously an emotional manner as other songs in the show, it does prompt other questions about what it means to make art today – questions that I think we are facing even now as the world comes to grips with what Covid-19 will mean for the arts in general. That aside, I find this song and the scene that is built around it so rhythmically exciting, a completely thrilling ride to its neatly punctuated conclusion.
2. “Move On“
My experience of this song has been: “The longer you live, the truer it gets.” So much of modern life seems to be about grappling with feeling trapped by a world that doesn’t care whether you exist or not, about getting stuck in a rut, about being unable to connect with something that gives your life meaning. It offers the ultimate life lesson: ‘Anything you do, / Let it come from you.’ This is probably the most fulfilling thing anybody can do – and finding the courage to do this is all (!) it takes.
1. “Children and Art“
I’m sure that I would not be alone in naming this really unassuming song as my favourite in the score of Sunday in the Park with George. I find it phenomenally moving, this simple sentiment expressed through the character of Marie in an almost glancing manner. The effect of placing the painstakingly crafted lyrics within such an expertly constructed piece of music – suited to both the concept that unites the score (the short musical phrases that make up the whole, in the way that the dots come together to form the image in the painting) and the character (whose age is reflected in the lack of long phrases and the placement of the song in the voice) – is pure magic. It is a superb piece of work.
Want to share why Sunday in the Park with George is special to you? Feel free to head on down to the comments box to share your favourite moments with me.