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Student Blog: Stephen Sondheim and George Seurat


Did Sondheim see himself in George Seurat?

Student Blog: Stephen Sondheim and George Seurat

Sunday in the Park with George illustrates the struggles of being an artist in two different centuries. Undoubtedly, these struggles continue to perpetuate in the contemporary art world and can be applied to Stephen Sondheim's experience as a musical theatre composer and lyricist. In the 1984 New York Times review of the Broadway musical, Frank Rich writes that George Seurat "could well be a stand-in for Mr. Sondheim, who brings the same fierce, methodical intellectual precision to musical and verbal composition that the artist brought to his pictorial realm". In other words, Stephen Sondheim parallels George Seurat.

One obvious connection between the Seurat portrayed in Sunday in the Park with George and Sondheim is their focus on the overarching art and themes rather than expected details and storylines. For instance, Rich describes the characters of the first act of the musical, other than George and Dot, as "little more than fleeting cameos". Seurat's famous painting A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte has many people, yet we only really focus on a few, and we recognize the work as a whole. Similarly, in the musical, we are presented with many different characters, but we only really dive into the lives of George and Dot as well as Jules and Yvonne. Sondheim cared about sending a message of the difficulty of being an artist rather than creating a storyline with a specific problem that characters get together to fix.

In another Sondheim musical, Into the Woods, many of the characters are also cameos. Although there is a conflict that characters get together to fix, we still do not care much about the cameo characters when they die. We care about the few main characters and walk away from the show remembering themes of despair and desire. Of course we empathize with the central characters during the deaths of minor characters, but at the end of the day we remember overarching themes. We learn to not obsess over the choices we could have made in the past or what we would do in the future if a dream came true. When the Baker's Wife sings "you can't live in the woods", Sondheim tells us to not live in the woulds and would nots.

Another connection in Sunday in the Park with George with Sondheim's life is the societal pressures faced in the art world by the George of the second act. Both George and Sondheim faced pressures to create work that audiences were expected to enjoy rather than innovative works trying to bring a new element into an artform. For example, in the song "Putting it Together" George sings "Overnight you're a trend. You're the right combination. Then the trend's at an end. You're suddenly last year's sensation". It is evident that George paid attention to critics and trends in the art world, but, as seen in the musical, he creates work that he is passionate about. Similarly, Sondheim experienced a failed production with many negative reviews prior to the opening of this musical which demonstrated his lack of sticking with the popular trends of the industry. However, he still persisted, after a period of despair, to create works he was passionate about; works that we still love today.

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From This Author Student Blogger: Blake Velick