Critic’s Notebook: Stumped by Sondheim After Spending ‘Sunday in the Park with George’

As a critic, I’m always looking for a fresh challenge, which is one reason I took up writing about theater: It still has the capacity to scare me.

I’ve reviewed nearly 1,700 movies in my time at Variety, but how to weigh in with authority on stage productions of William Shakespeare or Samuel Beckett when I haven’t seen most of their work performed, but know it only by reputation? Last year, I was nervous going in to a fresh revival of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” at Los Angeles’ Geffen Playhouse, as I had only the Mike Nichols movie as a reference point. How to judge Calista Flockhart’s performance, and what might I compare it to, not having seen Uta Hagen play Martha on Broadway? (I did manage to track down a vinyl recording of that show, but still…

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Reviewing theater is a different discipline, and writing about musicals is an even greater challenge — one I’d been looking forward to since seeing the Pasadena Playhouse’s announcement that they’d be dedicating their Spring 2023 season to the late Stephen Sondheim, with a month-long run of “Sunday in the Park with George” as its centerpiece. By the time of his death at age 91, Sondheim was widely regarded as “the most (some might say only) significant writer of musicals to emerge during the past half-century,” to quote Ben Brantley of the New York Times.

“Sunday” was the show that had won Sondheim and co-writer James Lapine the Pulitzer Prize. I’d seen the movie versions of “Sweeney Todd” and “Into the Woods,” both films of “West Side Story,” and a college production of “Assassins,” but that’s basically where my knowledge of Sondheim stopped. Here would be my chance to fill in an important gap in my theater experience, and what could be easier than reviewing the West Coast version of a widely respected triumph?

It never occurred to me that I might hate the show!

This was essentially the same version that had earned Jake Gyllenhaal so much acclaim in 2017, directed by Lapine’s niece Sarna Lapine. Same concept, same costumes, but different venue and different cast. Graham Phillips — from the aforementioned “Virginia Woolf” Geffen revival — fills Gyllenhaal’s shoes, while Krystina Alabado plays his mistress/model/muse. She can sing! Phillips not so much. Staged there in a theater I admired, the songs sounded shrill and unpleasant (starting with the opening/title number), the stage didn’t look big enough, and disappointing digital projections took the place of a proper set.

I had long been interested in the French painter Georges Seurat, ever since discovering his mural-sized masterpiece “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte” in person as a teenager. It’s a stunning work of art, painted in Seurat’s revolutionary pointillist style: When viewed from a certain distance, countless dots of different colors combine to form a group portrait of four dozen people — plus two dogs and a pet monkey — arranged along the banks of the Seine. Admire it as I might, I can’t say that I ever wondered about the private lives of the figures depicted therein.

In the first act, Sondheim and Lapine’s musical focuses on the young painter, whose name they’ve anglicized to “George” (which rather unfortunately sounds like a goose honking, especially when repeated at the end of every line: “I know you’re near, George / I caught your eyes, George / I want your ear, George / I’ve a surprise, George”). Seurat died at age 31, never having sold a painting, and the show does several interesting things with a life that went largely unrecorded.

First, it imagines the artist missing out on a meaningful relationship — with a lover rather lamely named Dot — because he can’t tear his attention away from his work (“Finishing the Hat”). Second, it seeks to find a musical equivalent to pointillism (this part I found fascinating) as a composer uses his craft to celebrate the act of creation in another medium. Lastly — and most confusingly — it leaps forward 100 years to deal with legacy, as Seurat’s great-grandson, also named George, pays tribute via a cutting-edge art installation in the second act.

Now, the show is the show and has existed as such for nearly 40 years, so it hardly makes sense for any review of a regional revival to question the material, and yet, because I was counting on this experience to illuminate Sondheim’s genius, I felt frustrated. Individual lines might be clever or catchy, but most of the music is more conceptual, defying the earworm appeal of classic showtunes (the score is notoriously unhummable). One song — “The Day Off” — hurt my ears while shattering any sense that this was a strictly highbrow affair, as George starts to bark, pretending to be two of the dogs he’s drawing.

Seeing the ensemble, you figure that all these one-dimensional characters will arrange themselves into the famous painting at some point, but not halfway through! Here in SoCal, we’re spoiled by the annual Pageant of the Masters down in Laguna: a series of famous paintings stunningly transformed into tableaux vivants on an outdoor stage. Evidently so impressive on Broadway, that stunt alone is hardly enough to make the show, and leaves the century-later second act still to go.

I found it all very vexing, but not in a way I could easily explain, much less dismiss. Rather than trusting my negative knee-jerk reaction, I wanted to understand the show, to know what Sondheim and Lapine had been going for. Was it the material I took issue with or merely this production? “Sunday” became an obsession, inspiring more than a dozen hours of research: I tracked down the album made with the original Broadway cast, listening to Mandy Patinkin as George and Bernadette Peters as Dot, but the music still bothered me (with the exception of “Color and Light” and “Putting It Together” — the two songs most directly about making art).

Then I consulted a collection of interviews with Sondheim, in which his sophisticated grasp of musical theory — and musical theater concepts — both impressed and intimidated me. Sondheim kept dropping terms I didn’t know, like “arpeggio” and “recitative,” as he spoke of his commitment to character and tactic of using songs to advance the plot — except that “Sunday” didn’t seem to have much in the way of either character or plot. No matter.

Instead of stopping there, I kept digging. On YouTube, I found a recording of the same production, aired on PBS’s “American Playhouse.” Watching it was a revelation: From the opening seconds, it felt magical to see a tree materialize on stage — far more impressive than the PowerPoint approach featured at the Pasadena Playhouse. Later on, in the second half, great-grandson George’s Chromolume suddenly made sense, as the young man’s high-tech installation produces a laser light show in the form of Seurat’s painting.

Still curious, I read on, tackling James Lapine’s memoir, “Putting It Together,” in which Sondheim asks his co-writer, “Remember the way I started? I had this brilliant, pretentious, terrible idea that since Seurat had twelve colors on his palette and there are twelve notes in an octave, I suddenly thought, Everything’s going to be seconds, two notes together — a possible analogue to Seurat’s close juxtaposition of different-colored dots, the closeness of notes on a piano.”

I have no idea whether he abandoned that idea or not, but it seemed to fit my initial take on the show: Clearly, Sondheim had sought ways of honoring Seurat’s innovative style, which was based in science and color theory. The quite-literal lyrics “More red! And a little more red! Blue, blue, blue, blue, blue, blue, blue, blue” was one, but so was the composer’s unconventional use of rhyme. All those lines ending in “George” may have irritated me, but I found the song “Putting It Together” playful in all the right ways, as a quick “That’s what counts!” is immediately followed by “Ounce by ounce, putting it together / Small amounts, adding up to make a work of art.”

There I’m reminded of Jonathan Larson, Jason Robert Brown and Lin-Manuel Miranda. Multiple rhyming sounds snowball and build through the rest of the song, which deals with George Jr.’s insecurities as well as Sondheim’s, coming off the flop that was “Merrily We Roll Along.” The show’s attempts at humor still felt flat (e.g. “That’s the puddle / Where the poodle / Did the piddle”), but Sondheim goes deep, getting vulnerable when talking about the personal anxieties and emotional cost of making art. I appreciate that about the show, even if Seurat’s a hard character to care about.

Turns out, that’s a problem many critics had with the musical when it debuted in 1984. Some audiences were even more unforgiving (in his book, Lapine blames the walkouts on a problem with the air conditioning at the Booth Theatre). But time has revealed the show to be better than they — or I — first realized. I’ll be curious to see “Sunday” again at some point down the road, as a new director and cast try to make it their own, and I’ll surely be back to explore other aspects of the Pasadena Playhouse’s Sondheim celebration, which include “A Little Night Music” in April and several concert events. Meanwhile, on the other side of Los Angeles, the Ruskin Group Theatre is doing a tiny yet terrific production of Steve Martin’s “Picasso at the Lapin Agile” with lots of laughs and no songs. When it comes to portraits of Parisian post-Impressionists, that show is more my speed.

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