On My Hard Drive: Steven Sondheim, Bernadette Peters, and Mandy Patinkin

A couple of posts back I noted that I have been in a bit of a funk lately, and then I let it be known that it is primarily due to business partner issues I am having right now. I'm not going to go into more than that, but that's where I am.

Driving down the road today, I saw an old green VW bus, with a sticker on its back that read: "No Bad Days." Yeah, I wish I could do that. Oh, how I wish I could do that.

Anyway, when I get in a funk, I seem to pull out a particular piece of theater, with which I have a connection, love, and understanding. And when I do, the kids scurry out of the room in every direction, and ThatOneWife rolls her eyes. To her credit, it was she who found and bought me the DVD. Damn, I love that woman.

So, without further ado, Sunday In The Park With George.

I used to work in theater as a sound designer. This was at a time when sound work was moving from the background of theater production to getting a program credit just like a lighting designer or costume designer might. I was good at it, too. But working from 2-10 every night, including weekends, was pretty rough.

Anyway, I have done sound for pretty much every single large scale Broadway musical you might think of: Music Man, I can't even count the times. Man of LaMancha, several. Fiddler on the Roof, also multiple. Joseph and his blah blah coat, more than three. Oklahoma, Sweeney Todd, Kiss Me Kate, Annie, Oliver, West Side Story, Fantastics, the list goes on an on. Usually, these were bigger productions, with more than 15 wireless mics, and full orchestra, off stage in another room, along with a full complement of appropriate sound effects. I've also done my fair share of acting too. I know my musicals.

I first saw this production on VHS not long after it was produced. Sunday In The Park With George opened on broadway in the middle 80's and ran for more than 600 performances. Both Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters are widely recognized as the preeminent interpreters of Sondheim's music and lyrics.

You see, Sondheim has the reputation of writing the lyrics and music for the script, not just in a particular key, or with a particular common chord progression, like, say, Rent's Seasons of Love...

Anyway, this is not that. Sondheim's music is tailored to the show's setting, and doesn't necessarily follow a usual melodic or chordal pattern. Sondheim is musical and dramatic genius. This play won the 1985 Pulitzer Prize, and both Peters and Patinkin were tony-nominated for their performances.

Anyway the show revolves around the work of artist Georges Seurat (1859-91). He always said he "wanted to get through to something new - a kind of painting that was my own." He astonished the world with only a handful of bold and richly colored canvases. His most famous creation, "A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte," is a capture of Parisians who frequented a particular park on the weekend, under the shadow of the then under construction Eiffel Tower. Here he perfected a technique of painting that came to be known as Divisionism, or Pointillism, although Seurat himself preferred to be called a "Chromo-Lumarist". The technique consisted of small dots of pure color, mixed by the eye of the viewer. When seen from a distance they blend to reveal a world of dazzling hues of light.

So that's the background. The play itself grabs each element of this painting and animates it so the artist can interact with it. Of particular note is the lady with the umbrella in the foreground of the painting. She is the co-star of the play, played wonderfully by Peters. She is Seurat's mistress and model, and through her, we discover Seurat's insecurities, inabilities, failings, travails, and triumphs. He works for weeks on the top hat of the other main character in the painting. The hat is a metaphor for the things we do to escape from dealing with the things that are eating us up in our own lives. The alcohol of an alcoholic, if you will.

The high point, musically, in the play comes just before the end of the first of the two acts. In the sequence, Dot, the model, leaves Georges, and his song, Finishing The Hat, at times lamenting her loss, and at the same time cursing her presence in the fore of his mind, is gut wrenching and heartbreaking. It makes me cry every single time I hear it. Then the music segues and Dot comes back to give him one more chance to try to at least communicate with her, to at least TELL her what he feels, but he won't. He just can't. Her song, We Do Not Belong Together, interspersed with his protestations is equally devastating. A truly beautiful theater moment, and a valid example of Sondheim's musical and dramatic genius. The crushing emotion is palpable.

The second act continues on, one or two generations later, but both Dot's and Georges' progenitors exhibit the same character flaws, now under the scummy shadows of the Eiffel Tower, after the Industrial Revolution has changed the face of Paris. The show comes full circle, but we (I) never really get past that critical flaw of escaping reality in other things.

If you want a little culture, you should get this onto your Netflix list. Just sayin. It's not for everybody, especially not my kids, apparently, but if you like theater (this is a recording of the actual stage performance), you owe it to yourself to see this show.


Anonymous said...

Bernadette Peters, yeah, I'd do 'er.

Becky..Absent Minded Housewife said...

Bernadette Peters...she has skin I'd kill for.

Reach Upward said...

I've not seen this musical, but now I want to. My best memory of Patinkin is his interpretation of Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride. Although he never demonstrates his marvelous singing talent in the movie, he demonstrates his wonderful acting ability. Unfortunately, my best memory of Peters is in an awful role in Mel Brooks' Silent Movie, which did little to demonstrate Peters' vocal or acting talent.

That One Guy said...

Mandy Patinkin... he has a voice I'd kill for...

For other acting credits, you might check Chicago Hope, where he played a doctor, where he sang occasionally. And most recently (currently) he is the lead character on Criminal Minds, where he does not sing.

Indeed, a very good actor.

Reach Upward said...

Patinkin also played on stage in Phantom of the Opera. I didn't get to see one of his performances, but my brother said it was fantastic.