Whether in the form of a blinking cursor, a noteless music staff, or an amorphous lump of clay, every work of art starts with the opening line from Sunday in the Park With George: "White. A blank page or canvas."
Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine put their first self-reflective marks on the blank canvas of Sunday in the Park With George in the early 1980s — Sondheim's creative response to the failure of his short-lived Merrily We Roll Along, which opened and closed in November 1981. However, since its acclaimed off-Broadway debut in 1983 (a Playwrights Horizons production that sent it to Broadway), Sunday in the Park has been drawn and redrawn to the point that it could be approached more like a paint-by-number than a blank page.
The current revival — a 10-week transfer of an Encores! concert led by Jake Gyllenhaal and Annaleigh Ashford — could run on star power alone. Nevertheless, as a pair of actresses in the new Broadway cast can attest, even the most established revivals can (and arguably should) draw new lines that connect our present experiences to our collective past.
Ashley Park and Ruthie Ann Miles fill out the landscape of Georges Seurat's painting, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, as gossipy shop girl Celeste #1 and German cook Frieda. But not long ago, they completed over 500 performances together as Tuptim and Lady Thiang (Miles' Tony-winning performance) in Bartlett Sher's Tony-winning revival of The King and I — a production that, according to Sher, drew inspiration from the state of women's education in the developing world.
In Sunday in the Park With George (which christens the newly reopened Hudson Theatre), both Park and Miles step into far less conspicuous roles. But even as Celeste #1 and Frieda blend into the scenery on the Ile de la Jatte in 1884 France, they find themselves at the center of another 21st-century story — this time told by director Sarna Lapine.
"We're talking about the importance of the middle class, " said Miles. "They fueled the time and yet they would never be elevated to a position where they would be painted. What Georges Seurat seemed to be doing was giving them a voice. He elevated the working class by caring to write their stories. It's really interesting that in 2017 we would be highlighting that."
"My vision was about the people that George discovers in the park," explained Lapine, who, as both James Lapine's niece and the first woman to direct Sunday in the Park on Broadway (and only the second woman to direct any Sondheim musical on Broadway), inherently brings a dichotomous spirit of legacy and innovation. "I wanted to make it very much about them and their connections to each other."
These connections have largely become a network of invisible lines between characters who, as evidenced by Seurat's painting, never even make eye contact. However, in order to draw these lines, the actors playing Seurat's characters spent a significant amount of time in Lapine's rehearsal room seeing each other from different angles.
"First, Sarna had us stand in one line in order of what our actual social statuses were," said Miles. "Then we had to walk around the room, keeping that in mind, and react to each other." After that, their instructions were to change their order according to how their characters viewed themselves in society. "Some people went from absolute highest to absolute lowest and some people barely shifted at all."
"That exercise was so eye-opening for us," Miles continued. "It [illustrates] what's happening across the country. We're not seeing each other. We're not hearing each other. And look at the conflict that comes from that. At the top of Act Two, all these people in this serene painting are annoyed with one another. Sarna asked us to model a good community, not only for our audience, but for ourselves."
Considering this dedication to community and mutual acknowledgment, it's no wonder this production of Sunday in the Park is the most diverse that's been seen on a Broadway stage.
"We're among the first people in this production on Broadway that are ethnic," said Park, referring to herself and Miles (only the second Asian actress in history to win a Tony), both of Korean descent. The cast also includes Korean actress (and another King and I veteran) MaryAnn Hu in the ensemble, Latina actress Jennifer Sanchez as the Nurse, and Tony-nominated African-American actor Phillip Boykin as the Boatman.
"It's so crazy that this story about a painter and the people that he's painting feels political," Park added. "It feels like we're making a stand for something. It feels relevant."
Sunday in the Park's previous all-white casts perhaps stayed more visually faithful to Seurat's painting. But as Park argues in response, "The whole point of Georges Seurat's work is that you see purple, and it's [dots of] red and blue. We're all made of the same colors. It's how you put them together."
It's also how you bring those colors to light, as George says in his Act Two song "Putting it Together."
A vision's just a vision if it's only in your head.
If no one gets to see it it's as good as dead.
It has to come to light.
"You have to be able to bring it out. That's how you contribute," said Miles. "That's how you break down boundaries. That's how you break down borders. It has to come to light."
Fortunately, Lapine is inspired, not intimidated, by the sight of a vast white canvas in need of some color and light. "My favorite line of the play ends with, 'So many possibilities,'" the director fittingly remarked. "This is a moment in time where we must embrace all possibility."
- Stephen Sondheim
- Jake Gyllenhaal
- James Lapine
- Sunday in the Park With George
- Ruthie Ann Miles
- Bartlett Sher
- The King and I
- Ashley Park
- Sarna Lapine
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