Seen at the 3 PM matinee, Sunday March 30, 2008, at Studio 54. 1 slithy toad
Seen at the 8 PM performance, August 23, 1984, at the Booth Theatre. My maximum 4 slithy toads
I can't help but see this as an object lesson in both the ephemerality of creation and the subjectivity of its reception.
When this opened in 1984 in New York City, it was generally hailed as a stunning achievement in the American musical. I'm surprised to see looking back at it that Frank Rich's review in The New York Times was a tad more calibrated in its praise than in my memory of it.
Itself a musical about the act of creation, Sunday in the Park with George depicts the artist Georges Seurat "putting it together" (one of the song titles) for his painting A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. There on the stage he pokes and prods various characters revising slowly into the positions they have in the painting itself, while in his personal life his obsession with getting the right "color and light" ends up driving away his romantic interest, Dot. In a masterful coup d'theatre the first act builds toward a recreation on stage of the painting itself. The second act jumped the action forward many years, with Dot now an elderly lady with a son (a relationship of George's, we are led to believe) himself engaged in act of modern creation. It was commonly felt to be a huge letdown from the all-encompassing genius of act #1.
So on the morning of August 23, 1984, the notes on my Playbill told me I went in to visit Baen Books in the morning, the last of my summer freelance days before heading off to my junior year at college. I dropped off 3 manuscripts, I stuck Baen Books labels on five boxes of file folders, and then I went to the TKTS line and got half-price tickets with huge expectations. Huge expectations are sometimes a curse, of course. But in this case they were met. I wrote the word "brilliant" on my Playbill, though more with the first act in mind than the second. "One of the best. Fine score. [Mandy] Patinkin excellent."
Twenty years later a new production arrives at the Menier Chocolate Factory in London. Today, the painting can be recreated not just with actors but with modern video projections. The production is hailed as a work of genius every bit the equal and maybe surpassing the original. The video projections make it better, it manages to raise the level of the second act. You can read the Variety review of the West End transfer. The Roundabout Theatre Company, which has done several Sondheim productions on Broadway in recent years including an excellent one of Assasins and a less successful one of Pacific Overtures, grabs the rights. The New York Times is fulsome in its praise.
This time I go off with Hugo nominee Barry Malzberg and his wife. They have subscription seats in the front of the mezzanine, I have a single ticket in the back, we chat a bit before the show, split up for the show, and I can't believe what I am seeing. A show that seemed brilliant in 1984 is inert, flat, dull, lifeless. I don't care about the act of creation. I feel nothing when Dot leaves George. The only saving grace if you can call it that is that the second act is indeed better, but perhaps because the only way to go after the dismal first act is up. Where is the show that has received all of these encomia? When I meet up with the Malzbergs afterward, they ask what thought and I say that I could not find the heart in the show, and that it was to me flat, flat, flat, and they are in agreement. But how can the three of us be so negative toward something that's supposed to be wonderful? As I said, a case study in subjectivity.
It being said that opinions are subjective, let me offer a few thoughts on why this supposedly great production is not so very good at all. For one, technology can be used in creative endeavors for good or for ill. Special effects in film are a case in point. They can be too good. The Imperial Walkers in the Empire Strikes Back are done impeccably well, as are the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, but somehow or other they both give a sense of people struggling to do something great at the very limits of technology that makes them seem real. When you get to Peter Jackson's King Kong or to some of the chase scenes in the newer Star Wars movies, technology exists to do anything, so they do anything, but it's so slick and fake that it no longer seems real. It's like I'm watching a video game, and the technology distances me from the story instead of bringing me into it. Same thing here. There's something exhilarating about watching the struggle to recreate a painting with humans in 1984, but it's nothing to me to watch them playing at it with video projection because I know they could project away and do anything or everything. It's an exercise in cleverness to take the technology, then tie one hand behind your back, and ask to be admired for it.
Casting is important. Mandy Patinkin was brilliant. I loved the original production even seeing without Bernadette Peters. The cast here wasn't near the equal. Casting is crucial in live stage. Another recent and supposedly brilliant Sondheim production, of Company, was seriously hamstrung because the show's gimmick of having the actors perform the music meant having actors who couldn't act so well but could do the tuba. This worked with the same director's Sweeney Todd, perhaps because the two central roles dominate the show and were cast with real talent with a minor in music, while Company requires strong support around a single central character, thus making the secondary roles much more important.
Small decisions can make a difference. In my professional life, I've come across manuscripts where the key to a great page 416 is something you do on page 258 to properly pave the way. Have the right thing in the right place and it works, have the wrong thing 200 pages before and it's turning pages instead of reading.
Is everyone else right about this production while I am wrong? Am I wrong and the rest of the world right? Those discussions get to be interesting.
- The Brillig Blogger
- A blog wherein a literary agent will sometimes discuss his business, sometimes discuss the movies he sees, the tennis he watches, or the world around him. In which he will often wish he could say more, but will be obliged by business necessity and basic politeness and simple civility to hold his tongue. Rankings are done on a scale of one to five Slithy Toads, where a 0 is a complete waste of time, a 2 is a completely innocuous way to spend your time, and a 4 is intended as a geas compelling you to make the time.