Stephen Sondheim was one of the most important figures of musical theater in the 20th century. At ten years old his close friendship with James Hammerstein led to a mentorship with his friend’s father, Oscar Hammerstein II. Sondheim wrote the lyrics for “West Side Story” and, in 1962, wrote music and lyrics for “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” which was a smash hit on Broadway. From 1970 to 1981 he collaborated with Hal Prince producing shows like “Follies,” “Company,” “A Little Night Music,” and “Sweeney Todd.” Their collaboration ended in 1981 with “Merrily We Roll Along,” which was a failure by comparison. While soul-searching and figuring out his next move, Sondheim met James Lapine with whom he would collaborate in the second half of his career.
“Sunday in the Park with George” was created at this pivotal point in Sondheim’s career. Amy Spaulding-Heuring, director of the show says, “In honor of Sondheim, who passed away in November 2021 at age 91, the Rep wanted to bookend this season with shows written by him. They began the season with ‘Side by Side’ and chose ‘Sunday in the Park with George’ to close with.”
Art on stage
Spaulding-Heuring says the cast is honored to present this musical because it’s rarely done due to its unusual and challenging staging. The titular “George” is French impressionist painter Georges Seurat and was inspired by his famous painting, “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of la Grande Jatte.” The plot involves a fictionalized Seurat who immerses himself in his painting, and his great-grandson (also named George) who is a conflicted, contemporary artist. Spaulding-Heuring notes, “the musical contains some of Sondheim’s most challenging music to perform while also being arguably his most personal work. It’s very ambitious both musically and in terms of staging, taking place in two very distinct time periods. Act I takes place in the 1880s and Act 2 is 100 years later in 1984. You have two different sets of costumes and the cast needs to change very quickly. In the original production, set pieces came up out of the floor. We are using projections instead but they must be perfectly timed with the dialogue and the music. It’s a difficult piece but we’re embracing it.”
Part of life’s rich pageant
What Spaulding-Heuring loves most about directing community theater is the fact that people from all walks of life and ability levels come together to put on a show. “We have an actress who is ten years old playing Louise, while the actor playing George has done professional work in New York and New Jersey. The actress playing Dot has done musical theater with Croswell and The Rep. Three weeks in March were spent rehearsing the music intensively, and April was devoted to staging.”
One of the most complicated numbers is “It’s Hot Up Here,” which is sung by the characters in Seurat’s painting. It imagines that the characters are trapped in the painting for posterity and are not very happy about it. Spaulding-Heuring notes that this is a very precise piece with tight, overlapping harmonies. If someone misses a line it could have a disastrous domino effect.
Sondheim may have been going for art imitating life and imitating art irony with this song as it does mirror the difficulties working in a show for a long time. “Sondheim was a realist,” says Spaulding-Heuring. “All his musicals show that relationships are messy and yet we pursue them. In this musical he’s tackling the realistic demands of making art while having to satisfy yourself and your financial backers. It’s true of both artists in the musical and Sondheim himself.”
The artistic committee at The Rep chose this musical because it revitalized Sondheim’s career. The song, “We Do Not Belong Together,” is a favorite of Spaulding-Heuring’s. “It’s heartbreakingly beautiful. It’s an anthem to 1984’s George, urging him to move on and find his art and himself, and Sondheim’s anthem to himself as well. He also needed to move on from the first half of his career and create something new.”
June 9-25 at the 10th Street Stage. $14.75-$24.75. 16 Tenth St., Toledo. 419-243-9277. toledorep.org.