By 1981, Stephen Sondheim had worked with Leonard Bernstein, written a clutch of hit musicals, and won four Tony Awards. You'd think he was too successful to let a little setback get him down. But when his musical Merrily We Roll Along was a catastrophic flop, closing on Broadway after 16 performances, it plunged him into despair. He swore he'd quit theater to write mystery novels or make video games. "I wanted to find something to satisfy myself that does not involve Broadway," he later told an interviewer, "and dealing with all those people who hate me."
Two years later, of course, he was back at it, opening Sunday in the Park with George—a musical about how hard it is to be an artist. "Art isn't easy," one character sings during a 1980s gallery party full of cocktail-party phonies. "Overnight you're a trend/You're the right combination/Then the trend's at an end/You're suddenly last year's sensation." The musical went on to win the 1985 Pulitzer Prize, one of only seven musicals to earn that award.
Critics and audiences have generally liked the first act, about pointillist Georges Seurat, his mid-1880s painting A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, the people in it, and the way his devotion to painting tore up his relationship with his babymama, named Dot. (Hee-haw.) The second act, about Georges's grandson George—a NYC artist in the early 1980s—has been less warmly received, described as stilted and two-dimensional. (The sometimes-pointillist score, a musical-theater nod to Philip Glass and 1980s minimalism, has been disparaged as too theoretical for its own good.)
"But act two is my favorite!" Sam Buntrock, the British director of this revival production, protested at a tech rehearsal at the 5th Avenue last week. "The emotional impact of the last 15 minutes cannot be underestimated."
Buntrock says that staging the piece today has the benefit of distance. The second act no longer suffers from having to be contemporary: It's a period piece now. "The Ice Storm by Ang Lee showed how to set a narrative in the 1970s as a period piece," he said. "We can create a version of the 1980s just as heightened as the first act's setting in the 1880s. And dealing with contemporary art is so divisive and difficult to connect to, you lose half of the audience right away."
This revival, first staged in 2005 in London, leverages new video and lighting technology to create La Grande Jatte onstage and let characters, in the painting and in life, multiply and sing to themselves and each other. In the second act, for example, different video iterations of young George have several inane cocktail-party conversations while he sings "Art Isn't Easy." Buntrock (modestly) confirms a story that Sondheim and James Lepine came backstage after a London performance and said that if they'd had access to the technology, they would've done just what he had.
With all the video monitors in the audience at last week's tech rehearsal, the 5th Avenue looked like a NASA control center. People gazed into the screens, typed, talked into headsets, consulted big binders. Partway into act two, the show already had 288 lighting cues.
"There will be more," one of the lighting techs sighed, closing a binder and hauling it back to her station.