“Bit by bit, putting it together” – Putting it Together, Act 2, Sunday in the Park with George.
Stephen Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George tells the tale of artist Georges Seurat (1859-1891) and the creation of his most famous work, Un dimanche après-midi à l’Île de la Grand Jatte (A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grand Jatte). Notably, the work addresses the challenges facing the artist, making it relevant to creative people from all disciplines.
UMMTA will present this Sondheim classic at the Union House Theatre from May 5th – May 13th, and the show’s director, Robert Mark Johnson, relates well to the issues facing Seurat. A friend once told him that “if I [wanted] to make it as an artist, I have to sort my life out outside of my art – art isn’t easy, and if you want to go the long haul you have to lay a solid foundation in your personal life. This is one of the main rubs of the play – how to balance your dreams with your reality”. Johnson sees Sunday in the Park with George as “[ ] one of the best plays ever written about the sacrifices artists make to bring their work to fruition, and it’s an incredibly hymn for balance and healing”.
“Look, I made a hat” – Finishing the Hat, Act 1, Sunday in the Park with George
The artwork at the centre of the show very much dictates the look of Act One. “Sunday in the Park With George demands a lot technically – we are assembling an incredibly famous painting on stage in three (four) dimensions. We’re not a big Broadway theatre so the biggest challenge has been trying to pull off the show with the limited resources we have. I think we’ve succeeded rather well actually – we have a really tight focused show that is all about perception, how people look at things, and I think our ‘no-frills’ approach really puts the focus on the actors and the music”, says Johnson.
Music director Lachie Bagnara is overseeing Sondheim’s score. From the get go, he was conscious of the need to assemble the right group of singers whom would best serve the score. “One particular challenge in casting this show is that each cast member needs to have a huge amount of vocal versatility; the time shift between the 1880s and 1980s that occurs from act one to act two had to be matched with a marked vocal and musical shift”, reflects Bagnara.
“Art isn’t easy” – Putting it Together, Act 2, Sunday in the Park with George
Some people would see Sondheim as being for a niche audience, that he isn’t for everybody. And yet, for those who love his words and music, there can be a puritan sense about how the work should be approached. This fact has been present in Bagnara’s preparation of his cast and orchestra – “I think a significant pressure musically is to convince the audience that they can leave behind their understanding of how the show should sound and let themselves absorb our interpretation of the score. People who know the score will invariably have expectations of how the score should sound, but we have an entirely new set of individuals putting this work together and thus an entirely new iteration of the show will come forth”.
“Color and light” – Act 1, Sunday in the Park with George
Johnson had not worked on a musical for four years when he began work on Sunday in the Park with George, and he felt “It was […] high time I did a musical”. For his interpretation of the show, he did not have to look very far – “The text gives you so much […]. The biggest other inspiration [are] the precepts that Georges Seurat lived by – order, balance, symmetry, balance, composition, tone and harmony. We’ve worked hard to create a show that aesthetically follows his rules – and we have a beautiful two hours twenty as a result”.
In the way that Johnson views the book of the show, so too does Bagnara see the score. “The immensity of the score is incomparable. There is so much depth and complexity to it that it feels near impossible to approach. The importance of every single cast and orchestra member in binding the score together cannot be understated. As a music director, it has been my job to enable each of those 36 musicians to play their part in bringing to life this remarkable score. It has been a challenge and a delight”, says Bagnara.
“We’ve always belonged together” – Move On, Act 2, Sunday in the Park with George
The score of Sunday in the Park with George is full of gorgeous melodies and stunning orchestrations, none more beautiful than ‘Sunday’, which falls at the close of Act One, and returns at the show’s finale. It is a number delivered with such finesse by the cast that it gives Bagnara “chills”.
When reflecting upon working with the cast, Johnson comments that they have been “A pleasure from start to finish. Not only are they excellent singers but they’ve all committed themselves to the challenge of Sunday in the Park With George wonderfully. Fortunately their talent outshines even the beautiful presence they bring to the rehearsal room”.
If you’ve not had the pleasure of having seen Sunday in the Park with George in the past, get along to see UMMTA’s upcoming production. Johnson sums up the show with great passion, stating “it’s the best play ever written about what it’s like to make big sacrifices for your passion. It’s not an ordinary musical – the music is absolutely beautiful and incredibly moving […]. It has depth and emotion, and an incredible cast of young artists who have worked together to produce an excellent production of an extra-ordinary musical.
Sunday in the Park with George opens on Friday May 5th at the Union House Theatre at the University of Melbourne, and runs through until Saturday May 13th.
Tickets are available from https://chook.as/ummta/sunday