Goodman Theatre

L’art pour l’art — art for art’s sake — was the credo of an artistic movement in the latter half of the 19th century. This motto issued a challenge: art didn’t have to be socially conscious, didn’t have to uphold moral or religious ideals, didn’t have to adhere to conventional notions of propriety or quality. Critics of this credo warned that art without larger purpose would go nowhere; its creators would wind up in a spiritual and artistic dead end.

In our own time, this conflict has reached almost epidemic proportions. The market is glutted with trendy, playfully bizarre, willfully meaningless art, rebellious on the surface but empty underneath. Visual art in the video age — like popular music, like much commercial theater, like many things, in fact — seems obsessed with image and with transience. An audience whose attention span was shaped by Sesame Street and People magazine doesn’t seem to want much more; an artist today must be largely concerned with staying ahead of the pack. Art for whose sake?

These concerns lie at the core of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s great 1984 musical Sunday in the Park With George. I don’t mean great as in “Gee, that was great.” Sunday is a great work of music-theater art, at once dazzling and profound. It’s surely the finest achievement of that exceptionally accomplished composer-lyricist Sondheim. Yes, Sunday is less successful in certain departments than earlier Sondheim works; for instance, it doesn’t have a memorable, stand-on-its-own song to match, say, “Being Alive” or “The Ladies Who Lunch” (Company) or “Losing My Mind” or “The Girls Upstairs” (Follies) or “Send in the Clowns” (A Little Night Music) or even “Not While I’m Around” (Sweeney Todd). In his pungent, percussive, pointillistic score for Sunday, Sondheim isn’t really concerned with nicely polished, well-rounded tunes or clever lyrical resolutions; but for the first time in his career, he is writing consistently about things that are important to him, not just in a song here or there but in the entire score.

Sunday’s theme is one that runs through all of Sondheim’s mature work: people groping futilely for permanent values in a transient world. The determined bachelor in Company pointing out the flaws in his friends’ marriages, the rueful middle-aged couples in Follies and Night Music wondering where their lives went, the Japanese warrior in Pacific Overtures succumbing to the soft influence of Western invaders, the maddened barber in Sweeney Todd murdering his beloved wife — these characters form a pattern of loss and self-betrayal. These shows, with their dark (though often comically developed) themes and their self-consciously artful, witty, brittle songs, gave Sondheim a reputation as a “cold” artist more interested in experimenting with style, or with showing off, than in communicating feelings and ideas of substance.

Georges Seurat suffered a similar reputation in his day, 100 years ago. A self-styled “chromo-luminarist,” Seurat was fascinated by scientific discoveries about the nature of light; the figures in his masterpiece, Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grand Jatte, were created from tiny dots of pure color that, Seurat successfully sought to prove, the eye would fuse together into tones more intense than anything a painter could mix himself. La Grand Jatte, first exhibited in 1886 (and now, of course, on display in the Art Institute), infuriated critics and artists and confused viewers. Like Sondheim, only more so, Seurat didn’t achieve easy popular success; when he died in 1891, leaving behind a lover and a son (the child died soon after), Seurat had never sold a painting.

The hero of Sondheim and Lapine’s musical both is and isn’t Seurat. Sunday’s George has a mistress — named Dot — and she bears him a child, Marie; but rather than sticking by him, as Seurat’s lover did, she marries Louis the baker (“He kneads me,” she sings in one of the show’s few low jokes) and heads off with him and her child to the U.S. A hundred years later, her great-grandson, also named George, is an artist specializing in video and laser shows (calling his displays chromolumes) to please a hip, well-heeled, fickle public. Where George I suffered from lack of success, George II suffers from the tension of maintaining success; and where the first act put George I in conflict with Dot, act two dramatizes the conflict within George II. But the conflicts center on the same debate — not an intellectual game or a half-convincing melodrama, but a passionately felt question: art for whose sake?

Sunday in the Park With George, as directed at Goodman Theatre by Michael Maggio, is a beautiful show — a visual exercise in stage magic, lighting effects, and shifting perspective — but the stagecraft is always for a purpose; it comes from within the text, illuminating rather than merely toying with or commenting on it. What remains in my mind a week after seeing it is not the spectacle — the ingenious recreation, with actors and portable set pieces, of Seurat’s huge canvas, or such breathtaking single images as George I appearing to stand inside his canvas as he paints it (the canvas is a backlit scrim), or Dot walking into and fusing with her own painted image at the show’s conclusion. Rather, what lingers is the human energy, the complete conviction with, which Maggio’s magnificent cast connects with Sondheim’s probing, self-revealing exploration of what art means to an artist — most notably John Herrera in a performance of great delicacy as both Georges, Paula Scrofano excelling at the fiendishly challenging vocal virtuosity required of Dot, Etel Billig as the mother figures in both Georges’ lives, Glynis Johns sound-alike Deanna Dunagan as the wife of George’s friend and rival, and Bradley Mott and Linda Emond as a scene-stealing comic American couple.

And what is that meaning? In George I’s case, art is the need to create perfection — to take a disorderly world and reorder it, to create harmony out of chaos. When the Seurat canvas comes alive, we find that the people in it are hardly the sublime figures they appear to be: they’re hot and irritable, standing there in that goddamn park under that sun; the little girl is a nasty brat, her father is having an affair with his (married) servant, the reclining boatman is seething with class-conscious rage, and the man holding the baby is, in fact, Louis the baker, taking George’s child and lover away from him. These are the figures in a landscape that George fashions into a peaceful tableau of grace and gentility; and in trying to make his own world a better place, he does in fact make the world a better place. In showing us why George needs to create art, Sunday leads us to discover why we need to experience that creation. It is this sense of purpose that, in act two, the modern-day George discovers in an astonishingly moving dream encounter with the long-dead Dot, a scene of spiritual reconciliation that had more than a few audience members moved to tears.

“Moved to tears” isn’t something one usually associates with Sondheim; the difference here is simply that, rather than disguising his true subject behind a standard narrative of middle-class people looking for happiness, James Lapine’s script and Sondheim’s score for Sunday in the Park speak right from their creators’ hearts. The result, like the painting that inspired it, is a masterpiece.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Kevin Horan.