LOVE AND THE ART OF LIV­ING

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Music Theatre - Vic­to­rian Opera’s the Park with Ge­orge, Sun­day in

EV­ERY­BODY knows Stephen Sond­heim as the bloke who wrote Send in the Clowns, plus a bunch of far less sen­ti­men­tal songs for shows so ob­scurely cere­bral they make the brain sweat. It’s all I knew about him un­til 2007, when I re­viewed a broad­cast of Sond­heim in con­ver­sa­tion with Jonathan Big­gins for The Week­end Aus­tralian. In­trigued by what he said about his sto­ries of the hu­man con­di­tion, I asked a Sond­heim ad­mirer, Syd­ney ac­tor War­ren Jones, to tell me the back­story.

The shows he ex­plained and the songs he de­scribed signed me up to Sond­heim, which is why I am in­trigued and ex­cited to be see­ing the Vic­to­rian Opera’s pro­duc­tion of his Sun­day in the Park with Ge­orge, which opens in Melbourne this week­end.

Be­cause Sond­heim is a sto­ry­teller of ex­tra­or­di­nary imag­i­na­tion. He dis­sects hu­man­ity, with our ob­ses­sions and as­pi­ra­tions, loves and fears, lusts and fol­lies, through char­ac­ters who are var­i­ously en­gag­ing, ap­palling and ap­peal­ing. And even with the big ideas, his work is great fun.

‘‘ The un­for­tu­nate thing is that peo­ple as­sume Sond­heim is art, not en­ter­tain­ment,’’ Stu­art Maun­der, who di­rects the VO pro­duc­tion, says.

His cre­ations aren’t your aver­age high school mu­si­cals (al­though it seems just about ev­ery­body in theatre who can sing played in Sond­heim at school). He cre­ates nov­els with songs, plays with mu­sic, a genre he did not in­vent but cer­tainly trans­formed.

‘‘ Sond­heim started at the end of the golden age of mu­si­cals. Peo­ple thought the genre peaked with West Side Story, for which he wrote lyrics, but in the 70s he re-imag­ined mu­si­cal theatre,’’ Jones says.

‘‘ Sond­heim kept mu­si­cal theatre alive for four gen­er­a­tions,’’ Maun­der agrees.

But he did more. He ‘‘ re-imag­ined the genre’’, as Jones puts it. ‘‘ Peo­ple saw him as cold and heart­less, an un­der­stand­able at­ti­tude for any­body who grew up with shows which wore hearts on sleeves. But Sond­heim said there was more, that mu­si­cal theatre could do what Pin­ter and Stop­pard were do­ing.’’

As in all his shows, there are songs in Ge­orge that ex­plain as­pects of just about ev­ery­body’s life (cer­tainly mine), gen­er­ally in con­fronting ways.

Many con­sider it his mas­ter­piece. ‘‘ It’s a once in a life­time op­por­tu­nity to see a great work,’’ says Alexan­der Lewis, who plays Ge­orge. It’s a work that even the acutely crit­i­cal Sond­heim once con­ceded has a first act ‘‘ as good as any­thing I’ve seen in the theatre’’.

The show is based on Ge­orges Seu­rat’s fa­mous pointil­list paint­ing, set in an is­land park in the Seine A Sun­day on la Grande Jatte (1884). It is a re­mark­able work that cap­tures Belle Epoque Paris, an era of el­e­gance be­tween the past hu­mil­i­a­tion of the Franco-Prus­sian War and the fu­ture hor­rors of World War I. ‘‘ I defy any­one to say they have never seen the paint­ing,’’ Maun­der says.

But while eas­ily re­mem­bered for its beauty, the pointil­list tech­nique Seu­rat de­vel­oped in the paint­ing was dev­il­ishly dif­fi­cult, re­quir­ing myr­iad tiny brush­strokes in con­trast­ing colours. One of the strong­est songs in the show, Fin­ish­ing the Hat, is about the ob­ses­sion re­quired to com­plete just one el­e­ment of the paint­ing.

‘‘ We all have a spe­cific mo­ment in the show that re­lates to us as a true artis­tic ex­pe­ri­ence and Fin­ish­ing the Hat is the mo­ment that res­onates with me,’’ Lewis says.

The first act is about Seu­rat and the peo­ple around him as he spends Sun­days in the park ob­ses­sively paint­ing a fash­ion­able young woman while ig­nor­ing the girl in the dress who is mod­el­ling, his lover Dot. Ac­cord­ing to Christina O’Neill, who plays Dot, ‘‘ She un­der­stands this but wishes it was dif­fer­ent. She can’t ac­cept that he will not let her into his life.’’

Ge­orge will not, or can­not, make room for Dot in his in­te­rior life, and she is be­wil­dered that nei­ther her sex­ual power nor her will­ing­ness to be­come who­ever Ge­orge wants can se­duce him. But he is less cruel than in­ca­pable of ac­com­mo­dat­ing any­thing other than his work, just as he will not crum­ple be­fore the crit­i­cism of his rev­o­lu­tion­ary paint­ing.

For me, Ge­orge is one of Sond­heim’s solip­sis­tic suc­cesses, a char­ac­ter demon­strat­ing what self-ob­ses­sion can do, for good and ill. Ge­orge looks at life and chooses art. Maun­der does not agree, ar­gu­ing Ge­orge speaks to us all. ‘‘ Whether we are butcher, baker or can­dle­stick maker, we all think of our­selves as artists,’’ he says.

How­ever, whether you ad­mire Ge­orge or em­pathise with Dot, there is no doubt­ing that Sond­heim and James Lap­ine, who wrote the book, cre­ated a psy­cho­log­i­cally com­plete work about the fail­ure of in­di­vid­u­als, or­di­nary and artis­tic souls both, to be open with each other. ‘‘ It is about love and peo­ple try­ing to con­nect,’’ O’Neill says.

And that’s it — a beau­ti­fully con­structed story of failed love and over­whelm­ing ob­ses­sion fea­tur­ing one of Sond­heim’s great­est songs, We Do Not Be­long To­gether, cru­elly fa­mil­iar to ev­ery­body who has lamented an in­evitably lost love.

And that looks like it, with the cast singing Sun­day, which de­scribes the way Ge­orge’s ob­ses­sion with light has made his paint­ing and shaped their lives.

Ex­cept it isn’t over. One of Sond­heim’s tropes is to present a self-con­tained story, only to add an en­tirely new di­men­sion in a sur­pris­ing sec­ond act. On a first lis­ten to the sound­track of his fairy­tale Into the Woods (with the best song ever about be­ing a witch), it is dif­fi­cult to grasp that the show has a sec­ond act that turns the first one on its head.

Ge­orge also has a sec­ond act, which ex­plores the same themes a cen­tury later in the US. While Sond­heim is not one for happy end­ings, this has an op­ti­mism, of sorts, while mak­ing a poignant point.

‘‘ There is some­thing about its com­po­si­tion; the way Sond­heim sets it out is mov­ing and vul­ner­a­ble. It will be a strug­gle to get to the end of the sec­ond act, it is such a mov­ing piece,’’ Lewis says.

And so it is, but while the need to con­nect with love and fam­ily, life and work in­fuses all Sond­heim’s work, Ge­orge is ut­terly orig­i­nal. Af­ter West Side Story Sond­heim had a string of hits, notably my pick for his mas­ter­piece, Sweeney Todd (Johnny Depp is fan­tas­tic in the movie ver­sion). But suc­cess soured with Mer­rily We Roll Along (1981), which closed af­ter 16 per­for­mances. It is hard to un­der­stand why. With Com­pany (a sin­gle bloke de­fies his mar­ried friend’s ex­pec­ta­tions of how he should live), Mer­rily presents Sond­heim’s strong­est songs about creative peo­ple com­fort­able in af­flu­ent Amer­ica. Per­haps it was too scar­ily fa­mil­iar for Broad­way au­di­ences be­cause the tastemak­ers loathed it. ‘‘ Peo­ple were glee­ful that it failed; Sond­heim was badly burned,’’ Jones says.

Eigh­teen month later, he less replied to than over­whelmed his crit­ics with the lyrics and mu­sic for Ge­orge. Sig­nif­i­cantly, Ge­orge is a show about an in­sider stick­ing to his creative guns.

A se­ri­ous sub­ject to be sure, but blessed with beau­ti­ful songs about love and loss and ul­ti­mately the power to make our own lives.

The songs are glo­ri­ous in­deed; rea­son enough to see the VO’s pro­duc­tion. ‘‘ Go and see Ge­orge for the breath­tak­ingly beau­ti­ful mu­sic,’’ Jones says. ‘‘ It is a once in a life­time op­por­tu­nity to see a great work,’’ Lewis agrees.

And un­like most mu­si­cals, it com­bines beauty with art and adds a life les­son. ‘‘ Sond­heim ex­plains you need to get out and do it — to move on,’’ di­rec­tor Maun­der says.

Not that I needed con­vinc­ing. I can hardly wait.

A Sun­day on La Grande Jatte

Christina O’Neill as

Dot; be­low,

(1884) by Ge­orges Seu­rat

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