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Stephen Sondheim: Move On

Dear Friends,

Happy Friday! What a week it has been. I’m honored to have had the opportunity to share my thoughts and some of my favorite songs with you. I’ve learned a lot from the experience and am grateful to you for spending the time with me. Today, I’d like to bring us full circle by returning to Stephen Sondheim and declaring our Song of the Day: “Move On” from Sunday in the Park with George.

With music and lyrics by Sondheim and a beautiful book by James Lapine, Sunday in the Park with George opened on Broadway in 1984 and has been revived several times since (you can currently catch it at the Hudson Theater and I hear it’s fantastic!). The musical was inspired by George Seurat’s pointillist masterpiece, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. The show weaves a fictional tale of Seurat’s life and the process of creating the aforementioned painting, and is a beautiful expression of the artist’s struggle to be relevant and heard. It eloquently captures the all consuming nature of artistic life and the price one pays in pursuit of perfection. It constantly asks the question: What is your Art worth? In truth, one’s art is so connected to one’s self that the subtext of this question (What are You worth?) is equally as difficult to answer. In my mind, the constant conflict of trying to do right by those around you while serving a higher artistic calling is what makes the piece so universally relatable. One does not have to be artistically inclined to understand such a paradox, and perhaps it is this common denominator that makes the musical so timeless.

“Move On” is the eleven o’clock number in which George’s former lover and muse, Dot, appears to him in a vision and offers some much needed guidance. The two lyrics that resonate most deeply with me are:

“Look at what you want,
Not at where you are,
Not at what you’ll be.”

And,

“Anything you do,
Let it come from you
Then it will be new.
Give us more to see.”

Over the years this advice has brought me much courage and comfort. I’ve chosen to share a more mature snapshot of the show’s original actors, Bernadette Peters and Mandy Patinkin, revisiting their roles of George and Dot. The love, wisdom, and nostalgia in their eyes gets me weepy every time and I instantly feel that spark of creation being fanned within my soul after viewing.

Readers, I hope you all had a wonderful week, but for the days when the universe is less than kind I leave you with this Song of the Day “Move On”. May it lift you up and set your eyes on the horizon. Thank you again for being here, my Friends. I hope to see you on April 19th for our Sondheim Celebration! Until then…   XO-M

Sondheim: Finishing the Hat

Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s Pulitzer Prize-winning musical Sunday In the Park with George opened on Broadway in 1984 starring Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters. Act One centers around Georges Seurat as he paints his pointillistic masterpiece, Un dimanche après-midi à l’Île de la Grande Jatte, which was unveiled exactly one-hundred years before the musical premiered. Sondheim and Lapine create narratives for the people featured in the painting and they become the characters in the musical drama. Some characters are merely acquaintances of Seurat as he sketches in the park on Sundays, while others have personal ties to the artist. Sondheim and Lapine speculate that the most prominently featured woman in the painting is actually a lover of Seurat’s. The character of Dot (Bernadette Peter) is muse, mistress and heartbreak to Georges (Mandy Patinkin). She is deeply in love with him and his work (“Your eyes, Georges, I love your eyes. I love your beard. I love your size. But most, Georges, of all I love your painting.”) However, since she is ultimately unable to penetrate his passion for painting and become Georges’ first priority, Dot leaves for America with a baker she met on a whim.

Dot is the love of Georges’ life, but he can’t express that to her. (“I care for this painting. You will be in this painting. […] Why do you insist you must hear the words when you know I cannot give you words? Not the ones you need.”) Maybe slightly immature when it comes to personal relationships, Georges struggles with what so many artistic types can relate to: finding a balance between his personal life and creating art.

Right before this scene, Georges has been hiding behind the trees while Dot explains how Louis the Baker, while not the most ideal partner, fulfills her in all the ways Georges never could. In this Tony Award-nominated performance by Mandy Patinkin, we watch George going back and forth between the world of his art and his need to be with Dot. For the first two-thirds of the song we see how much Georges enjoys “mapping out the sky” and “reaching through the world of the hat,” but he finally acknowledges that he will never have a woman like Dot in his life again.

“And when the woman that you wanted goes, you can say to yourself, ‘Well, I give what I give.’ But the woman who won’t wait for you knows that, however you live, there’s a part of you always standing by, mapping out the sky, Finishing a Hat…”

Mandy Patinkin performs “Finishing the Hat” from Stephen Sondheim’s Sunday In the Park with George:

Sondheim: Buddy’s Blues

Steven Blier (photo Liv Hoffman)

For me, “Follies” is the greatest of all modern musicals. But it’s almost impossible to get it just right in production. James Goldman’s book is difficult—brilliant but somewhat flawed—so it needs a subtle, clever director. The cast is large, and everyone, from supporting players to leads, has to have depth and a fierce kind of pizzazz—there are just too many moving parts (as it were). The scenic elements are crucial, and so is the lighting which creates the double time-frame of the action. But the score is brilliant; the lyrics show Sondheim at his absolute finest; the mix of real-time scenes and out-of-time scenes gives the work an almost Proustian quality, especially in the second half. Even in a half-decent performance the story gathers a cumulative weight that is devastating. Perhaps I react so strongly to “Follies” because I first saw it with my very first boyfriend when I was the age of the ghosts (19 years old). Now I am the age of the married couples (or even a bit older), and most recently saw it with my husband. When I was younger I perceived but didn’t feel the theme of the passage of time, the way even our good choices can eventually become prisons. Now I blubber like a baby throughout the show.

The recent Broadway revival had its problems, but it did boast one breathtaking performance: Danny Burstein as Buddy, a role that is almost always under-cast. Danny found depths in this rather shallow character—reservoirs of anger and hurt under the façade of a schlemazl. Here’s his second-act showstopper, “Buddy’s Blues,” in which he turns his failed marriage and his unsatisfying adulterous affair into a brilliant vaudeville routine. (Danny’s on Broadway now as Tevye in “Fiddler.” Can’t wait.)

BUDDY’S BLUES (Danny Burstein):

For another view of Buddy, here’s Mandy Patinkin in a famous performance from the late 1980s at Lincoln Center:

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