The stories behind the most memorable songs from Broadway and Hollywood.
In music, it is customary to refer to musicians or bands in terms of the genre of music they play. For example, if you went to a Black Sabbath concert you probably heard a style of music called Heavy Metal. If you went to see Tammy Wynette perform when she was alive then you, no doubt, heard Country music played. If you went today to a Cardi B. show, I am sure that Hip Hop would be on the menu. While most musicians are capable of performing in a wide range of styles, we often associate them with a certain brand or a style. The same holds true for artists who paint. Rembrandt had a certain style when it came to his portraiture work. The faces of his subjects would be clearly in light while the background would often be so dark as to be almost black. Vincent Van Gogh was known for the short, feather-like paint strokes he filled his paintings with. His brush stroke style is one of the most characteristic traits he had as an artist. This brings us to a painter who you may or may not have heard of named Georges Seurat. Georges Seurat is an artist who has become the poster boy for a style of art called pointillism. Pointillism is a style of painting in which the artist creates whole images by making a series of very small point-like marks on the canvas. The idea is similar to the way we view pixels on a screen. Pointillism works because the artist knows the viewer will not view the individual dots or points on the canvas but will, instead look at the totality of the image the points create in the mind’s eye, much as we look at a screen and see whole images as opposed to individual pixels. Georges Seurat is the most well known practitioner of pointillism. His most famous painting that employs this technique is called A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte (which you can see at the top of this post).
The story of today’s song begins with this very painting. One day a writer named James Lapine was visiting the Art Institute of Chicago and happened upon Seurat’s painting. He found the painting to be captivating. As he studied the scene before him, two things popped into his head: 1- he noticed that the many people who were incorporated into the scene were all looking away from each other. Not one single person in the park was interacting with another. They were all a collection of individuals in a group setting, all staring off into the distance. 2- Lapine noticed that Seurat, himself, was not represented in the painting. The longer Lapine stood before A Sunday in the Park on the Island of La Grande Jatte, the more he found the painting speaking to him about the artist, Georges Seurat. As a result, Lapine decided to look more into the life of Georges Seurat. In doing so, Lapine believed that a special story was waiting to be told. So he wrote a story treatment that he called Sunday in the Park with George. This story was not a biography in the true sense of that genre but was a fictionalized account of the artist and his life. James Lapine was a frequent collaborator on Broadway with Stephen Sondheim. After showing Sondheim his story about Seurat, Sondheim agreed that it was a tale worth telling. So the pair adapted Lapine’s work for the stage, with Sondheim creating the music and song lyrics. In 1985, Sunday in the Park with George debuted on Broadway. It ended up winning two Tony Awards, as well as the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
The story that Sunday in the Park with George tells is essentially about the vision that people have about their life and how they wish it to unfold. The play centers upon the two main characters of George (painter Georges Seurat) and his mistress, Dot. The short strokes of the story are that Dot has agreed to be George’s mistress because she admires his skill as an artist. However, Dot has dreams that go beyond merely being a mistress to a successful man. She envisions a fully-formed life with George. Dot wishes for romance and attention and fame-by-association. However, the very thing she admires most about George…his skill as a painter…is the one thing that makes such a union impossible. George is such a successful artist because he has skills, for sure, but more, because he is driven to perfection. He has set impossibly high standards for his art and therefore, never feels as though he is ever truly finished with his work. Thus, he works tirelessly on each painting, devoting all of his being toward the canvas and never toward Dot. When the play debuted on Broadway, Mandy Patinkin played George and Bernadette Peters played Dot. At a certain point as the story unfolds, the audience begins to sense that both parties have different desires and priorities. This sense of foreboding is confirmed in a song entitled “Finishing the Hat”. As the song is sung, George has promised to take Dot out on the town. Dot is very excited because she believes her dreams of the two of them becoming a real couple may be about to happen. But as the scene goes on, we see that George cannot seem to pull himself away from his painting because he needs to “finish the hat” on one of the character’s heads. However, the audience soon comes to learn that George can never actually finish the hat because of his perfectionist nature. He will never be fully satisfied with the hat he is painting and therefore, he can never leave his easel. In time, as this scene unfolds, Dot comes to recognize that she will always be second to his art in George’s mind. “Finishing the Hat” is a simple song about a small moment in the lives of two people, but, like all good art, it captures a much deeper and more profound layer of emotion and meaning between them. It may be a song about painting a hat, but in the end it is a song about dreams dying and love ending in a way that both people seem powerless to stop.
Sunday in the Park with George is a musical in two acts. The storyline involving George and Dot ends with the conclusion of Act One. Many people feel that the musical could have ended there, too. However, Act Two opens two generations later and focuses upon George’s grandson. I won’t spoil the ending by telling you how it all wraps up, but I will say that generational trauma takes many forms, and if you ever go to watch this musical being performed, you will be able to recognize George in Act Two because of some of the behaviours and attitudes possessed by his grandson. Whether the grandson has better luck with finding a balance between love and his career is something that you will have to discover for yourself. As many of us understand, it isn’t always easy to strike that perfect balance between having a successful career, a loving relationship with someone, raising a family and so on. Some people equate balance with mediocrity and feel that to be successful requires uncompromising commitment and drive. At the end of the day, the question this musical really asks is what do you value most in life and are you prepared for the costs associated with experiencing that version of your dream life? For me, I have chosen love and I have chosen my family. I will probably never make the best seller lists with my writing because I am more than willing to “finish the hat” as it were and move on to spend time with those I love and hold dear. A long time ago I was like Dot and George were at the beginning of the musical. I had a clear vision of what was important to me in life and what I considered to be the true measure of that success. I wanted to be a father and I wanted a hand to hold as I grew older. I have been blessed to have had both parts of my dream come true. I can’t imagine how different life would be if, early on in our courting days, I had turned my back on Keri because I had a novel to write that I just couldn’t seem to finish. We all make our choices in life. In the musical, George chooses his art. In real life, I chose family and true love. I’m OK with my choices. I hope that Georges Seurat was OK with his choices in his own life, as well.
The link to the video for the song “Finishing the Hat” from the Original Cast Recording of the Musical Sunday in the Park with George can be found here. ***The lyrics version is here.
The link to the video for the trailer for the Musical Sunday in the Park with George can be found here.
The link to the Art Institute of Chicago, where Seurat’s famous painting is on display, can be found here.
The link to the official website for artist Georges Seurat can be found here.
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