Communication sophomore Emily Maltby was six years old when she sent a letter to Stephen Sondheim, explaining how moving she found his musical Sunday in the Park With George. Earlier this year she sent Sondheim a second letter, this time in electronic form, while she was preparing to direct the production for Arts Alliance’s Garden Party show. He agreed to meet and discuss the piece with her over the summer at his Manhattan townhouse. “He was wonderful. He wanted to hear all about Northwestern and out theatre department and was also very willing to hear what I had to say about show. It was really quite astonishing to be talking to the man himself about what I think [the show] means,” Maltby says.
Sunday, which opens Thursday night, presents a fictional account of pointillist painter Georges Seurat’s life while he creates his signature work, ”A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.” Bienen fifth-year senior Seth Dhonau portrays Seurat, who has an intense concentration and commitment to his work. These allow him to ignore those who criticize his unorthodox style of painting but also damage his personal relationships. Communication senior Laura Huizenga plays Seurat’s lover Dot, an astute woman who is fascinated by the artist’s passion for his work but frustrated by the artist’s reserved approach to their relationship.
“It’s about creating art, but it’s also a love story,” Maltby says. “It’s about a man and a woman in a relationship that is perfect but ultimately, because of its perfection, can not work. I think for people who are artists, and even those who aren’t, that idea of life versus art is an interesting one, and an interesting one to see in an artistic setting.”
Maltby says it was Sondheim himself who reminded her not to lose sight of the fact that the show is first and foremost a love story. ”I asked what about this painting inspired you to write a show about art and he said ‘I had no intention to write a story about art. The main character was an artist so that inevitably came out in the writing.’ I thought that was so interesting because everybody thinks the show is about art and it’s not. It’s about a man who is an artist,” she explained.
Sunday features an emotive score and complex narrative that touches on a multitude of themes, including creation, inspiration and trust. The second act moves the story ahead 100 years to an American museum where Georges’ and Dot’s artist great-grandson, George (also portrayed by Dhonau) debuts his latest color and light machine, “Chromolume #7″. The piece is meant to pay homage to his great-grandfather’s painting and honor his grandmother, Marie (also portrayed by Huizenga). George, however, privately expresses his distaste for the cocktail conversation and critic reviews that have become essential to funding the creation modern art during the song “Putting It Together.”
The two acts come together when the disheartened artist travels to the French island and encounters a vision of Dot during the show’s penultimate song, “Move On.” “There’s no logical reason why it should work,” Maltby explains. “She’s a character from 1884, he’s a different person, not the man she was in love with, and yet you totally buy it. It balances the two ideas of the show perfectly, talking about their love story and what it means to be an artist. You can’t have one without the other.”
The musical also looks at the lives of the characters who appear in the painting, which is currently on display at the Art Institute of Chicago. These individuals all crossed paths with Seurat at one time or another, but have their own stories that exist beyond their interaction with the painter. ”The first act especially is told so much through Georges’s head that it’s very easy for these characters to mush into them. What is so awesome about our cast is that we have the most eclectic group of dynamic performers, and they’re all so different, that each of these characters pops out as the most specific and unique person, so you care just as much about their stories [as you do Georges' and Dot's],” Maltby added.
Sunday in the Park with George will play at Shanley Pavilion through the weekend with shows Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m , Friday at 11 p.m. and Saturday at 1 p.m. Tickets are $5 and can be purchased at the door or online at the Norris Box Office Web site.