Ginger Pop: Putting It Together

By Amber Kelly-Anderson

"A Sunday on the Island of Grande Jatte" by Georges Seaurat

On May 2, 1984 Stephen Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with Georgeopened on Broadway. Never one to rock the predictable, Sondheim’s musical takes the audience into the world of Georges Seaurat’s “A Sunday on the Island of La Grande Jatte,” examining the connection between art and artist, life and art in a meta approach that is perhaps his least commercial work. At the time the work drew mixed reviews, save the notably infatuated  New York Times critic Frank Rich, who called the it “audacious, haunting and, in its own intensely personal way, touching work.”

I have never seen the show live: I’m sure I’m not the only one. It does not lend itself to touring companies and community theater productions. However, I have been lucky enough to see the filmed version of the original cast. When I first saw it in high school I wasn’t that into it–it wasn’t something I was ready for after years of things like Phantom of the Opera, My Fair Lady, and Guys and Dolls. The work is too delicate and cerebral to be immediately ‘likeable,’ at least for me.

Despite his positive review, Rich did not immediately and fully love the work. Over a period of months he returned multiple times to see it and continued to write about it, causing some to criticize his obsession, going so far as to claim the show was only staying open because of him. Years later Rich would reflect back in his essay “Exit the Critic” that he was so inspired and confused that he kept returning in an attempt to better understand not only what Sondheim was attempting to accomplish, but the root of his own reactions to it.

Over time I too have become infatuated. Perhaps, like Rich, it is too much for me to fully process in one sitting. As with Seaurat’s painting, I feel that I must view it again and again, with a new and curious mind each time that allows me to discover and understand something I haven’t before. It’s thoughtful, moving, witty, and subtle; few things can gain that description from me. Ultimately my love of Sunday in the Park with George stems not from it’s catchy tunes (I would argue that “Putting It Together” is the only catchy song in the traditional vein and that’s a stretch) or it’s clever premise, but because of what it represents on the whole: that art, be it a painting or a commercial format like a musical, can and should be deeply personal and strive to move beyond what is popular or normal. Creating that balance of artistry and entertainment while still tapping into truth is something that rarely occurs. I believe this show is an example of the zebra in the herd of horses.

Finding a clip to include is difficult–the show is not meant to be viewed in pieces and does not lend itself to self-contained numbers that can be performed in Harold’s Square before the Macy’s Parade arrives. So I present my most chill-inducing song, “Move On,” from the original production sung by Bernadette Peters and Mandy Patinkin. (I have a theory that Peters was actually born for the sole purpose of singing Sondheim ballads.)

For those looking for something snappier, here’s a clip of “Putting It Together” from a revival of Side by Side by Sondheim featuring George Hearn, Ruthie Henschall, Bronson Pinchot (yes, Cousin Balki), and Carol Burnett.