Both the best and the worst musicals of Stephen Sondheim — the consensus pick for our greatest living composer and lyricist of musical theater — wrestle with the same central problem: The main character is a man whose emotional state can only be described as ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.
He’s profoundly confused by emotions as a concept, and he can’t express his own deepest feelings, to the point that he alienates all of those who care most deeply about him. So how do you make the audience care about him?
The shows that fail to solve this problem (1970’s Company, 1981’s Merrily We Roll Along) have beautiful scores, and given a charismatic lead and a halfway decent book they’re interesting shows. But they’ll always feel chilly. They’re built around a hollow center.
The shows that succeed — especially 1979’s Sweeney Todd and 1984’s Sunday in the Park With George — succeed in part because of their climactic Act I ballads. There, the main character’s emotional numbness swirls out of him in waves of confusion, then betrayal, and finally acceptance.
In Sweeney Todd, that’s the cathartic “Epiphany,” in which Todd simultaneously grieves his lost wife and daughter and hatches his murderous revenge plot. And in Sunday in the Park — onstage now on Broadway in a shimmering new production starring Jake Gyllenhaal — it’s the exquisitely beautiful “Finishing the Hat.”
“Finishing the Hat” works because it makes art more emotionally compelling than feelings
In “Finishing the Hat,” Georges Seurat — the famous painter is just dubbed “George” for the musical — is halfway through painting “A Sunday on La Grande Jatte” and inventing pointillism, and he has been so distant to his lover Dot (Annaleigh Ashford in the current production) that she has left him.
It’s because, George tells the audience, he can’t be really close to anyone if he wants to be a real artist and truly see the world; because “studying a face, stepping back to look at a face” will always “leave a little space in the way, like a window.” But, after all, “It's the only way to see.”
He has, he tells us, truly seen Dot. It’s just that he can’t be close to her at the same time. He ignores her in life so he can finish painting her on his canvas, and so he can give the painted version of Dot a hat to shield her from the sun that the living Dot complains of.
It’s a chilly little defensive posture on paper, but what makes “Finishing the Hat” extraordinary is that when sung, it feels completely genuine and reasonable and even warm. If real art, immortal art like “A Sunday on La Grande Jatte” or Sunday in the Park, is at stake, maybe human attachments really do have to be set aside, painful as it might be, you think as you listen. Maybe it’s for the best.
When you make art, you have truly created something. You have made a hat, “where there never was a hat,” and the song manages to make that achievement just as emotionally compelling as funny, charismatic Dot and her rebuffed love for George. And once George’s art has the vital emotional hook that arrives in this climactic song, the rest of the play falls into place.
Jake Gyllenhaal makes a surprisingly effective George in the terrific new Broadway production
In this year’s Broadway production, the play surrounding “Finishing the Hat” is suitably exquisite. The art, swimming into focus onto the backdrop, has never looked quite so much as though George were drawing it into existence right before your very eyes.
The supporting cast is filled with heavy hitters and Tony winners (Phillip Boykin is a scene stealer in the small role of the Boatman), and Ashford has a sparkling presence as Dot, who remains the warm heart of the show. The role was made iconic by Bernadette Peters in 1984, but Ashford finds new comedic beats for herself everywhere.
As George, Gyllenhaal doesn’t have the velvety, Broadway-honed pipes of Mandy Patinkin, who originated the role, but his voice is surprisingly warm and resonant. He brings a twitchy, introverted intensity to the part, hunching over his sketchpad and flinching away from Dot as he works, then coming to life when he’s alone and able to submerse himself in the empathetic work of his art. (Gyllenhaal makes a meal out of the slight comic number where George imagines the inner life of two dogs as he sketches them.)
Traditionally, the second act, which takes place in the 1980s and focuses on George’s great-grandson — also an artist named George — is considered the weaker and glibber half of the show. Its satire of the ’80s avant-garde art scene felt tired when the show premiered in 1984, and time has not been kind to it. But in this production, it’s where Gyllenhaal shines most. As the slightly sleazy, networking-obsessed George of the ’80s, Gyllenhaal gets a chance to turn on his slick movie star charm, pairing a gleaming smile with hollow eyes.
He sells George’s charisma and his burned-out exhaustion equally well, so that the despairing “Lesson #8,” in many productions an afterthought, becomes an affecting counterpoint to “Finishing the Hat”: Where the George of 1884 was sure of what he saw and the art he would make of it, the George of 1984 has been ground down, until “all he can see is maybe a tree.”
As the play ends, George does not emerge from his stupor by finding a human connection or romantic love or anything like that: This is, after all, a Sondheim play about a cold man who doesn’t particularly care for emotions or attachments. What he finds instead is the possibility of artistic achievement, of “a blank page or canvas” with “so many possibilities.”
The genius of Sunday in the Park With George is that it makes the audience feel those possibilities, too, and suggests they are just as important and compelling as the idea of love or marriage. It succeeds in making George’s emotional coldness less important than his enormous artistic warmth.
Sunday in the Park With George is onstage at the Hudson Theatre in New York now through April 23. Tickets are available through the box office.