Julian Ovenden, Michael Starobin and More Paint a New Sunday in the Park with George in Paris
By Stéphane Ly-Cuong
April 16, 2013
Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris is currently offering French audiences its third Stephen Sondheim musical within the last three years: Sondheim and James Lapine's Tony and Pulitzer Prize-winning Sunday in the Park with George, which is playing the famed venue through April 25.
Set in the city where Georges Seurat (who inspired the musical) was born and died, the production, with new orchestrations by Michael Starobin, is presented in English with French subtitles.
Members of the cast and creative team recently shared their experiences about working on the Parisian production.
(Original and new orchestrations)
Two-time Tony Award winner Michael Starobin (Assassins, Next To Normal) was the orchestrator of the original Broadway production of Sunday in the Park With George in 1984. For the Paris premiere, he wrote new orchestrations for a 46-piece orchestra (instead of 11 originally).
About the original Broadway production:
"Sunday in the Park was my very first Broadway show. I had done work Off-Broadway with James Lapine, who introduced me to Stephen Sondheim. I was only 27 at the time; it was quite a rare opportunity to work for Steve. I was quite excited, but if I had really understood how important a project it was, I would have been much more frightened! But being 27, I had no idea what I was actually involved with, and that ignorance was very helpful to let me be creative and to make brave choices."
About the unusualness of Sunday in The Park With George:
"Before Sunday, I had done March of The Falsettos: That was an unsual musical. But when I got to Sunday, I was so surprised at the subject matter, the way the songs were written, the minimalism within the score and how it was used to portray pointillism. There are many remarkable things, including James Lapine's book, which is so poetic and quirky. Everyone notices Steve because he writes the most wonderful songs, but often, what gets missed is how unusual his collaborators are, particularly James Lapine and John Weidman. How, as dramatists, they provide a unique framework, which gives Steve the freedom to do such inventive things."
About finding the right balance in the orchestrations:
"There are numbers like 'We Do Not Belong Together' where Steve's writing approach is very operatic in the emotions the two characters are expressing. Having a large orchestra allows me to respond to that emotion, but hopefully not taking it over the top so it's too emotional, which is my worry. When you have a symphonic orchestra, sometimes, you can be too big. You have have to keep the right balance for sound, but more importantly, the right balance for emotion. If I overplay it, then it's not coming from the characters but from the orchestra. I need to support their emotion, not do it for them. That's the challenge for me with a large band."
Julian Ovenden (George)
British actor Julian Ovenden works both in London and New York, on stage and on TV. He recently starred in the world-premiere musical Finding Neverland.
About Sunday in the Park With George and the challenges of playing the role of George:
"This is one of my favorite pieces, and one of the reasons I became an actor. I think the music is amazing. Beside the fact that it's an absolutely brilliant composition, it has an emotional core to it that's very effective and affecting. The characters are very interesting and there are many levels to play: You don't often get that complexity in musicals. This role is a great challenge in lots of different ways: physically, technically, emotionally. You have to find links between Act I and Act II and lead the audience through that. There are also a lot of different types of singing in it, for example, the 'dog stuff' in Act I, and the more Broadway kind of sound of Act II."
About performing this musical in Paris:
"When Seurat was painting his work, no one wanted to see it. And then, as years went by, people realized he was a genius. I think it's a little bit the same with Sunday. Parisians don't know about this musical and it should be seen. Paris has become more educated about musicals - especially Sondheim's - over the last few years. If there's any piece in his work that belongs in France, it's this one. Parisian audiences are very happy to use their minds. I hope they will respond to it."
David Charles Abell (Conductor)
British-American David Charles Abell has conducted Sondheim's music all over the world, including Japan (Pacific Overtures), London (Sondheim at 80) and France (Sweeney Todd in Paris, Follies in Toulon).
About Sunday in the Park With George:
"I saw it on Broadway in 1984 when it first opened. I was living in New York at the time and some friends said, 'You have to see it.' I went... and I didn't get it. I love Sondheim's musicals, but this one, I thought, was a little strange. I went back a second time and found it interesting. Then I got the cast album and watched the video, and eventually, it became one my favorite musicals. It's because anyone who works in the arts deals with the same issues George is dealing with. You have to be obsessed with your work and you have to work very hard if you want to be good and succeed. But we all want to have a personal life, too, and sometimes, you can't do the two things. Rehearsing it, I would get very emotional, because you think of what you have to give up. But I also think that I'm luckier than George because I have someone who understands me and who is an artist as well."
About rediscovering the score with new orchestrations:
"I have done three of the songs [from Sunday] in big orchestrations, at the Proms. It doesn't surprise me at all that that music can take a bigger treatment that is appropriate for some of the songs, because the emotions in the songs are very big. The Act I and Act II finales are perfect for a big theatre, a big orchestra and a big treatment. They sound quite glorious. We played them for the first time yesterday, and everyone was so moved. So, it is a rediscovery but we're very fortunate to have the original orchestrator, Michael Starobin, returning to his work to do a large version. It's like painting, in a way: in 1984, maybe he had five colors and now he has 30."
Lee Blakeley (Director)
Sunday in the Park With George is Lee Blakeley's third Sondheim musical at Théâtre du Châtelet after A Little Night Music (2010) and Sweeney Todd (2011).
About Sunday in the Park With George and how an artist relates to it:
"It's such a smart piece, but it also has a great deal of heart to it: The fact that it's about the nature of creation, which is, I suppose, what we do. So I think we understand it from that point of view, but what makes the piece really work is that it looks at artists and comments on them: 'Yes, it's a joyous thing to make these works, but it's equally joyous to be in the human world as well. Do you compromise in your work? In your life?' The show asks very smart questions. [As a creative artist], I think it's impossible not to relate to it when you spend days and weeks, looking at the score, the paintings, the models, and you lose track of time, and the outside world disappears. People who are very passionate about their work can become so absorbed by it that they lose track of everything else that's going on. That's [the song] 'Finishing The Hat.' I do understand that and in my own life, and I try to keep a balance between work and life."
About French audiences and Sondheim's musicals:
"The response has been absolutely phenomenal and it always makes me laugh, because I get told all over the world: 'You do musicals in France? French don't like musicals!' That's not my experience. Making these shows, and seeing the reactions, it seems like there is a huge appetite for it. The French audiences seem to love coming to the Châtelet, and that's what Mr Choplin [director of Théâtre du Châtelet] has done: He's created a place where these things can happen."
Sunday in the Park With George originally opened at Broadway's Booth Theatre on May 2, 1984, where it ran for 540 performances, starring Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters. The Pulitzer Prize-winning musical chronicles the life of maverick French impressionist Georges Seurat during the creation of his now-celebrated masterpiece, "Sunday on the Island of La Grande Jatte."
For more information, visit chatelet-theatre.com. View videos from the production here. Stéphane Ly-Cuong is a Paris-based freelance writer and director (firstname.lastname@example.org).