I went to the Kennedy Center’s production of Sunday in the Park with George with some trepidation because, well, enchantment can’t be bottled, and 18 years had gone by since my conversion; few things are more embarrassing than the object of a passion after it has cooled. Would it be like rediscovering some ghastly old love letter or overheated journal entry, where you cringingly wonder what the fuss was all about?
And then the curtain went up on a striking stage set with covered easels, and from the orchestra pit a French horn cried out, and strings came flowing up like a flood of water from a spring, and the driving percussive motifs of the piano pressed their argument forward. Sure, it was easy to mark what wasn’t as good as the original (or the original as I remembered it), but memory slips too easily into myth, and after a while I found I wasn’t holding back with crossed arms and a show-me face. I wasn’t wanting the experience of the present to be as good as the memory of the past. I was hearing the music anew—seeing the drama of it in concert with the story on the stage. And suddenly the music was much richer for the drama that the singing actors were caught in. Which, after all, was the point. The finest rediscovery was a duet between the artist protagonist and his mother—“Beautiful,” which says “what the eye arranges is what is beautiful.” Until then, George’s mother has been awful toward her son, calling him “deluded” and pretending he doesn’t exist. And then suddenly they are together, George singing, “All things are beautiful, Mother,” and the fading old lady imploring her “Georgie” to capture their lives in paint before everything vanishes. Their voices rise climactically on the word “Sunday,” and she sings, “disappearing as we look.”
After Leonard Bernstein saw Sunday, in 1983, he wrote Sondheim a note saying the show was “brilliant, deeply conceived, canny, magisterial, and by far the most personal statement I’ve heard from you thus far. Bravo.” There is a school of criticism that says it shouldn’t matter whether a work of art is personal, only that it succeed as art. And when people are listening to Sunday a hundred years from now, maybe that’s all that will matter. (“Let others make that decision,” George’s mistress says of his legacy.) But as I positioned myself to eavesdrop in the lobby at intermission, I couldn’t help but be amazed that a song so suffused with maternal tenderness had come from a man whose own mother told him she regretted giving him his life.
In the lobby, a couple of middle-aged women in pantsuits were standing by a candy dispenser, stocking up on cough drops. One was frowning and looked unhappy. Her friend said, “I guess you’re just not a Sondheim nut.”
I suppressed an urge I’ve had before, to go forth and evangelize. The poor woman was suffering enough. Someday, maybe, the light will dawn.