Arrangements of Shadows
Part 2 of Sondheim's Art: Finishing the Hat
In our perfect park,
Made of flecks of light
If you haven’t skimmed through my first piece introducing Sunday in the Park with George, feel free to do so now. In it, I establish the idea that this musical has deep significance not just for fans of Sondheim, art, and/or musical theatre, but for all people. And not just in the way that any good work of art has ideas worth meditating on, but in the sense that a person who understands Sunday at its deepest levels will be able to undergo a profound personal transformation. Here I will lay the groundwork for those ideas, while also examining the context that informs the ultimate focus of these essays: “Finishing the Hat.”
Sunday is a masterpiece not only because of its themes and brilliant music and lyrics, but because of its delicate and intricate structure and pacing. Much of the credit for that goes to James Lapine for his writing and direction, which allows Sondheim’s technically challenging music to breathe and expand. And I would be sorely mistaken for not emphasizing how Lapine’s contributions are not just equally valuable for the show as a whole, but for helping to shape Sondheim’s own approach to the material. I’m not going to tell everyone to click over to Youtube to see if by any chance there’s a video with the entire film of the original Broadway production, but if you do that of your own accord, you may get a sense of what I mean. As a diehard Sondheim nerd, I of course have this film on DVD, but alternative viewing methods do make, say, writing or reading an essay about it, to use a wildly irrelevant example, much easier.
I’m starting to home in on the core of my interest here, which is the song “Finishing the Hat,” but like with any good, integrated piece of long form art, this song can only be understood by examining its dramatic context, background in the plot, and moments before in the text. Using the published libretto and the aforementioned film as a guide, the sequence that culminates in “Finishing the Hat” begins from the start of the show, which takes place on the same day, but the scene-song “Color and Light” is where we get all the most important information.
In the opening of the show, (“Paris, a series of Sundays, 1884-1886”) we see a blank white stage before which sits George with his easel and sketchbook. As he speaks the opening lines of the show, the white drops lift up and, piece by piece, reveal the island of La Grande Jatte as painted by Seurat. He brings his model, Dot, onto the stage and places her for sketching. How many people immediately make the connection that her name comes from the “dots” that make up pointillist art? She sings the eponymous song “Sunday in the Park with George” as he works, occasionally calling out to correct her pose. This opening sequence does not yet let us see inside George’s head, other than to show us the gentle, if cold way that he treats Dot and the other characters he briefly interacts with.
As Sondheim reveals in the second volume of his collected lyrics, Look, I Made a Hat, “Because the world of this show was so foreign to me and because the writing style which James chose for it was both odd and delicate, I asked him for a stream-of-consciousness version of Dot’s thoughts as she was posing for the opening scene”. Lapine’s writing guided Sondheim’s own pen, true to his maxim of “content dictates form,” and he wrote, “he [Lapine] gave Dot a mind that does not burn with a steady flame, but flickers and sputters; she has a short attention span. That justified my juxtaposing images and emotions without transitions between them … The clipped phrases James’s speech also supplied me with the rhythmic building blocks of the song’s structure. … Most important, the music of this section underpins their love story throughout the evening.”
This moment is interrupted by noisy young men swimming, a tableau which transforms into the first major work painted by Seurat, Bathers at Asnières. It is being observed by a much more well-known painter and his female companion in a gallery or exhibition somewhere, and they criticize it with casual cruelty in the song “No Life.” This song is unsubtly a representation of the critics of Sondheim’s own work, whose brutal reviews of Merrily We Roll Along two years earlier had nearly shamed Sondheim out of the business. But it is true to Seurat’s life as well, who gained no major recognition until after his early death. This song, and George’s subsequent interaction with the two of them in the park, suggests George’s indifference to the critique: he’s too invested in the art itself to care.
George sends Dot back to the studio, suggesting that they would go to see the Follies that night, while he goes off to continue his sketches. The first staccato, pointillist notes of “Color and Light” are played by the piano as Dot sits down in front of her mirror to get ready for the Follies (around 19 minutes into the film). In this scene, Dot and George are simultaneously speaking in internal monologues that interweave and overlap with each other. Dot comments on her appearance and her perceptions of George and how she thinks he sees her. George works on the painting, talking to it, caressing it to life, every now and then noticing Dot and skirting around his awareness of how much he cares about her.
The first thing that we notice as we watch Dot speak her dialogue here—“George taught me all about concentration!”—is that Dot is powdering herself in rhythm with the music. After lovingly complaining about how George can stay up all night painting, keeping his thoughts to himself, she says, “George has many secrets,” and the music shifts from clear ringing piano to the more baroque synthesized harpsichord as spotlights come up on George, painting. He stands behind a transparent scrim which we are to understand as the canvas, and the muted lighting keeps things feeling very contained, until the orchestrations (by Jonathan Tunick) grow increasingly more lush and George sings “More light!” The stage lights up, and the scrim is revealed to be the La Grande Jatte painting, but reversed, as we gaze upon it from behind.
Color and light.
There’s only color and light.
Yellow and white.
Just blue and yellow and white.
Finally, we are taken into George’s mind. We see the intense concentration and passion that fills him while he works, and through his process, we start to understand the way he sees the world. The juxtaposition between George and Dot here establishes not just the central conflicting natures of the characters, but also the deeply personal yet universal themes which I argue make this show much more accessible and less esoteric than it seems. George’s concerns are highly technical and ordered, a rejection of the messiness of emotion for the sublimeness of feeling. As Dot sings in the opening, “That’s you, George, you’re bizarre. Fixed. Cold.” Dot is all the scattered mess of emotion and detail, disordered and insecure but full of the richness of humanity. She doesn’t have a good sense of feeling, which can also be understood as symbolism and meaning.
As Dot gazes at herself in the mirror, she points out all her own flaws.
If my legs were longer… If my bust was smaller… If my hands were graceful… If my waist was thinner… If my hips were flatter… If my voice was warm… If I could concentrate—I’d be in the Follies!
George sees in her what she doesn’t see in herself.
Forever with that mirror. What does she see?
The round face, the tiny pout, the soft mouth, the creamy skin…
The pink lips, the red cheeks…
The wide eyes. Studying the round face, the tiny pout…
Seeing all the parts and none of the whole…
But the way she catches light…
And the color of her hair…
I could look at her forever…
And Dot, in overlapping lines of both dialogue and song, romanticizes George’s own individual flaws.
But how George looks. He could look forever. As if he sees you and he doesn’t all at once. What is he thinking when he looks like that? What does he see? Sometimes, not even blinking. His eyes. So dark and shiny. Some think cold and black.
But it’s warm inside his eyes…
And it’s soft inside his eyes…
And he burns you with his eyes…
And you’re studied like the light.
And you look inside the eyes.
And you catch him here and there.
But he’s never really there.
So you want him even more.
And you drown inside his eyes…
I could look at him forever.
However, he becomes so absorbed in his work that he forgoes his plans to see the Follies with Dot, saying, “I have to finish the hat. (He returns to his work. Dot slams down her brush and stares at the back of the canvas. She exits. Lights fade downstage as the rhythmic figure resumes. As he paints) Damn. The Follies. Will she yell or stay silent? Go without me or sulk in the corner? Will she be in the bed when the hat and the grass and the parasol have finally found their way? Too green… Do I care?... Too blue… Yes… Too soft… What shall I do?”
This is critical dramatically, as it establishes the prominence of George’s work and his absorption in his painting, but also his true love for Dot. Again, Lapine’s work with the direction and writing here is equally as important to our understanding as Sondheim’s music and lyrics, but it’s in the music and lyrics that we get the most clear distillation of these ideas. This is because, as Sondheim is fond of pointing out, in a musical, a song should only exist because a character is so overwhelmed by the potency of whatever they’re experiencing that they have to sing. Like Shakespearian soliloquys or operatic arias, these are moments of heightened, elevated reality.
“Color and Light” is also the most easily identifiable example of pointillist music. Do yourself a favor and listen to it. Nearly the entire song is composed of short, staccato notes played by various instruments, which, when they come together, form a lush and passionate sound. In much of the song, though, when they’re played by only one or a few instruments, they sound spare and sparse. Likewise, the lyrics, especially George’s as he paints, are thoughts or ideas deconstructed into short words or phrases out of which we understand that he isn’t as disinterested in Dot as we first suspect.
Blue blue blue blue
Blue still sitting
Red that perfume
Blue all night
Blue-green the window shut
Dut dut dut
Dot Dot sitting
Dot Dot waiting
Dot Dot getting fat fat fat
Dot Dot waiting to go
Out out out but
Finish the hat finish the hat
Have to finish the hat first
Importantly, the few times we hear full, lush chords and legato phrases are in sections that are either transitions between George and Dot, or sections in which they sing and speak overlapping each other. It is the combination of the two that brings out the fullness of the beauty, not one or the other alone.
“If there is any song in the score that exemplifies the change in my writing when I began my collaboration with James Lapine, it would be ‘Color and Light.’ The flow between spoken and sung monologue, the elliptical heightened language, the stream-of-consciousness fantasies, the abrupt climactic use of of unaccompanied dialogue, these are all musical extensions of hallmarks in Lapine’s playwriting, particularly his early plays. … I organized this song, and much of the score, more through rhythm and language than rhyme.” (Sondheim 17). Here again we see Lapine’s influence on Sondheim’s writing itself. But rather than diminishing Sondheim’s genius, this exemplifies and even elevates it. Sondheim’s ability to musicalize and lyricize any style he puts his mind to, and to such great effect, is a testament to his brilliance. But the key here for me is that, though Sondheim had often said that he deeply identified with George, it is in his collaborative ability, and the way he can deeply understand the parts as he pulls them together into a cohesive whole, that we get a very important meta-representation of the major theme I’m identifying here.
Among many beautiful things in this song, we see the pull between cold, distant analysis and warm, messy, human connection. This undoubtedly establishes the arc that leads us to our understanding of the most important theme in this musical. Sunday in the Park with George is not really about art, or artists. It illustrates for a new generation the deep philosophical motive behind pointillism itself. Focusing on the “dots”—the power of our human connections and emotions—is important, even essential, but it pulls us into decoherence. The complete picture that emerges from the collection of “dots”—the ability to pull back and understand something holistically—pulls us away from the fulfillment of human connection.
We need the ability to deeply understand and feel the parts and pull back to understand the whole in a dispassionate but ultimately profound way. This is an idea that in various forms has existed for thousands of years. Buddhism and Hinduism echo ideas like this, the Greeks and other ancient western philosophers as well, and the alchemical concept of “as above, so below,” among many others. Taking the lessons of this musical to heart is not just a lighthearted self-reflection, it is a deeply spiritual and transcendent process, an alchemical transmutation in its own right.
Next time, I will dig into that concept even more as we look at the rest of the lead-up to “Finishing the Hat.”