Looking for the Hat
Part 1 of Sondheim's Art: Finishing the Hat
A blank page, or canvas.
The challenge: bring Order to the whole.
What is the relationship between an artist and their art? Between an artist and the two worlds they straddle? Sunday in the Park with George is ostensibly about those two questions. Certainly, there is the familiar trope of an artist—Georges Seurat and then his fictional great grandson, George—driven to peculiarity and distraction by their immersion in their unconventional and groundbreaking art. The show is full of motifs representing different misapprehensions and critiques of the artist’s work.
In a turn of unfortunate irony, the musical itself was famously lambasted by certain critics for not having catchy enough melodies to make it a big hit. In other words, for being too artistic and cerebral. As a somewhat abstract and conceptual piece, an average audience member was likely to feel that they couldn’t connect with the story.
Do the answers to those questions matter to normal people?
On the face of it? Probably no. It makes for an interesting story, but what’s so special and complicated about Sunday is that it doesn’t focus on the story. It focuses on the characters as a window into an almost Platonic world. It is a fragmented and often abstract unfolding of the creative process and the artist as the nexus between the real world and the world of color and light, of symbols and ideas. Everything from the writing style, lyrics, and music, to the design and performance, is masterfully crafted to serve this central idea. And, following one of Sondheim’s key rules of writing—content dictates form—he and James Lapine developed the musical and literary equivalents of pointillism, the visual art perfected and made famous by Seurat, and which he immortalized in the painting that is the musical’s subject. This is no small task.
How did Sondheim and Lapine arrive at such a breathtaking and ambitious piece of theatre? And why is it that the song “Finishing the Hat” is the central lodestone of it all? Drawing on research and writing that I did ten years ago, along with information and insights that I couldn’t fit in to that college essay or have since discovered, I will attempt to answer those questions.
Looking for the Hat
Stephen Joshua Sondheim was born on March 22, 1930 to Herbert and Foxy (née Etta Janet) Sondheim, both children of immigrants; Herbert was a second generation American whose grandparents had emigrated from Germany in 1848 and Foxy was a first generation American whose parents had emigrated from Lithuania in 1890 first to England and then to America. Six months after Stephen was born, his family moved into the expensive and high-class apartments at the San Remo. His father had become a wealthy owner of a garment company and his mother was the chief fashion designer of that company. “As a mother, Foxy took the kind of progressive position one would expect of someone whose livelihood depended upon being absolutely up to the minute, if not in front of it.” 1. Foxy was fashionable, but she was incredibly vain and this had a tremendous effect on Sondheim’s upbringing. She is described as “a doozie. The most pretentious, self-centered, narcissistic woman… She was a snob who didn’t like the fact that she came from a working-class background. She…falsified her background and assumed a false accent.’” 2.
When Sondheim was ten, his father Herbert left Foxy and Stephen for a woman named Alicia Babé. It was abrupt and startling, but Sondheim was sent off to military school, which provided the discipline he needed, “I needed structure and it gave me that, and made me feel the world was not in chaos. Because everything fell apart… And to my surprise now, I just adored it; I thought it was terrific.” Eventually Foxy became connected to Oscar Hammerstein II’s wife Dorothy after the Hammersteins moved to the east coast and Stephen became friends with their son Jamie Hammerstein. Shortly thereafter Stephen became an honorary member of the Hammerstein family, and Foxy purchased a farm with money from her divorce settlement that was only four miles away from the Hammerstein farm. The Hammersteins became a surrogate family for Stephen.
Stephen became very interested in puzzles and games, and later realized that this is what precipitated his interest in music. The puzzles became a metaphor for his chaotic and fragmented relationship with his parents. And music, to him, became a puzzle, a way to make order out of chaos with structure and form. Hammerstein took Sondheim under his wing and taught him everything he knew. From Hammerstein, Sondheim learned what became the most important rules of writing for the musical theatre: content dictates form, less is more, and God is in the details. “Oscar told me to write what I felt, not what he felt. … Then he said the smart thing; he said, ‘If you do that, you’ll be 90 percent ahead of everybody else.’ Once he made it competitive, being a teenager, the floodgates opened for me.”3
Sondheim was perhaps the most brilliant composer and lyricist that musical theatre has ever seen, and, oh, how it pains me to change the “is” of ten years ago to the “was” of now. In total, his shows have amassed thirty-seven Tony Awards among numerous other nominations, a Tony Lifetime Achievement Award, a Pulitzer Prize, and nine Grammy Awards. But the awards are only a minor part of the evidence of his genius. He has written well over 20 musicals (the exact number depending on whether you count his amateur and unproduced/unfinished musicals), beginning from his early days in school and under the tutelage of his monolithic mentor Oscar Hammerstein II, to now. He and his many collaborators almost singlehandedly transformed musical theatre into a serious art form that can tackle real issues and themes and have complex, nuanced characters. He learned about Rodgers and Hammerstein’s innovations and took them several steps further to establish what is in many eyes the ideal musical theatre form. The only other writers from that transitional era who majorly contributed to this development that I can think of were Kander and Ebb (Cabaret, Chicago). Sondheim’s brilliance is lauded universally by critics, scholars, musicians, and actors alike. Not everyone loves his shows, but everyone recognizes the innovations and transformations he introduced.
In Sunday in the Park with George, which may be arguably his magnum opus, if not one of several, Sondheim examines what it means to be an artist, what art is, and what it takes to be successful in the art world. The famous pointillist painting, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, by Georges Seurat, inspired the musical. Sondheim uses these ideas about art, pointillism, musical integration, and musical structure to create an endlessly rich and beautiful musical and lyrical world through the painting and George’s experiences while painting it.
I was enraptured by Sunday in the Park with George because, as an artist myself, I felt I profoundly understood the struggles of both Georges and George, and as an emotional being I felt deeply connected to Dot. (For clarity, I will be referring to the Act 1 protagonist as the correct French “Georges” and his great grandson in Act 2 as “George”.)
But the more I explored the filmed versions of the original Broadway production and the subsequent revivals, the various cast recordings and solo versions of songs, and the official printed libretto and score, the more I recognized the deep power of Sunday in the Park with George, and why I feel it can and should resonate with non-artists. It is more fundamentally about themes that are important for all people: the importance of viewing the world from different perspectives, understanding our relationship with our world as composed of countless tiny components that add up to a grand whole, and that no matter what our vision and experience portray to us, it is all “color and light.” Based on what I have seen of what Sondheim and Lapine have publicly said about the themes and meanings behind Sunday, this wasn’t actually their intention, but it is abundantly clear that it is the reality.
There were plenty of people who did recognize Sondheim and Lapine’s genius here. It became the fifth of only ten musicals to date to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama over a non-musical play. It was nominated for ten Tony Awards in 1984, winning only two for Scenic Design and Lighting Design, deservedly so. (It lost in almost all categories to La Cage Aux Folles, which, as much as I love La Cage, is a ridiculous snub to the genius of Sunday and the exquisite performances of the actors.) ((Though Sondheim got a tiny bit of revenge—my word, not his—when he was asked to write two songs for the movie The Birdcage based on the same play as La Cage.)) And though Sunday was never a smash hit, it certainly was not a failure like Merrily We Roll Along or the Wise Guys/Gold!/Bounce/Road Show saga. It has received several esteemed revivals, the most recent of which starred Jake Gyllenhaal as George.
Content Dictates Form
Sondheim met James Lapine in 1982 after Sondheim’s disheartening critical and box office failure with Merrily We Roll Along. Sondheim had seriously considered giving up musical theatre, and his collaborations with Hal Prince had come to an abrupt end because of the Merrily fiasco. James Lapine twenty years younger than Sondheim and burgeoning into a very successful director and playwright, gave Sondheim the motivation to keep going. Lapine said, “’When I first met Steve he was very bummed out, in a very low state. He kept referring to himself as a dinosaur.’” 4.
The idea for Sunday in the Park with George arose out of a desire to create a musical structured around a theme with variations. “They turned to painting, and Lapine immediately thought of A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, the painting by Georges Seurat that he had used in Photographs, which had caught his imagination since the moment he first saw it.”5 Sondheim began researching the painter and his famous painting and found it extremely fascinating, and coincidentally “found a subject whose parallels to his life were direct and unforced.” 6. The collaboration began in earnest.
Early in the collaboration, Sondheim wrote, “’The show is, in part, about how creation takes on a life of its own, how artists feed off art (we off George); the artist’s relationship to his material.” The show went into workshop productions at Playwrights Horizons in 1983 to be worked on and polished. It was in its time here that one of the most important, if not the most important, addition to the show was made: the addition of “Finishing the Hat.” The producer at Playwrights Horizons at the time, André Bishop, said, “It was my turn to make the speech the night ‘Finishing the Hat’ went into the show. I said we were putting in a new song…but Mandy Patinkin would be reading the score because he hadn’t got it memorized yet. His version of ‘Finishing the Hat’ was quite spontaneous and probably the best performance it ever, ever was. … And the audience quickly realized it was the song” 7 (emphasis mine). Sondheim’s most difficult struggle in writing Sunday was writing what George felt, because George and Sondheim were the same, with the same struggles and the same feelings and beliefs and passions. When “Finishing the Hat” was written, Sondheim was essentially baring his deepest, innermost artistic soul to an audience he was unsure would understand what he was saying. Mandy Patinkin’s initial reaction was rapturous; he knew that the song was a revelation. “Mandy Patinkin also remembered the first time he sang that song, which describes the inner battle between George’s longing for Dot, who is leaving him, and the act of creating, which is so revelatory and so transporting that it blots out every other need” 8.
Widely recognized as one of Sondheim’s most brilliant songs, “Finishing the Hat” contains, microcosmically, almost the entire story and almost all the themes of the musical. In the following essays, I will be analyzing this song and its connective tissue through the respective lenses of dramatic elements, lyrics, style, and musical composition.
Secrest, Meryle. Stephen Sondheim: a Life. New York: Knopf, 1998. Print. p. 13
Myra Berzoff in Secrest, p. 9
Sondheim in Bryer, Jackson R., and Richard Allan Davison. "Stephen Sondheim." The Art of the American Musical: Conversations with the Creators. New Brunwick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 2005. 186-205. Print. p. 190
Secrest, p. 326
Secrest, p. 327
Secrest, p. 328
Secrest p. 331 and 333
Secrest p. 333