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The Arena Stage/Signature Theatre revival of Stephen Sondheim’s 1984 musical Sunday in the Park With George will be a revisiting in several senses. Nine years ago, a theater-besotted youngster named Eric Schaeffer created a sensation hereabouts by renting Sunday’s original sets and costumes, and recreating for Arlington Stage pretty much every nuance devised by author and original Broadway director James Lapine to bring to life Georges Seurat and his pointillist masterwork, “A Sunday on La Grande Jatte.”
It was cloningnothing more, nor lessand it didn’t unite the schizoid halves of a show that allows 100 years and several artistic movements to slip by during intermission. But it was successful enough that Schaeffer (and his leading lady, Donna Lillard) could begin their own company, Signature Theatre, with Sondheim as their signature artist. Now, having garnered raves for progressively more adventurous stagings of Sweeney Todd, Assassins, Company, Into the Woods, and Passion, Schaeffer is returning to the show that got him started.
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This time, he has some ideas about how to bring the two halves of the play togetherbold enough ones that Lapine was willing to rewrite snatches of dialogue and Sondheim to revise a lyric or two to accommodate them. Designer Patricia Zipprodt is back, too, reworking her second-act costumes so that she and the others can finally put all the pieces of this artistic puzzle together.
“The original,” explains Schaeffer, “started with a white stage, and then the park sort of materialized, popping up and flying in, and we’re not going to have any of that.” Sunday in the Park without the park? “Visually, this one’s totally different. At the Kreeger, the audience is going to have to connect the dots.”
That’s a multiple pun (referring not only to pointillist paint application but to Seurat’s mistress in the show, who is named Dot) that doubtless went over well in rehearsal, and that will probably win appreciative groans at the Smithsonian Associates chat Schaeffer’s doing next Monday. And it describes only the beginning of the changes he’s contemplating, which include an absence of lasers in the second act’s “chromolume” sequence, an absence of pop-up figures in the song “Putting It Together,” and the addition of a video/multimedia display allowing Seurat’s great-grandson to reinterpret Seurat’s masterwork in precisely the way the master intended, by “painting with points of light.”
Schaeffer describes his affinity for Sondheim as “a spirituality thingI read his words and they speak to me in visuals.” But increasingly he’s being tugged in other directions. John Kander and Fred Ebb, the suddenly hot, old-school creators of Steel Pier and Chicago, are chatting with him about future projects. He’s just made his New York directing debut with an Encores! presentation of a ’20s Jerome Kern/Oscar Hammerstein musical starring Dorothy Loudon. And he’s heading back to Manhattan as soon as Sunday is up and running to reconceive the musical flop Big in a more intimate, abstract way for the road. “They have 58 trunk songs from the show,” he marvels, “’cause so much material was changed when it was out of town in Detroit. We’re looking at structure, designeverything.”
Still, for the moment he’s focused on the trek to next month’s opening at the Kreeger. Even nine years after he first tackled the show, with all that’s different in this production and in his life, it’s the journey that gets to him. “We started rehearsal two days ago, and the cast sang ‘Sunday’ for the first time, and my eyes welled up and I thought, ‘Oh my God, we’re going there.’”Bob Mondello
The Smithsonian Associates program, “Sunday in the Park With GeorgeA Look Behind the Scenes,” is a three-part series at the Department of Agriculture’s Jefferson Auditorium followed by a performance at Arena Stage:
March 17: The Art of Georges Seurat: On and Off the Stage, with Schaeffer, Arena Stage’s Douglas C. Wager, and the National Gallery of Art’s Philip Leonard;
March 24: Writing the Pulitzer Prize-Winning Musical,
March 31: The Music of George; with musical director
Jon Kalbfleisch and members of the cast.
April 15 & 16: Performance at Arena Stage followed
Call (202) 357-3030 for information.