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Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Modern Mormon Geek Moment #1

by Bradly Baird (bio)

I confess that I maintain a secret life as a fan of popular - and not-so-popular - culture. I know that each of you knows what I am talking about. You assiduously keep your guilty pleasures secret and never let anyone outside of your immediate family know about them. Because to reveal such things is to reveal your inner geek; that deepest, most secretive (and embarrassing) part of your personality. But no matter how deep inside you've hidden your geekiness, I am here to say that you should let it out every once in a while and share it with someone. You never know, you might discover a fellow geek. And in that spirit, I present some of my geek secrets . . . please don't beat me up, take my lunch money, or give me a wedgie.

By the Blue Purple Yellow Red Water

"White. A blank page or canvas. The challenge: bring order to the whole through design. Composition. Balance. Light. And harmony." These words are the first and the last spoken onstage in the Pulitzer Prize-winning musical drama, Sunday in the Park With George. The words prepare the audience to experience the work as though they themselves are a part of the creative process that drove its creation. Indeed, the dramatic narrative unfolds as though a painting is being made in front of the audience, with set pieces changing, fading in and fading out of focus.

The first act of Sunday focuses its fictional storyline on the painter George Seurat and the creation of his masterpiece, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of LaGrande Jatte. Seurat interacts with the subjects of the painting, people who stroll through a large Parisian park on a succession of Sunday afternoons, and the audience learns about their lives, interests, and loves in a series of humorous/dramatic sequences. Central to this "plot" is the artist's relationship with his model, Dot, who appears with Seurat in the first scene of show. And as their relationship progresses, the two become a centerpiece for discussion and gossip on the part of the other characters. Their relationship culminates at the beginning of the second act with each of characters summing up their opinions of Seurat, spurred on by the news that he has died at a very young age, without ever selling a single painting.

The second act then leaps ahead one hundred years to tell the story of Seurat's great-grandson, a sculptor struggling with the emptiness of success in the art world, which pushes him to a crossroads in his life. This characterization of the art scene in modern day New York is done with humor and a correct touch of irony, enough to let us know that while the art scene takes itself very seriously, the audience should not. After all, "it is all politics," we are told by the modern version of George and it is just "the state of the art."

Sunday is famous for its exploration of art, artists, and its characterization of the art world in two centuries. Both composer and librettist skillfully utilize these settings to give us some remarkable moments of insight and character. Probably the most important song in the first act is "Finishing The Hat," a swirling and thought-provoking composition in which Seurat describes how finishing the detail of a hat in his painting is far more important than anything else in his life at the moment, including the woman who is his current companion. The world goes by and the artist does not care at all because he is finishing his hat, he is "trying to get through to something new."

The most telling moment in the second act comes during a song called, "Putting It Together," when the artist describes the balancing act a modern artist must undergo to get his work funded and put in front of audiences: marketing, glad-handing, grant writing, politicking and, oh yes, actually finding the time to create the art itself. The song is humorously set at a cocktail party where the audience sees George rushing from conversation to conversation in attempts to get funding or have his art placed in a museum, or listening to a famous art critic provide her opinions of his latest work. And, finally, in a humorously frustrated frenzy, realizes he cannot be in all those places on stage at one time and so he places cardboard cutouts of himself with each of the groups of characters and takes a break from running around.

But for all the thoughtful and intelligent comments about creating art, the work contains a really important subtext that I believe is the soul of the entire piece. Sunday is a work about choices: good choices, bad choices, and the choices we must make in life to find happiness, security, love, peace of mind, and self-fulfillment. The work does not preach this notion, but very quietly interlaces it into the plot of the story, amongst the ongoing vortex of creativity.

The most important choice made in the entire play is by Seurat's companion during the first act. Dot realizes that, while she loves Seurat and wants him in her life, he can never be what she needs. She understands that his obsession with his work would mean a life where she and her unborn child are neglected and alone. Instead, she chooses to leave Seurat and go to America with a pastry chef who loves her and will provide her with the things she feels are necessary to her happiness: love, security, comfort, care, attention, and self-fulfillment.

She knows, as does her future husband Louie, that she will always love Seurat more but she makes a more complicated and difficult choice in her life: "I do not think I can have what I want," she says to her former companion Seurat, "Louie is what I think I need." And she concludes later in the story that, "while the choice may have been mistaken, the choosing was not."

I like this notion. She made a choice and lived with the consequences, finding happiness in the act of choosing despite knowing that it was probably a mistaken choice to begin with. She learned from her choice, gained a stronger character because of the choosing, and became a wiser person for it. She then passed that wisdom and experience to her daughter Marie and, finally, to her great-grandson George.

The choice is an important legacy that carries the show forward to the final moments when the modern day George visits the island where great-grandfather Seurat created his masterwork. He is seated alone in a park on the island, surrounded by modern highrise buildings, when the creator of the family legacy appears to him and tells him to "stop worrying where you're going" and to move on. Dot tells the modern George about the choice she made and how it became the foundation for happiness in her own life; and then she urges him to make a choice - right or wrong - about his future as an artist. Her urging leads George to renew his faith in his own abilities and to continue making art for the world.

The play ends as it began, with a slight variation on the words: "White. A blank page or canvas . . . his favorite. So many possibilities."

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