When you see a theater production of a piece you know well and love well, after having seen wonderful and celebrated productions of the piece many times before, including the original Broadway production, and watched the dvd of that production and listened to the cd of its original soundtrack countless times… and then find yourself weeping often and for long stretches during the performance, more than ever before, it’s not just love of the piece and accumulated history with it that is so moving; something really special is happening at that moment on that stage with that performance and these performers. Such it was for me at Saturday’s matinee of “Sunday in the Park with George”.
Ed and I treated ourselves to the revival of “Sunday in the Park with George” concluding its limited Broadway run this weekend and starring movie star Jake Gyllenhaal and Broadway darling Annaleigh Ashford in dual roles as the painter George Seurat and his great-grandson, also called George, and as Seurat’s mistress/model Dot and her granddaughter Marie. (Robert Sean Leonard, no slouch as movie star or Broadway lead himself, shows up in a supporting role, his playbill bio dispensing with credits and simply stating “After I saw the original production of this musical I went directly to Colony records, purchased the tape, and then wore it out on my Walkman. I am deeply honored to be here.”)
The theater world reacted with happy surprise to discover how well Jake Gyllenhaal could sing the immensely challenging role of George during a concert performance last October (Annaleigh Ashford’s vocal bona fides and suitability for the role of Dot/Marie had already been fully established in Broadway musicals like “Kinky Boots”, just listen to her hilarious, powerhouse rendition of “The History of Wrong Guys” below*). A limited Broadway revival run was quickly arranged for February through April. In advance of performances, Jake Gyllenhaal posted the following rehearsal video with this message:
“This is what happens when Riva Marker (the badass president of NineStories) and I invite Cary Joji Fukunaga to rehearsals for our new Broadway musical. Check out this video we made!”
The experience of the live performance in the Hudson Theater Saturday combined with consideration of the “rehearsal video” above leads me to wonder whether a movie version of “Sunday in the Park with George” starring Jake Gyllenhaal may be in our future. This may all just be conjecture and wishful thinking on my part, but let me explain why the particular qualities of this revival convinced me that a wonderful movie version with these leads could be made of this idiosyncratic musical, and why the mere fact of the “rehearsal video” suggests to me Jake Gyllenhaal may be actively working to make that movie a reality.
Stephen Sondheim’s (music and lyrics) and James Lapine’s (book and original direction) 1984 musical “Sunday in the Park with George”, chronicling the creation of George Seurat’s pointillist masterpiece “A Sunday on La Grande Jatte”, is likely the greatest music theater piece about the creation of art and our relationship with art. The original production and the 2008 revival imported from London employed complex theater stagecraft, appearing and disappearing set pieces in 1984, animated video images in 2008, to complement the actors on stage representing the elements of the grand painting coming to life. The 2017 revival, born out of last year’s concert performances, uses stagecraft much more sparingly and subtly than the previous incarnations, which has the effect of forcing the audience to imagine what the characters are seeing in the park and on George’s canvas. It also has the effect of forcing the music and lyrics more into the foreground. Sondheim’s lyrics have never sounded so crisp. Maybe that’s just due to this being a company of particularly excellent enunciators, but I suspect the staging and its focused intimacy with the characters deserves particular credit. Even from our balcony seats we felt drawn in like a camera filming a close up. This enhanced intimacy is also what helped make this experience of “Sunday…” so much more moving than ever before. Oh, I’ve always cried at the swelling Act One and Two finales, “Sunday”, but here I was blubbering throughout much of Act One and most of Act Two. Now, some of my tears may have been personal – Grandmother Marie passing just before she could make her anticipated trip to Paris hit me with unprepared for personal relevance – but by all accounts Ed and I are not alone in reacting with copious tears to this production.
This feeling of watching the characters in close up more than within the context of intricate stagecraft also enhances the appeal of the performances of the extremely charismatic Gyllenhaal and Ashford. Here are two performers who can worthily pick up the batons from Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters, for whose once in a lifetime talents and incredibly idiosyncratic voices the roles of George and Dot/Marie were originally perfectly tailored. We know Gyllenhaal has screen charisma to burn, whether playing romantic (Brokeback Mountain) or sociopathic (Nightcrawler), a fine combination of acting chops for the prickly artist and his unmoored descendant, and now we know he also has the vocal chops for the role, finding the musical nuances with greater flexibility than any singer since Patinkin; and that he looks really good with that handsome beard! And anyone who has watched “Master of Sex” knows that Annaleigh Ashford can shine brightly on the screen as well as stage, and she too finds wonderful humor and warmth and individuality singing her part, staking her claim as this century’s definitive Dot/Marie. It should be nigh impossible coming out from under the formidable shadows of Patinkin and Peters, but Gyllenhaal and Ashford do, maybe not matching their forerunner’s unmatchable vocal personas (who could?), but perhaps inserting extra ache and sensitivity.
This casting of the leads would transfer perfectly onto a movie screen. And while I was watching Gyllenhaal as George mime painting I started imagining how movie magic might not only bring us intimately close to the characters but also dazzlingly close inside Seurat’s painting and the modern day George’s art installation “Chromolume #7”. Perhaps one could raise the funds necessary for an artistically adventurous independent movie musical, say, if one had a secured a successful hollywood actor like Jake Gyllenhaal, and were working with a highly acclaimed, visually adventurous and narratively assured director like Cary Fukunaga…
Let’s look at that “rehearsal video” again. This wasn’t just any old director brought in to film Gyllenhaal singing “Finishing the Hat”. This is the acclaimed (and certainly not inexpensive, if here just for hire) director of “Jane Eyre”, “Beasts of No Nation” and the first season of “True Detective”. And so we get a very cinematic mise en scène, with an uninterrupted take of Gyllenhaal singing while walking down several flights of steps from the top of the wings into the Hudson Theatre stage surrounded by the full orchestra, followed by a camera man (in a steady cam rig?) who must have been lowered on that external elevator device (which we can briefly glimpse in the background at the 1:07 mark). Gyllenhaal credits Riva Marker, his partner in his production company NineStories, for bringing in Fukunaga to make this elaborate promo video. Which indicates to me that NineStories is mostly responsible for financing the promotional video, not the producers of the actual stage revival, and that Gyllenhaal and Riva Marker, already listed on IMDb as co–producers on five of Gyllenhaal seven future films, may be laying the groundwork for a future, as yet un-announced, movie version of “Sunday in the Park with George”.
Do I know this for sure? Of course not. I am no journalist. I have not reached out to Gyllenhaal’s camp to pose the question and probably receive a tantalizing “No Comment”. This is my conjecture upon seeing the production, seeing how the highly acclaimed, sold out limited revival can only have stoked the desire for more, and seeing how diligently Gyllenhaal worked to develop his voice for the part and how much resources (I am assuming) he himself committed to create that particularly effective, cinematic “rehearsal video”.
And this is also obviously my own wishful thinking. But boy would these two, Gyllenhaal and Ashford, be the right performers at this time to bring “Sunday in the Park with George” to the screen. I can imagine a cinematic experience that gloriously complements the original production luckily preserved for all time on dvd.
PS: As this is the time Broadway productions conclude every performance with a curtain call speech asking for donations to raise funds for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights Aids, we were treated to a vaudevillian pitch by Ashford and Gyllenhaal after the standing ovations. Which included the chance to be gifted the usual production poster signed by the whole cast (for a $200 donation). But then something really special: Ashford revealed that the charcoal sketches Jake Gyllenhaal is seen making as George Seurat each performance are not mimed but real, and individually available (for a $700 donation; $1000 for the most iconic sketch of “Dot”) with a signature and commentary scribbled by Gyllenhaal during each intermission. I caught a close glimpse of one of the sketches afterwards (the “Dot” sketch was first to be claimed by one lucky well-healed patron). They were not exactly as masterful as Seurat’s originals, but surely reminiscent of his style. What an ingenious, memorable way to raise extra funds for a good cause (An original charcoal sketch by Jake Gyllenhaal in the style of George Seurat, sketched on stage while you watched him play George Seurat!) and another indicator of Gyllenhaal’s commendable dedication to “Sunday in the Park with George”.
*Here it is, Annaleigh Ashford singing “The History of Wrong Guys”, music and lyrics by Cyndi Lauper, from the musical “Kinky Boots”:
The History of Wrong Guys – Annaleigh Asford (Kinky Boots)