Seattle is about to experience a masterwork that few other cities have had the opportunity to see. From April 21 through May 10 director Sam Buntrock restages his stirring 2008 Broadway revival of the Stephen Sondheim/James Lapine musical Sunday in the Park with George—making the 5th Avenue Theatre the only venue to host the production outside of New York and London.
Buntrock, a 33-year-old Brit whose background includes animation, emphasizes something new for Sunday’s 25th anniversary: dazzling computer projections throughout that gracefully depict the gradual emergence of a work of art. We witness the sketches, erasures, coloring, and leaps of imagination on painter Georges Seurat’s canvas and inside his mind as he creates the mid-1880s pointillist tour de force A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. In the first act, that process alienates Seurat’s lover, aptly named Dot. Act Two jumps to the 1980s, where another artist, stuck repeating his success at making light installations dubbed “chromolumes,” feels paralyzed by self-doubt. This George, however, at last hears what Dot—and all of Seurat’s other enduring dots—has to say.
Though its music shimmers as surely as Seurat’s painting, what Sunday sings about doesn’t take an artist to appreciate, as Buntrock discussed in a phone interview during rehearsals before the Seattle opening.
Why did you decide to bring this production to Seattle? Well, it’s all down to David Armstrong [5th Avenue Theatre’s producing artistic director], really. He saw the production in New York and decided that he had to have it in the 5th Avenue. It’s not one of those pieces destined to have a large national tour, so the fact that we’re having another audience for it is fantastic. David has built up this reputation at the 5th Avenue for presenting musicals, so it seemed like if we were going to do it on the West Coast, here would be the place to do it.
What are the challenges of restaging it in a new space with a different cast? The different cast is the biggest challenge, I suppose. Having a new George and Dot has been a surprising hurdle.
What’s been difficult about that? It’s just that I took for granted how much [original cast members Daniel Evans and Jenna Russell] had informed my take on it originally. So it’s been more a journey of discovery doing it again, actually—finding new things, new touches, new interpretations. That surprised me. In terms of characterization and performance the show is different from New York and I wasn’t expecting that as much as it’s manifested itself.
Explain in layman’s terms the kinds of projections you’re using. It’s a whole combination of things: It’s computer-generated imagery; it’s hand-drawn animation; some of it is done in the same style that you’d see in two-dimensional or three-dimensional Pixar films; and there’s some digital matte painting in there, which is a combination of photography and painting.
How do you hope all that will enhance our experience? It’s an idea that came at the very beginning—the idea that you could use animation to deconstruct the story of the painting itself: You have the first line of the first charcoal sketch and you almost have the last dab of paint. You can show all the stages an artist would go through in the middle of those so that even though the audience knows the painting and they know where we’re heading it allows us to show the painstaking process that the artist goes through, to be inside the ecstasy of the artistic process.
I loved your comments to The New York Times about how the Sunday score affects you. Was it your main reason to stage the revival? I’d heard the score when I was a teenager and I’d admired it but it hadn’t really had a strong emotional impact on me. And then I heard it again when we first started to discuss this revival—that was five years ago—and it totally floored me. I felt a lot of my personal experiences in the material. It had such a profound impact. It’s a very peculiar piece in that, as you’re working on it, it’s speaking to you and it’s supporting you. That is a unique thing. This is the fourth time that I’ve done this show and it still doesn’t get old. It’s still communicating in different ways. So, yes, it was the score and the lyrics. And it was the fact also that it was a puzzle—especially that the second act had been much maligned and not appreciated in the past.
I saw the show in New York and the computer effects, particularly the chromolume stuff, helped improve the second act. But I also realized for the first time what the modern George sees in Dot when she reappears to inspire him—as if he’s noticing something new in a work of art that he’s seen a million times. Were these things you consciously worked on? Yes. I remember when we first began I was nervous about Act Two. But the more I analyzed it and the more I worked on it the more I realized that it’s where the heart of the show is. Any depiction of contemporary art on stage always feels slightly strange and divisive. But because this is a revival of a piece that was originally written in the mid-1980s we’ve decided to set the second act in the mid-1980s as a period piece. It makes it as much of a history play, for want of a better term, as the first act is in the 1880s. It distances it and prevents it from being a navel-gazing exercise. The biggest, most terrifying word applied to this piece is “pretentious,” the fear that it’s this piece that’s only about art. One of the strategies that I took very early on is that it’s a play about George—his personal experience and his striving for his own personal goal. The fact that he’s an artist is not of primary importance. He just so happens to be an artist. It’s not a piece about art. It’s not just an intellectual exercise. It’s an emotional story.
Well, based on the New York production, you’ve made clear how much the show is about the choices we make in life—and the things that get left behind or enriched because of those choices. Absolutely. I firmly believe that the piece has many meanings and themes and ideas behind it—but those are none of our business. You can’t play those. What’s important is the connection between the characters and the emotional relationships. The ideas happen by default; they will occur because they are in the material. Allowing the show to be emotional was the most important part for me because the moment it stops being emotional is the moment it becomes a polemic about art—and it’s categorically not that. It’s about life and, as you say, the choices that we make and the things that we turn our backs on. For me, it’s one of the most honest depictions of a relationship I’ve ever seen in art. It absolutely acknowledges how complex things can be but at the same time so utterly simple as well. It’s extraordinary.