Color and light, tension and harmony. These design elements should be fundamental to any stage production, but perhaps none more than Stephen Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park With George. In Peter DuBois’s production at the Huntington Theater in Boston (Sept. 9-Oct. 16, 2016), the designers addressed another of the show’s themes: making an artist’s vision new.
So much of Sunday, especially Act I, is dictated by the painting at its core, Georges Seurat’s monumental “Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.” Given those dictates and a production history that now dates back more than 30 years, how do designers make the show feel fresh?
Set designer Derek McLane, who had previously designed Sunday for the Kennedy Center’s 2002 Sondheim Celebration (see Diana Calderazzo’s interview with McLane), supplied Seurat’s Paris studio, with walls of distressed white planks and upstage windows diffusing light (presumably northern) through a scrim. Against this blank canvas, Robert Morgan’s costumes, Christopher Akerlind’s lighting and Zachary G. Borovay’s projections defined the shapes, the colors and the light that helped the cast bring the 1884 painting to life.
Though working in different media, those three designers agree with one another and with Sondheim’s own philosophy that everything they do is in service to storytelling.
Dressing a through line
“Every time you do a project, you have to find out how to fall in love with the piece,” said Morgan, whose only previous Sondheim was the Huntington’s 2015 production of A Little Night Music. “You have to have a core of something that you’re responding to in the work. With Sondheim, it’s very often intellectual.”
Night Music is “so suffused with emotion that it’s sort of atypical of his work in that way,” he said. “I’ve always loved that piece because it seems to me that the philosophical point of view was very well matched with the musical point of view.” He found Sunday much more difficult.
“I’m not very fond of the piece,” he admitted. Part of the problem is that it’s about working artists. “Actors and artists shouldn’t be allowed to talk about what they do. It’s sort of unknowable. You just go to work and do what you do and stop complaining.”
So what did he find to fall in love with this time? Chiefly, the casting. As George, he said, Adam Chanler-Berat “gave a performance that was profoundly sympathetic to the artist’s basic nature. It wasn’t showy, but it was truthful. And I also loved our Dot,” Jenni Barber. Then there was the production’s light touch. “The more serious you get with this piece, the more pretentious it seems,” he said. “The way Peter saw this piece, we had a very good way to attack it.”
Morgan divides his design experience with the show in two, namely the two acts of James Lapine’s book. Act II, tracing the creation of Seurat’s masterpiece, is “so straightforward you can’t do anything. It doesn’t call for interpretation. You can’t do anything meta on top of it. It is what it is.” Yet having so much of the costume design dictated by the painting was “a fabulously freeing experience, to have such a simple problem to solve.”
“I wanted to create as close an experience to the painting as I could, and to me that meant primarily the interpretation of color and shape,” Morgan said. But he found the color palette limited, in part because most of the painting’s foreground is in shadow and the shapes are “almost all the same.” So he used “hues I normally don’t go to — orange, yellow, green” and “occasionally, here and there, very small prints or very small textures, simply to create a little visual variety.” Summer fabrics like cotton and linen helped keep the look light.
Morgan also “had to create touches of character to individualize people and to help make those little events in the first act interesting and meaningful. The picture first provides the structure, and then you can invent smaller stuff within that to create character.”
In the more problematic second act, focused on the difficulties of being an artist in modern times, the challenge in book and design alike is to connect with Act I to create a through line. This production moved Act II from the Art Institute of Chicago, where the painting hangs, to a New York art opening, which made the 1980s style concept obvious: the New York uniform, black. Morgan added small red touches everywhere: shoes, bags, piping on lapels, boutonnieres.
“Originally I rendered George with a red tie,” he said, “because I thought, ‘I have to give him something to pull focus and bring the eye back to George.’ In the dress rehearsal, I realized I didn’t need the red tie because the staging was so good and the lighting was so good.” So he started “adding in all the red touches just out of whimsy.” Without them, he said, “I felt the scene didn’t have enough pop; black-and-white was arresting, but there wasn’t any warmth to it.” With them “the scene visually came to life — and it was a complete accident.”
Also crucial to Act II was his concept of Marie, Dot’s daughter and George’s grandmother, also played by Barber. “This is a woman who deserves our respect,” Morgan said. “I didn’t want to dress her up as an old lady. We actually padded her out a little bit and gave her an older woman’s dress and wig, but we did it as quietly as we could so that she had some dignity. It created a through line emotionally.”
Making less more
One of the production’s most striking visuals was the way Akerlind flooded the stage with particular colors: Seurat’s all-white studio turning golden; the sketched trees in the park turning brilliant green; most of all, the cobalt blue in “Finishing the Hat,” which Chanler-Beret sang sitting downstage, alone.
“It was one of those things that are very intuitive,” Akerlind said, “guided by, again, storytelling notions. Particularly when there’s mention of color or time of day or certain adjectives used to describe time of day, you have to have a really good reason to do the opposite. Now, that said, Sondheim offers many opportunities when a number become an expression of inner life, as opposed to outer life, where you can become intuitive about these things.”
Paradoxically for a lighting designer, part of what attracts Akerlind to Sondheim is his dark side. “I connect to his point of view about the world,” he said. “To me, in work that I like to do, I like to veer toward the dark side a little. He’s not what anyone would call a happy, happy composer. The way that works out harmonically and rhythmically — I respond to it.”
The interplay between lighting and projections in this production posed its own challenges. “Our preparation to light this particular production had a great deal to do with articulating the action in a way that makes sense — the time, space and landscape — without interfering with the projected work, to carry Seurat’s imagery through the entire show,” he said. “There were some places where, in the end, we just abandoned the projection. Unless you can really make it register in a luminous way, it’s worth throwing out, even if you walk into the theater thinking the whole thing is going to be projected.”
Akerlind, whose Broadway credits include The Light in the Piazza, Diane Paulus’s Porgy and Bess and Waitress, describes himself as a minimalist. “I’m so interested in the primacy and the importance of human events, and less in the idea of spectacle,” he said. “After 30 years in this business, I’m sort of tired of spectacle and think there’s nothing more pleasing than being in a Beckett-like environment, where you just have people in black space and they tell a story to us. Which is not to say that I’m dismissive of design. But we were all into something that was as simple as possible. Atmosphere and time are important to this particular piece. So we wanted to be with it without allowing the visual portion of the production to overwhelm the performances.”
To Akerlind, technologically speaking, more can actually be less. “One of the tricky things about the new lighting — the quote-unquote new intelligent lighting, the LED lighting, etc. — is that it can do everything. There’s a tyranny in that. … Every moment in time in the theater is morphable at the flick of a switch or the stroke of a computer programmer’s finger. I am always trying to resist the temptation to do everything that’s possible in one show. I think that seems to take the focus off something that is more important to me, which is a simpler way of telling a story.”
Re-inventing the Chromolume
In Act I, Seurat is obsessed with creating a vision, a style of painting, that’s new. In Act II, his great-grandson finds himself artistically blocked. The relationship between art and technology has come a long way since the original Broadway production in 1984. Borovay, responsible for reimagining Chromolume No. 7, faced challenges in making it new, but he also had new tools. “various digital trickery.” Even so, his use of it was rooted in story and character.
“Early on, Peter DuBois and I had a lot of conversations about who Act II George was, or more specifically, who was Act II George going to be in our production?” he said. “We decided we wanted to present him as someone who was actually a very talented man of his time, but stuck. He became so laser-focused on this idea that he was not able to move past it. I wanted to create something that felt like it was of the period but didn’t feel dated. It was still visionary, but it had this feeling that it was clearly made out of recycled parts — ‘I have to make it bigger, brighter, because I don’t have any new ideas.’”
So he researched what technology could do in 1984. “What were the boundaries of what computers were able to create at that time? Light shows,” said Borovay, who has designed projections for 17 Broadway productions. As inspirations, he cited the films Tron (1982) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1987), whose climax blended music and visuals. “Because we had the unique luck to have Michael Starobin write us a new piece of music for it, we were able to talk about these things and the Close Encounters stuff and our feelings about George, and where this music might be coming from, so that we could create a singular entity. The images and the sounds were married together.”
The team opted to make the Chromolume itself an experience rather than an object. “Whenever you see a production of Sunday, there’s always the discussion seeing the machine or what it creates. Rarely do you see both; you usually see one or the other. In the original Broadway production, it was this thing that was an orb; it had lasers and stuff. For what there was at the time, it was incredibly advanced.”
“We knew there had to be some kind of laserish effect,” Borovay said. He enlisted the help of his 7-year-old son, “who is a huge Sondheim fan. We took a laser pointer and did stuff on the wall in time with the music, and we filmed it. A lot of layers developed over time.” The Chromolume images were projected not only onto the upstage scrim, but also onto to the wall behind it, “so it gives you a dimensional effect that almost made it look more realistic than it would be if it was just projected on the wall.”
New technology does have its advantages. “We were lucky enough to use this brand-new projector that just came to market. It’s super-duper bright, way brighter than most projectors you use in the theater,” Borovay said. “The color was so bright and vivid that I was able to use it to punch up the color of other scenic elements.” For example, the trees: “We projected green on their leaves, and it made it a lot more vibrant than you could achieve with just painting it alone or stage lighting alone.”
Borovay was pleased to hear that except for the Chromolume, projections were barely noticeable — in contrast with the 2008 Roundabout production in New York, in which the digital technology was so new that audiences oohed and ahhed. Borovay prefers that his work blend in. “Other than when it’s specifically called on for something like the Chromolume, I always want it to just be part of the world on the stage,” he said. “This is a show where people walk out singing the songs or wanting to learn more about the painting. If they were walking out just talking about the projections, then they got in the way. I don’t want that.”
And then when you have to collaborate
Staging a musical is nothing if not collaborative. But Morgan described the process for Sunday as working in isolation toward a common goal. “You’re taught in school, as a design student, that you all collaborate and you all figure everything out together, and you all do the same thing, and that’s what collaboration is.
“In fact, in the professional world it’s seldom like that. Everybody’s working on different schedules. Everybody’s really busy. Almost always, the scene designer and the director work first, and their work comes to the costume and lighting designers, and you pick up where they are and then you do your work. … As artists they’re all preoccupied with slightly different problems, different interests. But they coordinate all those efforts so it looks as if they were all doing the same thing from the beginning. In fact, nobody does. That’s the reality of how theater gets put together.”
He added, “What’s most important is your taste is the same. … The most interesting things onstage are when everybody has been totally committed to their own vision — not a group vision, but their own vision — and somehow they put all those visions together and made them work together. … The alignment and the tension between what all the creative people do is what creates the energy of the evening.”
Putting it together. Bit by bit.