Sunday in the Park With George is all about ‘the art of making art’. But nowhere is the frailty, fragility and impossibility of making art more accurately depicted than in the lyrics of the song ‘Beautiful’. This stunning and often overlooked song is one of Sondheim’s most overtly poetic and fragmented, a minimalist and expressive lyric that has only a few words per line and only a few spare rhymes in its entire length. It speaks to the way art preserves the present moment even as it distorts it, and how beauty and decay are inextricably connected.
A character referred to in the book only as Old Lady begins the song. In fact she is the title character George’s mother, but her not being named reveals an implicit distance between her and her art-obsessed son. Her lyric mirrors the slow abstracted thoughts of someone in old age coming to terms with the fading memories of her life. She meditates on the way that progress inevitably means that the key physical anchors of our lives get replaced: trees giving way to towers; the views of our youth being replaced and remapped as the relentless march of innovation and change swirls around us.
The Old Lady laments that the Sunday that she knew, that the world that she knew, is ‘disappearing all the time’. She looks at the modern world, and to her, it is a sign of beauty disappearing. This not only speaks to the way nature is overpainted by human intervention but also the way the beauty of youth is itself fleeting. We – like her – all understand what it is to be nostalgic for a past that will never come again.
George immediately tries to convince her otherwise, saying that it isn’t only nature and youth that are beautiful but also declaring that everything has innate beauty. ‘All things are beautiful, Mother, All trees, all towers, Beautiful’. He knows that the natural world is beautiful but he also seeks to convey that there is aesthetic beauty in the man-made as well. George understands that humans bridge the gap between what is changing. That it is our observation of nature that gives it narrative and power. But our mere presence means we also can’t help but affect the world around us too.
One of the key themes of Sunday is the artist’s attempts to preserve a moment in the gallery of perpetuity. However the song ‘Beautiful’ examines the pain and impossibility of capturing anything, the irony of taking something that changes and rendering it static forever. It captures the way art can only ever be an approximation that lives both inside and outside of conventional time. Even as George attempts to ‘draw us now before we fade’, both he and his mother are aware that this moment in time has in some way already passed.
As the show’s first act comes to a close, George is coming to the realization that even though he has chosen to prioritise his art over every other part of his life, that regrettably he also understands that there is and can be no such thing as perfection. That he and by extension us have to be ok with the fact that ‘pretty isn’t beautiful, pretty is what changes, what the eye arranges, is what is beautiful’. It is interesting that this is one of only two rhymes in the lyric. The other is an act of constructed and aspirational belief as George sings ‘see, a perfect tree’. He wishes the tree to be perfect, but it is unlikely to actually be so.
The eye sees change but the painter, and the artist, captures a moment, a moment that is neither before or after but an artificial in-between. A liminal moment that, to take a line from another Sondheim musical and lyric, shows the world perhaps as it ‘never ever was’.
As the Old Lady acknowledges the fading light of both the day and her life, George notices the fact that ‘I’m changing’ and ‘you’re changing’. Then George realises that perhaps artists can do better than simply portray the literal truth – instead, they can create something more than truth itself. ‘You watch while I revise the world’ George says. In that moment he realises his power even as it escapes him. He may be unable to literally freeze time, but through his art he can ensure that the beauty of change, the difficulty of letting go, and the joy of the ephemeral can be held within his work.
I have often noted that while film and television tell their stories through juxtaposition, visual art like musical theatre can tell its stories through superposition, the layering of time and location onto one visible rectangle in space. In this song we are seeing the past and the future blended together, changing, melting, rearranging, and recombined into something near impossible. But the closer the artist gets to framing the impossible, the more painfully aware they become of the inherent artifice of the attempt. Then again, unlike the artist, or the people, or the landscape, or the buildings, or the trees, or the view, the art itself can live forever.
As the song draws to a close, it grows increasingly hurried. A sense of urgency to capture the life of an ageing woman before her time runs out. Even as the Old Lady urges George to be quick and ‘draw it all’, he knows he can try, but he will never capture everything. Moreover his view and her view of their surroundings will never be the same. This song adds to an array of Sondheim’s work that unpacks the relationship between mothers and sons, and its theme of the impossibility of capturing the present also speaks to the impossibility of parents and children ever truly understanding one another.
The final lyric both acknowledges a mother’s love for George and admiration for his art, even as she sighs that she longs ‘for the old view’. It seems to illustrate the human condition wherein we are always trapped between the past and present.
Every time we look at a moment that art has preserved, we are ever more aware of the distance between when it was frozen and now. Time moves on even as the art itself stays trapped in its creation. But theatre, like art, is brought vividly into the present by its relationship with the viewer, by its audience. Thus even as we now live with the sadness of Stephen Sondheim’s passing and the increasing distance from the creation of his works, we can and should be comforted by the fact that our relationship to them always brings them into the present along with us. And that is beautiful.
Adam Lenson is a London-based director, dramaturg, and producer who specializes in new musical theatre. He is the author of ‘Breaking into Song: Why You Shouldn’t Hate Musicals.’ In 2017 he founded the concert series SIGNAL which has showcased the work of hundreds of writers from all over the world. Directing includes World premieres of Superhero, The Fabulist Fox Sister, Public Domain, Wasted, The Leftovers, The Sorrows Of Satan. European premieres include Ordinary Days, Little Fish, Whisper House and See What I Wanna See. Major revivals of The Rink, Songs for A New World and 35mm. He has numerous new shows in development for theatre, radio, television and film and is a tireless public advocate for new musicals and new writers. He was selected as one of the Stage 100 in 2021 for his contributions to new musical theatre and digital theatre.
It keeps changing
I see towers
Where there were trees
All the stillness
All the time
When things were beautiful…
All things are beautiful
All trees, all towers
A perfect tree
Pretty isn’t beautiful, Mother
Pretty is what changes
What the eye arranges
Is what is beautiful
It keeps fading…
I’ll draw us now before we fade
It keeps melting
Before our eyes
While I revise the world
As we sit here-
Quick, draw it all
As we look-
You make it beautiful
Oh, Georgie, how I long for the old view