Time collapses. Sondheim’s favorite.
Or so he told me at a masterclass back in 2010 when I was an eager young doctoral student at UCLA. I was writing a dissertation (now a book!) about how song and dance in musical theater can warp time, enabling marginalized and semi-marginalized fans to imagine new ways of being in the world and to establish communities in difference. So naturally, when given the chance to open the Q&A that day, I asked Sondheim if he could talk about storytelling with different structures of time. From a geeky academic question came a genuine thrill of connection as Sondheim spoke about the puzzle of putting it together: from time collapses in Sunday in the Park with George and Assassins to ghosting in Follies, from the episodic framework of Company to his favorite, multi-layered storytelling song, “Someone in a Tree” from Pacific Overtures.
I sat there with a rush of joy and identification: Sondheim and I had something in common! Because if you haven’t already guessed, time collapses are my favorite theatrical moments too. (I suspect they may also be Jeanine Tesori’s…) Even if only for a moment, time collapses can grant us a shimmering sense of coherence and connection. They help us harmonize our existence, bring order to the whole. Life is messy. Art can help us zoom out and briefly, beautifully make sense of it all.
No musical knows this better than Sunday in the Park with George (1984), with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by James Lapine. Act I focuses on a fictionalized version of pointillist artist Georges Seurat, struggling to find a balance between his art and his life; he continually turns away from – and ultimately loses – his mistress Dot because he has to “finish the hat.” Act II is a variation on the theme: 100 years later, Georges’ great-grandson (also named George – and both are spelled identically in the libretto, sans “s”) grapples with similar challenges of purpose and meaning in the increasingly commercialized contemporary art world.
Towards the end of the show, George visits the site of Seurat’s most famous work (A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte) for the first time, and a bit of time collapse sorcery transpires that helps George to reconcile the past and present, art and life, in order to “Move On.”
As George pages through his great-grandmother Dot’s grammar book, he laments the changes in the landscape and worries about passing through, leaving no mark on the world. Out of the haze of “Lesson #8,” Dot appears – a figment of the past, fully embodied and stepping into the present. Underscoring from Act I’s “We Do Not Belong Together” drops the audience back into George and Dot’s last argument – when he disappears into his work, unable to share his feelings with Dot or their unborn child. As in a pointillist painting, the George of the past and the George of the present begin to blend and blur in this utterly arresting theatrical moment.
A familiar, churning vamp begins as George explains to Dot that he is not working on anything new: “There’s nothing to say” from Act I transforms into “I’ve nothing to say,” and the personal challenges of expressing one’s feelings collapse into the creative challenges of expression in art. In a dialogue-driven start to the musical number, Dot attempts to engage and connect, but George seems stuck in his own world, internally focused as he grapples with his creative rut.
Finally, Dot breaks out of the vamp into soaring new musical material; out of the swirling uncertainty of this repeated pattern comes a fresh and beautiful sense of calm in the home key: “Move on.” And George begins to listen. Dot uses extended, lyrical, legato lines, continually pushing forward and urging George to make a change: “Stop worrying where you’re going – Move on. If you can’t know where you’re going, you’ve gone. Just keep moving on.” While this chorus feels anthemic, it is anything but an end point; the music constantly resists a sense of closure, with upward lifts at the end of each melodic line and constant movement in the accompaniment, glittering like the water. It is an anthem encouraging progression and change. Even when “the choice may have been mistaken, the choosing was not”: movement is all.
In a brief instrumental interlude, Sondheim alternates between major and minor thirds, experimenting with whether the ear can blend notes to form more poignant harmonies – just as the eye blurs Seurat’s pointillist dots at a distance to make more vibrant colors. The music lands on a sustained chord as Dot tenderly advises George: “Look at what you want, not at where you are, not at what you’ll be.” Her lower vocal register and the open accompaniment create an intimate conversational tone with freedom of breath and flow. “Look at all the things you’ve done for me” opens into a profound moment of grace. George always treated Dot like an artistic object; even her name indicates how she was often nothing more than a speck of color and light in his paintings. (“Hello, George? There is someone in this dress!”) Their last encounter ended in a critical decision: Dot declaring that they do not belong together and deciding “I have to move on” in a pre-iteration of this very song. Yet in this magic moment, where past and present cross and collapse, Dot acknowledges all the good in their relationship and extends gratitude and grace, perhaps even understanding and forgiveness. George helped Dot to learn to concentrate – not just to be still, but “to be where I was – not some place in the past or future.” Now Dot can impart her own wisdom of presentism to help George move on to his next stage of life. The churning vamp returns as she sings of how George “opened up my eyes, taught me how to see, notice every tree,” with lovely, lilting melodic phrases.
George soon starts to pick up the lyrics and melody from Dot, echoing her – then beginning to develop her ideas in new directions. A spiraling, circling melody builds and extends as he pushes towards an artistic breakthrough: “I want to know how to get through, through to something new, something of my own.” The tension of the sustained note on “own” finally releases into the chorus with another thrilling arrival on the tonic chord. The lyric “Move on” marks the very first time Dot and George sing in harmony – no longer in debate or dialogue, but triumphantly pressing ahead together. Dot rises out of the chorus with an artists’ credo: “Stop worrying if your vision is new. Let others make that decision – They usually do. You keep moving on.” The alternating major and minor third transition returns, with a slowing in tempo followed by the same open, sustained chord from before.
As Dot reiterates her words of wisdom with a variation (“Look at what you’ve done, then at what you want, not at where you are, what you’ll be”), George begins to look – really look. In a high tessitura, he observes the light, the sky, the grass, up behind the trees – then turns to “things I hadn’t looked at till now: Flower on your hat. And your smile.” From his artistic breakthrough comes a personal breakthrough, and George sees Dot as if for the first time: no longer as a speck of color and light, but as a human. His voice drops an octave to a rich, full register as he recognizes “the color of your hair. And the way you catch the light…,” bringing depth, feeling, and genuine connection to their relationship for the first time. The accompaniment shimmers and the harmonic transformation echoes George’s development as he finally, truly feels “the care… and the feeling… and the life moving on…”
In this instant, George of the past and George of the present completely collapse and a magical moment of recognition and reconciliation across the centuries transpires – as well as a reconciliation of art and life. The effect is thrilling. Transforming the pain of their past, Dot now soaringly proclaims, “We’ve always belonged together!” – and together, they resolve, “We will always belong together!” Their bond extends multi-directionally across time: always in the past, always in the future, and of course always in the present, which feels positively expansive in this theatrical moment. The song closes with Dot’s parting wisdom – simple and true: “Anything you do, let it come from you. Then it will be new. Give us more to see.” After the gentle rhyme of do, you, and new, Sondheim opens the last line in a new and unexpected direction: what comes next?
So many possibilities.
Whether composing an opera or rock musical, for a women’s chorus marching on NYC or a play at the UK’s National Theatre, composer Sarah Taylor Ellis puts soaring, storytelling melodies and a distinctive choral sound at the heart of her music. Her work aims to embrace the inherent hybridity and multiplicity of musical theater as an art form. Recent compositions include Hamlet for young audiences (The National Theatre), These Girls Have Demons (in development with Pittsburgh CLO), The Trojan Women (recipient of a 2019 OPERA America Discovery Grant), EMMA: No One But Herself (available for licensing with Uproar Theatrics), and the operatic song cycle Saint Songs. Based in Berlin, Sarah is currently a lecturer at Universität Bayreuth and Hochschule für Schauspielkunst Ernst Busch. Her book Doing the Time Warp: Strange Temporalities and Musical Theatre was published by Methuen Drama in 2022. www.staylorellis.com
Are you working on something new?
That is not like you, George.
I’ve nothing to say
You have many things.
Well, nothing that’s not been said
Said by you, though, George.
I do not know where to go
And nor did I
I want to make things that count
Things that will be new…
I did what I had to do
What am I to do?
Stop worrying where you’re going—
If you can know where you’re going
Just keep moving on
I chose, and my world was shaken—
The choice may have been mistaken
The choosing was not
You have to move on
Look at what you want
Not at where you are
Not at what you’ll be
Look at all the things you’ve done for me:
Opened up my eyes
Taught me how to see
Notice every tree—
Notice every tree…
Understand the light—
Understand the light…
Concentrate on now—
I want to move on
I want to explore the light
I want to know how to get through
Through to something new
Something of my own—
[DOT & GEORGE]
Stop worrying if your vision
Let others make that decision—
They usually do
You keep moving on
[DOT & GEORGE]
Look at what you’ve done Something in the light
Then at what you want Something in the sky
Not at where you are In the grass
What you’ll be Up behind the trees…
Look at all the things
You gave to me Things I hadn’t looked at
Let me give to you Till now
Something in return Flower in your hat
And your smile
I would be so pleased…
And the color of your hair
And the way you catch the light
And the care
And the feeling
And the life
We’ve always belonged together!
[DOT & GEORGE]
We will always belong together!
Just keep moving on
Anything you do
Let it come from you
Then it will be new
Give us more to see