‘Sunday in the Park with George’ celebrates 35th anniversary

The musical follows French Impressionist painter Georges Seurat through his process of creating “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte” in the 1880s.

Dot stands there, sweating in the hot Sunday sun.

Feet away, her lover, George, sits with his notebook and reminds Dot to stand still while he painstakingly sketches her, attentive to every detail.

It’s both the scene portrayed in Georges Seurat’s painting “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte” and the opening scene of the musical “Sunday in the Park with George.” The production tells the story of the French Impressionist painter in the 1880s, along with the social and financial struggles artists often face.

The Stephen Sondheim musical is showing through Feb. 28 at the Tomlinson Theater.

“The profits of being an artist are really measured in hearts and minds, not dollars and cents,” said Doug Wager, the director of Temple Theater’s production of the musical.

The show’s first act follows Seurat in creating his popular oil painting “A Sunday on La Grande Jatte.” It depicts a crowd of people resting in a park alongside Paris’s Seine River.

“The first act is a retelling of how the painting came together, showing relationships with George and the characters in the painting and giving them life,” said JJ Vavrik, a senior theater major who plays Seurat. “It’s an idea of how he could have interacted with these people and it’s a decision between, ‘Do I work on my art or go with the woman I love?’”

Seurat finds trouble maintaining a relationship with Dot as she struggles to find a place in his life while he obsesses over perfecting every detail of his painting.

Maddie Shea, a sophomore musical theater major, plays the troubled Dot.

“This is a show about passion and the things we as artists sacrifice for what we love,” Shea said. “The universal themes of change, creativity and sacrifice are things that everyone can relate to on some level.”

The musical’s second act follows Seurat’s 32-year-old great-grandson, also named George, as he struggles between finding artistic integrity and selling out.

Seurat began painting his famous work in 1884 at age 24 and finished two years later. He died in 1891, without selling a single piece of artwork, according to the play’s script.

The second act picks up in the 1980s, a century after Seurat’s death, where his great-grandson faces the same artistic struggles at the same age, like finding financial stability in art, Vavrik said.

“For artists, working multiple jobs to sustain yourself, it’s easy to lose sight of your artistic goal,” he added. “He has to go through this journey to rediscover how to do what he loves.”

Wager said there was no better time to bring the unconventional musical to Temple than on the show’s 35th anniversary — it premiered on Broadway in 1984.  He added the musical was groundbreaking at the time of its premiere due to its unique nature, it tells a story through orchestrated music as opposed to individual songs.

Wager believes there isn’t a more unique musical than “Sunday” because it tells a story using historical information, but not in a typical historical fashion, he said.

“It imagines the process of creating the painting entailed at a human level, and what the relationship is between love, life and the pursuit of what you want to do,” Wager added. “It questions the role and function of art, and about what it is to be an artist.”

“I hope audiences take away the importance of moving forward and have a greater understanding of the artists in their lives,” Shea said.

Vavrik hopes the audience will gain an appreciation for all art forms.

“The choices made in art between personal life and finances, creativity, they’re hard decisions,” he said. “Too much in society today, we see artists as people who simply do what they love, and enough respect isn’t given to the decisions they make.”

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