I never saw SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE. I watched my vhs, then dvd, of the original Broadway cast. I wondered, often, how it was that Bernadette Peters was denied a Tony award for her performance and, each time, I am reminded that the great Chita Rivera took home the Tony that season for a play I did not see called THE RINK. I have the performances of that cast branded in my mind (in my heart) like a rancher’s brand on cattle’s hide. During twenty years, it has simply become a part of the mosaic that is my personality. It’s not just because of my love of the piece or the performances; it is because I understand what it means. I know I am not alone in this. I know that other people with a wish to create art understand it, just as well…well, maybe just as well but in a different way. I even came out of my self imposed retirement from acting, several years ago, to audition for a production of the play, just so I could live, for a moment, in that world. (When I told my friend, Mike Babel, that I – a non singer who had left the profession of acting a decade earlier-that I was auditioning for a musical he asked which one and I told him. His reply: “You maybe couldn’t start with Hello, Dolly?”) Naturally, I did not get the part; but the audition process was enough.
This week, thanks to the generosity of my best friend, Brady Schwind, I walked into the theater at Studio 54, with Pat (natch!), because I was (finally) going to see SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE onstage. It had been a busy week and a half and I was so focused on the things going on in my life that I had not taken time out to think about the fact that I was going to see SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE; and I felt glad to be going to the theater as we passed through the vestibule of the building and, then, through the outer lobby of the theater. Once inside the inner lobby, my eye was caught by the kiosk where the souvenirs were sold. I saw the cds, the posters, the cups, the magnets, the keychains….the t shirts. My eyes landed on one of the shirts whereupon was written ART ISN’T EASY. I paused. I felt an emotion (it doesn’t happen a lot anymore). I moved my eyes to the next t shirt and, there, I saw a different logo that incorporated the words Order Design Tension Composition Balance Light and, there in the middle of the shirt, HARMONY. I gasped. My body was frozen in that moment. Pat, having heard that gasp and knowing me well, reached over and put his hand on my left forearm. He knew that all he had to do was wait for the moment to pass, which it did, and we could go to our seats and await the curtain, which we did. There was no need to talk. We settled into our perfect seats and looked at the set of this revival of the show, brought over from the UK. It was a white room, rather like something you would find in a gallery or a museum.
The lights dimmed and I heard a voice say
“White. A blank page or canvas.”
And I was on my way…
I don’t want to review SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE. I’m not a theater critic. I don’t understand the history of theater or the framework that makes a good play – I only know when something moves me. I imagine that the people sitting near me at the play knew that it moved me, as well, because I spent the entire play wiping the tears and snot from my face; and, when it was over, I could barely clap, let lone let out one of the “bravo!”s or “alright!”s that I tend to cry during the curtain call of something that I enjoy. I could, as a matter of fact, not breathe. I was hyperventilating and weeping and just trying to regain composure. I’ve been to plays that have done this kind of thing to me before. I couldn’t get out of my seat after seeing M BUTTERFLY. I wept, uncontrollably, at NINE. I had apoplexy when we saw Plummer and Dennehy in INHERIT THE WIND. RAGTIME did me in, completely. And when MARY POPPINS flew out over the audience and up out of sight I thought I was going to combust, spontaneously. All of these experiences (and more) are like living and breathing organisms inside of me, each of them. Because, though, of the extreme nature of my relationship with this piece of art, SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE will, forever, be the cherry on the sundae that is my theater going life.
To compare this production with that original one (which I, now, own on dvd) is unfair. The performances of the OBC are iconic. That is why the director of this revival, wisely, had his actors play it another way. It is all very natural, very real. The lines are spoken as real people talk in their living rooms; the performances of the OBC have a heightened sense of delivery (something I admire in stage actors – the ability to be presentational, to ACT so that we see and feel your emotions, to project to the last row and, yet, not become over the top). This production is like going to see a play…they just talk, they just say the lines without affecting their delivery of dialogue for a heightened reality; they just do it around the customary outbursts of song. For me, it works.
Technology has allowed for more interesting special effects in this play (and special effects are NECESSARY to the play)—and the computer generated special effects are very fun, indeed. (I have to admit, here, that I am not a big fan of computer generated special effects in the movies-though I know that without them we wouldn’t have the great kind of fx we see in movies like HARRY POTTER or LORD OF THE RINGS of MATRIX; it’s just that, in the movie STAR WARS I am more impressed because they had to really WORK for those special effects – in THE PHANTOM MENACE, they give us a video game to watch. So I let go of my preconceived notions so that I could really enjoy the FX in the play, even though I am more impressed by how they created the illusions in 1985 because it took more imagination and more work.) The orchestra has been turned into a band small enough to fit in one of the theater boxes. We can see them at their work (which can be a problem because there are lamps over their big white music scores and we see them turn the pages – distracting). Some of the dialogue has been removed from the play (I pouted a little when the “I detest these people” exchange was removed from the Mr and Mrs characters’ storyline). And I wasn’t all that impressed by the chromolune – but since I don’t know what a chromolume is or looks like, I guess it can take any shape or form a production chooses. As chromolumes go, this one is as good as any other, I guess. So I made the choice (which we can always do) to not be bothered by things like this because it was imperative that I enjoy this production.
Enjoy it I did. I let the script and music wash over me and I gave myself, freely, to the entire cast. I will admit, though, that it was these two actors who (rightly!) were driving the vehicle who had my fate in their hands. Both of them are lovely actors from England: Jenna Russell and Daniel Evans and the best way for me to say what their performances meant to me is this: after the show there were cast members collecting for BC/EFA in the lobby. Jenna Russell was one of them. Though we dropped a contribution in a different actor’s bucket, I stopped to look at her. I stood, for a brief while, looking at her, memorizing her, so that I could keep her with me, always. As I turned to leave Studio 54 for the last time, I looked to see if another of the collectors might be Daniel Evans. I hoped he would be there so that I could say hello and he would see my tear stained face and red eyes and know that what he did that day mattered, deeply, to another human being. Alas, he was not there. Too bad for him. Too bad for me, for I, truly, wanted to leave a part of myself with him, as he had with me.
You see, I am a failed artist. Now, now; no pity and no protestations. As a child I had a rich fantasy life. I am an adult now and I live in the real world. I live in the present and I know who I am, what I have done and where I am going. There are no illusions (or delusions) here. My work as an actor went nowhere. My work designing costumes went nowhere (save for a very 80s themed production of Starting Here Starting Now that I did in college—in the 80s). My writing has been reduced to internet blogs and I, now, create photographic art only a few times a year when a subject truly inspires me (or a potential client offers me the right sum of money). I worked for a decade on a book, taking pictures of the most famous people imaginable, meeting my idols and making art with them, walking among the celebrated in three major cities. When I was 38 that book (which I happen to hold in high esteem) came out and nobody bought it. The book came out at about the same time that Digital photography took over the profession. In the words of a great pop song: video killed the radio star; and, by 40, I was retired from my career as an artist. Desperate for something to do (and for an income) I went back to work a couple of years later, only to discover that the industry didn’t want me back.
Like George Seurat, I struggled with my artwork, with a desire – no, a need – to have it be seen, to earn some respect. At least I sold that one book during my life, unlike Seurat, who sold nothing during his. Like the George of the Second Act, I worked to find something to say—“something that is new, something that is my own.” I understand the two Georges…or at least a part of them.
When Daniel Evans plays the first George, I can see his passion for his work. I can see WHY he has to finish the hat. I can see his delight, his excitement (I used to do a little dance immediately after taking a picture that I KNEW would be good), his very being, illuminated by his power of creation. I can see the conflict of wanting to be a part of Dot’s life and, indeed, the world, all the while being unable to free himself from his work (my own spouse can attest to my tendencies toward workaholism). When Daniel Evans plays the second George, I see his discontent with the struggle to balance the creation of art with the business of art. I see his struggle at moving on to a new vision (at one time, desperate to break away from a reputation of wholesomeness based on baby portraits and couples in love, I started a project about random acts of violence—theft, assault, rape, murder—that went nowhere, due to my inability to find people who would be photographed so graphically); I see his weariness at being unable to escape the unachievable balancing act that is the life of an artist. One other actor has communicated my feelings of being an artist – Michael Sheen, when he played the other part I always wanted to play as an actor: Mozart in AMADEUS. After years of worshipping that play, I learned (from Michael Sheen’s performance!) that what made Mozart lose his mind was his perception of himself as a failure. Both Georges believe in their work and both Georges perceive the negativity of the business to detrimental extremes. That is why it is essential for the people in the painting to come to life, to show George 2 that there IS a purpose, there IS more, there IS someone who appreciates him and every artist who makes someone immortal (Quentin Crisp once wrote me a letter, thanking me for making him immortal – it is one of the nicest things I own). For communicating my own life, my own experiences, my own joy and heartbreak back to me, I will always remember Daniel Evans; I will (during the run of this production) look for his face in crowds so that I might smile at him. I will bless him, quietly, when I meditate on art, life and my life as an artist, failed or otherwise. There will come many a cool, grey dawn in my future when I remember those final moments of SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE.
The people in the painting have paid homage to the artist and have left the arena; only the artist’s muse remains, looking over him one last time. The artwork has faded from the walls of the gallery and, as he turns, the muse exits the scene. As the artist turns to look for her, he sees a field of white of white before him.
The artist gasps.
And in the audience a former artist weeps.
Please note that I did not shoot the photos in this story; I wish I knew who did so I could give them credit