Not Hummable? HumbugDate: 22 May 2006
As the acclaimed Menier production of Sunday in the Park with George opens in the West End, Roger Foss talks to its stars, Jenna Russell & Daniel Evans, & director Sam Buntrock about the challenge of performing Stephen Sondheim’s work.
Art isn’t easy
If three little words sum up the mood music of Sunday in the Park with George they are surely “Art isn’t easy”. The line keeps popping up in the complex “Putting It Together”, the big Act Two number where Chicago’s arty types pass judgement on George Seurat’s pointillist painting “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of the Grande Jatte”.
For Daniel Evans, who plays the artist George in the award-winning Menier Chocolate Factory Production, now transferred to the West End, the artfulness of Stephen Sondheim’s lyric to that particular song definitely wasn’t easy to get right. “He makes George rhyme just about every word you could think of in the English language ending in ‘tion’ and ‘sion’, so I was faced with not only remembering all of that but being accurate with the tune as well.”
Add to this having to rehearse the song alongside images of George, as part of Timothy Bird’s groundbreaking projection design, and Evans admits that he nosedived into a kind of actor’s black hole. It wasn’t so much Sondheim’s famous lack of hummability, more the lack of learnability: “Honestly, when I look back, that was the moment in rehearsals where I thought I might jump off London Bridge. I thought I was never going to get it right.”
Thankfully he didn’t jump off the bridge - but he might have had second thoughts when trying to master “Finishing the Hat”. “I loved that song from the first time I heard it on the original Broadway cast album. It’s typical Sondheim, in that it covers a huge range,” explains Evans. “You start vocally down below and within seconds you are in a high register.”
Clued-up for actors
Difficult maybe, but the point, he adds, is that Sondheim is providing the actor with musical clues about how to perform the song. “He chooses his words and where to place them in the actor’s vocal range depending on where the character is emotionally. In that particular song, he pushes me up to the Gs and the G sharps, which suggests an intense outpouring, before he returns to the ‘mulling over’ musical motif. When you get this right, it works because it’s the first time the audience sees inside this workaholic obsessive artist’s world.”
Sondheim “writes thoughts and feelings”, Evans continues, and so “it’s not about creating a nice tune or something that the audience can hum afterwards, but about what’s the best way to convey the emotion and thought of a particular character at a particular moment.”
Before Sunday, Evans conquered Sondheim at the Donmar Warehouse, winning an Olivier for his performance as Charley Kringas in Michael Grandage’s 2000 revival of Merrily We Roll Along. “The song ‘Franklin Shepard, Inc’ is one of the hardest I’ve ever had to sing because it is so frenetic. But I was lucky to have a one-on-one rehearsal with Sondheim, and it was then that I realised why he is so challenging to actors. He was strict, not necessarily about the notes but about the thoughts. It suddenly clicked: he writes like an actor works.”
West End challenges
With the transfer, the immediate task confronting Sunday in the Park with George director Sam Buntrock, who cut his Sondheim teeth nine years ago on a revival of Assassins at the New End Theatre, is how to re-stage Sunday in the Park with George for the Wyndham’s auditorium, with its capacity of 750 versus the intimate 150 seats of the Menier. “It was a tough show to get on stage in a fringe venue, and there were a number of things that we couldn’t do as well as we had hoped. Once we knew that the transfer was happening, we all looked at it again. The Wyndham’s stage is not as wide as the Menier, although it is deeper, so we will have the same design as before, but augmented.”
As for the show itself, he says directing Sondheim has been like solving a puzzle. “You have to present each piece to the audience and let them solve it. There are always missing pieces or bits that you think you can’t fit in, but there’s an amazing intelligence about the way they all eventually go together.”
Perhaps the biggest challenge of all faces new cast member Jenna Russell, who takes over from Anna Jane Casey in the leading role of Dot, George’s mistress, and who went almost overnight from singing Broadway classics like “If I Were a Bell” in Guys and Dolls at the Piccadilly Theatre, to recording the new Sunday in the Park with George cast album before rehearsing with the company and tackling those taxing Sondheim songs. She admits: “The recording was a bit scary, but you know what it is like with Sondheim - you grow up with the original cast recording in your head then, when you actually come to do it yourself, it is so different. ‘Everybody Loves Louis’ has been the hardest one to learn because there are sharps and flats all over the place that I never knew existed.”
A difficult sing
Alongside Gay Soper, who was in the original 1977 production of Side by Side by Sondheim, Russell is the Sondheim veteran of the Sunday in the Park with George cast, having played Young Sally in Follies at the Shaftesbury Theatre and Cinderella in the West End premiere of Into the Woods. In fact, her Sondheim credentials go back to her teenage years at the Sylvia Young Theatre School. “I was a great Sondheim fan from an early age, although the others didn’t like his stuff because it was odd and angular. To audition at the age of 20 for Follies and get the job was extraordinary. He Sondheim came over and I remember him wanting the words right – he was nicely particular.”
Even so, Russell still finds Dot a difficult sing. “Her songs are in the middle of my voice, but you can’t change them. If they were set any lower the notes wouldn’t soar as much. That’s the big challenge for me – making Dot work vocally.”
So is Sondheim too ‘difficult’, basically ‘unhummable’ and too ‘intellectual’? Not according to Buntrock. “He is challenging for everyone, including the audience, but there is this wonderful game-playing that goes on in all of his work. That’s why when people say his shows are too serious and/or intellectual, I just say no, they are fun and extremely entertaining.”
Evans agrees: “If you are a musical theatre performer, it’s the nearest thing you’ll get to doing a play. That’s why actors revel in doing Sondheim musicals with rounded characters and asking questions about life, even if it’s never easy.”
Sunday in the Park with George – with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book and direction by James Lapine – premiered at the Booth Theatre, New York, on 2 May 1984. It starred Mandy Patinkin as George and Bernadette Peters as Dot and played for 604 performances. The London premiere, directed by Steven Pimlott, played for a season at the National’s Lyttleton Theatre, opening on 15 March 1990, with Philip Quast and Maria Friedman in the starring roles. The musical won a New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize for drama in April 1985. The Menier production, directed by Sam Buntrock and designed by David Farley, with projection design by Timothy Bird, won Best Off-West End Production in this year’s Whatsonstage.com Theatregoer’s Choice Awards, the Critics’ Circle Drama Award for Best Design and was nominated for Best Musical in the Time Out Awards.
Sunday in the Park with George opens at Wyndham’s Theatre on 23 May 2006, following previews from 13 May.
** DON’T MISS our Whatsonstage.com Outing to Sunday in the Park with George - including top-price & a post-show Q&A with the show’s stars! – all for just £27.50! – on Tuesday 6 June 2006. **