Sunday — Theme and Variation

After attending the 2008 revival of Sondheim’s “Sunday In the Park With George”, I put together a couple YouTube videos to demonstrate the connections between acts one and two. This led to an article in Fall, 2008 issue of The Sondheim Review, which is reprinted in full below.

Theme and Variation
Video compilations reveal depth of Sondheim’s artistry

Bernadette Peters as Dot in the original production of Sunday in the Park With GeorgeBernadette Peters as Dot in the original production of Sunday in the Park With George

Back in 1984, during the second act of a performance of the original Broadway production of Sunday in the Park with George, a fellow sitting in front of me excitedly turned to his companion and began jabbing his finger in the air. I understood instantly what he was trying to communicate: the orchestra was playing a musical figure that was derived from George’s Act I “work music” — the vamp that opens “Color and Light” and accompanies George’s jabbing with his paintbrush, as well as Dot’s patting with her powder puff. Thanks to that unknown audience member, I realized that Sondheim was reusing musical material from the first act to suggest connections with the characters and situations in the second act. Just how extensively he did this was something I didn’t fully appreciate at that time.

A recent visit to the revival of Sunday at the Roundabout, imported from the UK, inspired me to do some research to freshen my memory about how James Lapine and Stephen Sondheim made those connections. In Craig Zadan’s Sondheim & Co. (Second Edition, p. 301), Sondheim says:


“The way the score was constructed was based on the relationship of the two central characters. Theirs is a continuous and continuing love song that isn’t completed until the end of the show. In the song “Sunday in the Park with George,” Dot, in one section, begins a lyrical theme, which is her affection and her love for George. This is picked up later in “Color and Light,” and it develops and starts to reach a climax, and just at that point, they break off and they speak.

Then in “We Do Not Belong Together,” it’s picked up and further developed as if it’s almost where they left off, and ends with an unrhymed line where she sings, “I have to move on.” And when their love is finally consummated, which is the end of the second act, it all comes together and becomes a completed song in “Move On.” “Move On” is a combination of all the themes involving their relationship, including every harmony and every accompaniment; it’s where everything culminates. Only it’s over a period of four major scenes covering a hundred years. It’s one way of threading the theme through time.”

Wouldn’t it be fun and perhaps enlightening to splice those passages together into a short video to make that continuous love song? With the technology now available on personal computers, putting it together was a breeze. Because I intended to post the video online, I had to keep it under the YouTube limit of 10 minutes, which resulted in the cutting of some dialog and underscoring, but all the essentials are there.

When Lapine and Sondheim first decided to collaborate, they discussed doing something along the lines of a theme and variations. Although their finished work wandered far from the initial concept, they did end up incorporating many variations on themes, both in the text and in the music. I decided to juxtapose some of those variations next to the themes that they are based upon.

Relying on Mark Eden Horowitz’s excellent Sondheim on Music and Stephen Banfield’s somewhat more specialized Sondheim’s Broadway Musicals for ideas, I devised a suitable list of connections and even found several of my own.
In selecting which passages to use, I avoided the overly obvious — such as the reprise of “Sunday” at the end of the second act — and included some non-musical examples. Also, I wanted each connection to be reasonably clear without requiring any explanatory text or narration.

Setting to work in Final Cut Express on my MacBook Pro, I decided to experiment with a matte to incorporate multiple images on the screen. “Finishing the matte,” I had a second video to post to YouTube.

Thinking back to that 1984 performance, I’ve tried to recall at what point that fellow jabbed his finger in the air to indicate the reappearance of the “work music.” It was probably during the Chromolume scene, but while studying the vocal score I found another intriguing occurrence of that motif. Although it’s difficult to hear it on the recordings because of the dialogue, at George’s entrance in “Putting It Together,” after he sings, “It’s time to get to work,” the orchestra softly plays a slowed-down variation of the Act I “work music” (page 167 of the Vocal Score). Clever and very subtle — just what one expects from Sondheim.

James Troutman is retired and currently lives in the Wissahickon section of Philadelphia.

Leave a Reply