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Joseph Haj: ‘What humans do’

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The Guthrie Theater’s Joseph Haj directs Stephen Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George

by MAX SPARBER

Sunday in the Park with George rather buffaloed audiences when it first came out in 1984. The musical, with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, retold the story of the making of Georges Seurat’s pointillist masterpiece “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte,” and paired it with a contemporary (and fictional) story of a descendant of Seurat’s great-grandson, a contemporary artist attempting to wrestle with the legacy of his ancestor.

Guthrie Artistic Director Joseph Haj is directing Stephen Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George. (Photo: Andrea Akin)

Sondheim had a bad previous experience in musical theater when critics lambasted his musical Merrily We Roll Along to such an extent that Sondheim considered leaving theater entirely. Critics were kinder to Sunday in the Park, but audiences weren’t, and the musical lost money.

But time has been kind to Sunday in the Park. “I think it is an acknowledged masterpiece of American musical theater by inarguably our greatest living composer,” Guthrie Artistic Director Joseph Haj told the American Jewish World. Haj will be directing the musical for the Guthrie, which will open June 17.

According to Haj, much of the experimental boldness of the play has since been incorporated into mainstream musical theater, making Sunday in the Park far more accessible to modern audiences. “Our edge rolled into the center,” he says. “The play opened the gates for another way of opening musicals that is thrilling.”

Indeed, a recent revival on Broadway starring Jake Gyllenhaal received both rave reviews and impressive box office receipts. Haj was quick to make it clear that he had already selected the musical for the Guthrie when the Broadway production was announced. “We were already in designs!” he said.

The Guthrie production will be quite a bit different from Broadway productions, according to Haj, in part thanks to the Guthrie’s thrust stage. Previous productions have used a proscenium to act like an artist’s canvas, recreating the original Seurat painting within it. But according to Haj, Seurat constructed the painting in his studio from a series of sketches made while roaming around the island in the river Seine that gives the painting its name. The thrust stage allows Haj to recreate Seurat’s process.

For Haj, this allows him to stage what he sees as the central metaphor of the play: “Our lives are chaotic,” he explained. “It’s hard to understand our lives by living it. But once in a while there’s beauty, and we can’t hold that very long.”

Haj pointed out that this metaphor can also be found in pointillism, a technique Seurat used to construct images out of thousand of tiny dots. “When you’re close to it, you can’t see it,” Haj said. “You have to move away.”

As much as the musical makes use of the artist, his process and the resulting painting, Haj explained that the real appeal of the production is how universal its story is.

“On the one hand it’s an examination of artists and what artists do,” he said, “but mostly it’s a story of human being and what humans do.”

For information on the Guthrie production of Sunday in the Park with George, visit guthrietheater.org.

(American Jewish World, 6.14.17)

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