Week Thirty Four: Sunday In The Park With George

My first thought was: ‘Oh no, not a musical. I hate musicals.’ But my inner devil’s advocate, never particularly slow off the mark, was soon popping up to make the counter-argument:

“But you used to love Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds when you were younger…”

“No. no. That’s not a musical. That’s a rock opera…”

“And the difference between a rock opera and a musical is…”

“Ummm….”

“Never mind. But what about the Little Shop of Horrors?”

“That was just because I was bored on a Sunday afternoon. It was raining. I was thirteen. And I really liked Day of the Triffids.”

“But it was a musical. You enjoyed it.”

“I suppose so…”

“And wasn’t Once More With Feeling one of your favourite episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer?”

“Ah, but that’s different. People weren’t bursting into song for the sake of it. There was actually a reason for it…”

“So your problem with musicals is that people are singing for no good reason?”

“Well, people don’t do they?”

“They do in musicals”

“That’s not the point. It’s just a rubbish form of story-telling”

“So you’re saying you would have liked Sweeney Todd more if it hadn’t been for the singing?”

“Now you mention it…”

“Don’t be stupid. They’re singing because they’re in a musical. Same as if they were making a pop record. Now get on with this week’s album.”

“Ok, ok, I’m on it…”

So I’ve got this difficult relationship with musicals. Although listening to Sunday In The Park With George, I wondered if some of my dislike is specifically of musical films and theatres, that when the singing is not interrupting a spoken-word film or play, my hackles are not raised in the same way.

Instead, listening to this, I wonder if my real barrier to appreciating it is that I struggle to make out exactly what the characters are actually saying. I’ve listened to it three or four times, but if you asked me what it was about, I’d struggle to say beyond “Well, there’s this painter called George. And there’s his life model, can’t remember her name. And he’s a bit obsessed with his work. And I don’t think he payus her much attention. And that’s about it.” Because my hearing, or specifically my ability to discern individual words, isn’t great. The problem is not with the work itself, but with the limited mental and aural capacities of this listener…
So what follows are a series of dotted observations (think of it as a bad pointillist painting that doesn’t form any kind of meaningful image):

Firstly, is this typical of Steven Sondheim’s work? I’m not really familiar with it, what with my musicalphobia, but it does seem a peculiar blend of quite populist, crowd pleasing music and an almost wilfully obscure (at least to this Philistine) subject matter. I don’t think I’d ever heard of Georges Seurat before, far less anything about the story of his life. It seems a strange choice

And another thing. Jenna Russell, who plays Dot (I looked it up on wikipedia) has great range as a singer. She can sound like she’s bashing out a showtune on the opening Sunday in the Park with George but rein it in and sound quite subtle on songs like Color and Light.

Secondly, that track, Color and Light sounds to me like it has elements of what classical music in the 20th century could have sounded like if it hadn’t vanished up a dead end marked ‘experimentation’. But somehow there is simply no way that a big choral song like It’s Hot Up Here can help but remind me of the hell of school choirs, and I just don’t think I will ever be able to learn to stop worrying and love really big showtunes.

On the other hand, I could have really done with more of whoever is singing on Children and Art. She puts me more than a little in mind of Joanna Newsom. And now I think about it, songs like Monkey and Bear are not a million miles away from this kind of musical story-telling tradition.

It is becoming a bit of a recurring theme in this project that I remark at the end that I can appreciate on a technical level what the artist(s) are doing, but it’s not for me. That when the three or four listens are done, I don’t think it is a record I’m likely to revisit. But I’m afraid that’s pretty much where I’ve got to with my introduction to the work of Steven Sondheim.

Highlights: Color and Light, Children and Art, Putting it Together

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