Sondheim fans are all too willing to honestly acknowledge the flaws of some of his shows (sometimes moreso than is actually deserved, as in the case of Follies), but many of them seem to be in denial about this one, especially as compared to his other work about artistic integrity from the same period, Merrily We Roll Along.
I’m aware the show has some rather monumental merits. Approximately three-quarters of the score ranks with the most beautiful music ever composed for the stage, in an utterly unique style that transcends traditional ideas of melody and sounds nothing like any previously existing musical idiom. Sondheim’s lyrics are the wisest and most profound of his career, sounding more like his mentor Oscar Hammerstein than he ever did anywhere else. And the elaborate onstage visual collages, based on real Georges Seurat paintings, are frequently breathtaking. But the sad truth is that, in spite of the beauty of the music and visuals, most of this show is as boring as watching paint dry.
Its defenders tend to argue that that is an inevitable consequence of the show’s concept, which is to be more essay than drama, a meditation on abstract themes rather than a linear story, and while I admit that with that concept one doesn’t expect a conventional suspenseful thrillride, the show is still much duller than it needed to be. This is mainly due to two (let’s be blunt) mistakes on the part of the authors.
The first is the excessive emphasis on the supporting characters throughout the first act. These ‘characters’ are really only there to be the people in the painting—they are, in essence, living stage props, and yet they receive a great deal of stage time and dialogue and several unnecessary songs. Their trivial subplots are completely without interest and have nothing to do with the point of the show, and even a genius composer like Sondheim can’t find interesting music for these people. “No Life” for a rival painter and his wife, clearly meant as a stealth attack on Sondheim’s own critics, comes across as weak and perfunctory, without the stinging panache of the “Who Wants To Live in New York?” scene from Merrily, and there’s a huge, 8-minute-plus ensemble number built entirely around the idea that Sunday is “The Day Off”. Granted, without these diversions the show would be much shorter, but frankly this show would have been both easier to take and more concise in its intellectual arguments as a 90-minute one-act like Assassins or Passion.
The other problem is the dialogue, which throughout the first act is written in an extremely simple and formal style, which is supposed to sound like a French translation but actually just sounds stilted. This stodgy dialogue style makes the interesting scenes less interesting than they should be and the dull scenes almost unbearable. The second act is much more consistent musically and features much more naturalistic dialogue, but the fact that virtually nothing at all happens in it in an external sense means that it too is rather dull when the music isn’t playing.
This show’s score and staging provide a pretty strong justification for its existence, but it’s still not very effective as theater, especially when compared to Merrily We Roll Along, which is often portrayed as Sunday‘s poor cousin but which, for all its problems, at least contained several elements with the potential to be conventionally entertaining (and fulfilled that potential in the current draft of the show, I might add).
We Sondheim fans have a tendency to let Sondheim off the hook for the flaws in his shows’ books on the basis that he ‘only wrote the score’, which is admittedly usually the best part of his shows, but that excuse doesn’t really hold water for a composer like Sondheim—given how much he has to do with the creative conception of his shows and how closely his scores are integrated into his collaborators’ books, he’s presumably got a fair amount of control over the book material himself.
The truth is that Sondheim, as consistently near-perfect as he is as a composer and lyricist, is kind of hit-or-miss as a theatrical dramatist, which, to be fair, is only what you’d expect of an experimenter of his courage and audacity; after all, part of the definition of experiments is that they often fail, and when you play a high-risk game, you can’t reasonably expect to win every time. And while I don’t generally feel much impulse to watch this show in the theater, or even to rewatch the video version made of the original production, I’m certainly not sorry he took on this experiment…if nothing else, it gave us one of the best theater scores of all time, and say what you will, there’s certainly no other show like it.