Taking the Arts to Heart

Stephen Sondheim Helps Brandeis Celebrate its Creative Spirit.

From new or experimental dramas like last year’s “Cocktail Time in Cuba” by Rogelio Martinez to updated classics like this season’s rendition of Chekhov’s “Three Sisters,” Brandeis’ distinguished M.F.A. acting company has a reputation for performing cutting-edge works, sometimes experimental in nature. It’s not often that the Spingold Theater plays host to a large-cast, Broadway-style musical. But last spring, department chair Susan Dibble announced that the university’s November 2010 main-stage production would be Stephen Sondheim’s massive “Sunday in the Park With George.”

“I felt the time was right to do a really big show,” says Dibble. “It’s a celebration of all the arts, including drama, music and fine art.”

Originally produced in 1984 with Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters in the leads, the Pulitzer Prize–winning musical is regarded by some as Sondheim’s finest work, and the Brandeis revival would coincide with the composer’s landmark 80th birthday. More important, “Sunday in the Park With George” is a musical about the making and the meaning of art.

In the first act, composer-lyricist Sondheim and playwright James Lapine created a fictional treatment of the life and career of pointillist painting pioneer Georges Seurat (1859–1891), chronicling the creation in the mid-1880s of his masterpiece “Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte” and dramatizing the difficult choices a creative person makes in order to pursue a life in art. The second act jumps the audience 100 years forward in time, focusing on Seurat’s imagined great-grandson, also an artist named George, as he struggles to balance his creative aspirations both with his personal life and with marketing, contact-making and other pragmatic compromises needed to successfully conduct the business of art.

To emphasize that the production would speak for the entire arts community, Dibble assigned the show’s direction to Scott Edmiston, director of the university’s Office of the Arts.

Off campus, Edmiston, who chaired the Boston University M.F.A. director program before coming to Brandeis, has a wide reputation for shaping successful productions at venues like the American Repertory Theater, Huntington Theatre Company and SpeakEasy Stage Company. The Boston Globe has called him “one of Boston’s finest directors,” and more than once he has captured the coveted Elliot Norton Award for directing in New England regional theater.

At Brandeis, Edmiston’s charge is to increase participation in the arts and integrate them into the university. Some would say he functions as a metaphorical conductor, his invisible baton helping all of the instruments in the university’s diverse arts community to play in harmony. Directing this play seemed like a natural extension of that job.

“‘Sunday in the Park With George’ captures, as well as any work I know, the beauty and the meaning and the pain of making art,” he says.

The play opens with Seurat walking onto a blank stage and pronouncing words that to him summarize the artist’s challenge: “White. A blank page or canvas. The challenge: bring order to the whole through design. Composition. Balance. Light. And harmony.”

But “Sunday” was not a totally blank page, design-wise — after all, the visual production would be constrained by the necessity of reproducing on the stage a likeness of the actual Grande Jatte painting. So in an early summer meeting, Edmiston got the ball rolling by challenging his creative staff — costume designer Charles “Chip” Schoonmaker, a faculty member; and set designer Carlos Aguilar and lighting designer Ben Williams, both graduate students — to bring their own creativity to the production while still reflecting Seurat’s world. Soon the ideas were rolling; Schoonmaker, for example, decided to start the Act I cast — each a character sketched by Seurat in the park — in white costumes, and to add color only as the painting progressed.

In pointillism, there is no detail outside the eye of the beholder: The characters, objects and even colors on the canvas comprise thousands of tiny dots that are melded by the viewer to create an illusion of something more complete. Stand too close to or too far from the 10' by 7' Grande Jatte canvas in the Art Institute of Chicago and you see merely a cartoonish blur; find the right balance and your eye makes the connections that give the painting its definition. Edmiston likens the phenomenon, called chromoluminosity, to a stage show’s reliance on an audience for its existence. If no eye comes along to merge the elements into a mental image, is it a painting, or just dots? If an actor performs Hamlet in an empty theater, is it a play, or just some guy talking?

But Edmiston’s cast could not be just faceless dots, and so around Labor Day the production moved into auditions.

“I was not trying to find someone who looked like Bernadette Peters or sang like Mandy Patinkin,” he says. “I was looking for performers who understood the characters and whose personal essences, life journeys, and values somehow synchronized with the characters’ in an interesting way.”

Of course, Sondheim’s complicated music — riddled with often-staccato melodies and constructed to convey even the softest and most nuanced emotions through blunt, sometimes brutal lyrics — presents a range of specific vocal demands, but it was one that many of the auditioners seemed prepared to deal with.

“For my generation, Sondheim was an innovator who was taking musical theater in new directions,” says Edmiston. “But this group, born in the ’80s and ’90s, has never known musical theater without Sondheim. They’ve embraced him; they love him; he’s kind of a king in their musical theater world.”

A case in point is McCaela Donovan, M.F.A.’11, who brought to the audition a longtime dream of playing Seurat’s fictional mistress — cleverly named “Dot” — and a deep association with the role. At the first rehearsal, she already knew the part cold.

“Sondheim is brilliant, and I think he speaks to my generation. He doesn’t always paint a pretty picture,” says Donovan. “As much as we love Rodgers and Hammerstein, Sondheim is more truthful and direct.”

Indeed, where Hammerstein takes a whole song in “South Pacific” — the beautiful and flowery “This Nearly Was Mine” — to talk about regrets for opportunities missed, Sondheim dispatches the subject powerfully in 10 stark syllables sung by Dot: “I chose and my world was shaken. So what?”

“Sondheim grants you that it’s not always going to end happily, that it’s not always going to be OK, but you’ll get through it. I love that,” Donovan says.

When auditions were done, Edmiston had assembled a cast of two dozen actors, including graduate and undergraduate students from the theater and music departments and beyond, and had recruited Brandeis singing instructors Nancy Armstrong and Pamela Wolfe — both broadly experienced on the professional opera and concert stages — to portray older characters.

Donovan, who indeed won the part of Dot, said the portrayal was more difficult than she had imagined, stretching her emotionally in ways she had not anticipated. Robert St. Laurence, a 21-year-old senior, was entrusted with the key role of Seurat, and he brought charm and virtuosity to its phenomenal vocal demands.

Notes Edmiston, “I was unsure whether we had a student who could handle the vocal acrobatics of the Seurat role, which requires both range and speed. We were astonished to find an undergraduate who had both the talent and the technique. Though Rob and McCaela didn’t know each other, they found an onstage synergy, both emotionally and vocally, that is essential for the show to work.”

In a deviation from the original production — shaped as what Edmiston calls a “star vehicle” for Patinkin and Peters — the director decided to separate the roles of the two Georges, both played by Patinkin in the original. The part of 20th-century George, the great-grandson, went to Ben Rosenblatt, M.F.A.’11, a relative newcomer to the musical stage. Rosenblatt was chosen for his ability to forge a powerful psychological connection with the character — a connection that grew throughout the weeks of rehearsal and production as he came to realize he and George were on a similar path in life’s journey.

“Like George, I was finding myself needing to let go of the past to surrender to the incredibly frightening prospect of an unknown future,” Rosenblatt reflects. “This is the lesson George begins to accept at the end of the play and one that I’m grappling with in my day-to-day life: When we choose to move on and live life, we begin to risk again.”

Actress Samantha Richert, M.F.A.’11, who played the nurse to Seurat’s mother in Act I and a colorful, outspoken art critic in Art II, said she was initially disappointed by the selection of “Sunday” because it was not a show whose structure would allow each student in the graduate program to have a solo. But as rehearsals progressed, she began to recognize the importance of the rich ensemble roles.

Viktoria Lange, a sophomore, thinks the amplification of such cameo roles may have stemmed from what Edmiston calls his “collective sensibility” philosophy, which holds that the play is the production of creative collaboration by the entire company. Lange’s Act I part, “girl with parasol,” for example, not only has no lines, but was originally two-dimensional: literally, a cardboard cutout. But under Edmiston’s direction, Lange gave the woman a name (Aimee Bisset), an identity (a teacher who spends Sunday afternoons in the urban oasis where Seurat paints), and a secret (the noisy child playing in the park is one of her students, and Aimee finds it vexing to encounter her on her day off).

With the goal of inclusion in mind, Edmiston drafted the 46-voice Brandeis University Chorus to sing in the act finales. And, to engage the fine arts department, he invited art history teacher Nancy Scott to give a talk on Seurat and arranged for an audience tour of the painting exhibition at the Rose before one of the “Sunday” performances.

In addition to the cast and designers, Edmiston assembled a team that included seasoned Boston music director Todd Gordon and stage manager Arkansas Light. A nine-piece orchestra was hired for performance week, and faculty member David Wilson, a veteran of more than 300 professional productions, took on the sound design. Student choreographer Julie Judson ’11 agreed to help with the movement, while speech and voice teacher Liz Terry signed on to oversee dialects and enunciation issues. Adding the university chorale and a 90-member crew embracing everyone from dressers and props people to carpenters, electricians and follow-spot operators, “Sunday” grew to provide a creative experience for more than 160 people.

An old saw from the theater world holds that the actor’s foremost duty is to avoid bumping into the scenery. And, indeed, with experienced actors well-versed in Sondheim vocal techniques, a deep understanding of the play, and a lush array of costumes and sets (including a backdrop fashioned by iconic Brandeis scenic painter Robert O. Moody), Edmiston says his own biggest challenge lay in the logistics of moving an unprecedented number of actors around a raked and angled stage that was smaller than it looked from the audience.

Beyond drilling the movement over and over like a Rockettes choreographer, another challenge was conveying to a young cast the kind of hard-edged pseudosophistication demanded by the 1980s urban art gallery scene, a culture of which his players had little knowledge.

“I just kept telling them, ‘Imagine it’s opening night in the theater’; that’s our closest frame of reference,” Edmiston says.

What the performers did have a frame of reference for — and did resonate with from their own experiences — were the basic conflicts in the show, which dealt not only with the making of art, but the compromises one must make to pursue a career in the arts, the necessity of making difficult choices, and the endless insecurity, the fear one’s talent might not be quite sufficient.

 “I guess one of the biggest surprises for me was the depth of feeling in this material,” says Edmiston. “One of the students described it at rehearsal as ‘sacred.’ There’s a beauty to it, something in it that unlocks me. It feels like my chest is being opened up, my heart becomes greater or bigger hearing these sounds, hearing those harmonies. The popular thing to say about Sondheim is that he is very smart, intellectual, but shows ‘no life,’ to borrow a phrase that’s applied to Seurat in the show. ‘No life in his art; no life in his life.’ And yet, unaccountably, Sondheim’s art, his music in particular, can open up your heart and connect you to your spirit.”