As part of their research for “Sunday in the Park With George,” director Peter DuBois and actor Adam Chanler-Berat took a field trip to the Art Institute of Chicago, where they spent the day ruminating over Georges Seurat’s iconic painting, “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.” The masterpiece of pointillism was the inspiration for the 1984 musical (with music by Stephen Sondheim and book by James Lapine), which explores artistic creation and reinvention. The two looked at the painting for hours, taking selfies and admiring the art from different angles. “I’ve never gotten on an airplane with an actor to fly to see a painting,” DuBois says. “That kind of research creates a spiritual underpinning for our work.”
Chanler-Berat studied art history in high school, but he had never seen the painting, which Seurat started working on in 1884, when he was 25. “I was struck by how monumental it is,” says Chanler-Berat, who plays both Seurat and his great-grandson — Georges and George — in the musical. “It feels like sculpture. It feels like [Michelangelo’s statue] ‘David.’ It blew me away, and it was so valuable for the performance.’’
The actor and director bonded during their intense time together in the museum and relaxed that evening by taking in a touring production of “The SpongeBob Musical.” “It was our brain candy treat,” says DuBois, who is also artistic director of the Huntington Theatre Company. The theater’s season-opening production of “Sunday in the Park With George” begins previews Sept. 9 and runs through Oct. 16 at the Boston University Theatre.
The musical, which won two Tony Awards and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, tells two interweaving stories. In the first act, a fictionalized Seurat works on his masterpiece, and he is so obsessed with his work that he cannot connect with Dot, his lover and the model in the painting. In the second act, Seurat’s great-grandson is an artist undergoing a creative crisis.
The roles of Seurat and Dot were originated by stage legends Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters.
At the mention of Patinkin, Chanler-Berat simply laughs. “Who is that?” he asks. “Talk about big shoes to fill.” The actor, known for his roles on Broadway in “Next to Normal” and “Peter and the Starcatcher,” is aware of the legacy. He uses it as a tool when it helps him and ignores it when it doesn’t. At 29, he is too young to have seen the original production, but he has known the soundtrack for years. “I remember being in a car on a road trip with Broadway cast members from a show, and we were listening to ‘Move On’ and just sobbing in the car.”
The score features such classic Sondheim tunes as “Putting It Together” and “Finishing the Hat,” and DuBois is drawn to the music, which reflects Seurat’s use of pointillism in his work. “There is a wonderful way in which musically Sondheim withholds and builds emotional tension and then goes to a release, which is just stunning,” DuBois says. He and the actors began by working on just the music for a few days. “I wanted the music to get solid in the actors’ bodies so that they could then experience how the book moves seamlessly into the music and the music into the book so that the song becomes an extension of character and story.”
DuBois deliberately chose lead actors who are around the same age that Seurat and his mistress were when he created the painting. Jenni Barber plays Dot, who reappears in the second act as an inspiration to George. “She is one of the best written roles for women in the musical theater canon,” says Barber, who has performed on Broadway in “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” “The Nance,” and “Wicked.” “Women are very often drawn as stereotypes, but Dot inhabits everything that a person is. She is generous and jealous and joyful and angry. She is a real woman.”
Barber didn’t go on the field trip to Chicago, but her father was a painter, and she grew up admiring his passion. The show is about art and creativity, and the act of creation is built into the book. In the first act, Seurat conjures up the island that is the subject of his painting. DuBois doesn’t want to give too much away about how the prestidigitation will take place in his production, but he will say that Seurat’s studio is central and transforms into other locations with the use of projection video designed by Zachary G. Borovay.
The musical begins and ends with the same line: “White: a blank page or canvas,” bringing the story full circle as George rediscovers his creative passion in Act Two. “I really relate to the Georges of both acts,” DuBois says. “I love the periods of manic creativity and the periods when they are searching for that spark. When the music goes into the reprise of [the title song] ‘Sunday’ at the end, there is a feeling that George is being reborn anew. There is a window of possibility. Everyone can relate to the need for personal change.”
Barber, too, feels a personal connection to the creative spirit — and not just because she is a theater artist herself. She sees a bit of her father in the two artists in the musical. “I know what it is like to love an artist and understand their responsibility and their drive to always be observing and studying. I am in awe of that.”
In “Sunday,” Seurat sings about “mapping out a sky,” and Barber remembers her father doing just that one day when they were driving at sunset. Her father, who passed away when she was a teenager, stopped the car suddenly. “He opened the glove compartment and started drawing with paper and crayons. The sunset was so beautiful he simply had to capture it.” That memory, she says, feeds her performance.
SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE
Presented by the Huntington Theatre Company. At Boston University Theatre, Sept. 9-Oct. 16. Tickets: $20 to $135, 617-266-0800, www.huntingtontheatre.org
Patti Hartigan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.