Sunday in the Park With George: The Beautiful Message Behind One Sondheim Musical

I recently watched a musical that changed my perspective and opened my eyes, and I just really want to share it with people because it might help you if you are feeling down. I know musicals do not necessarily float everyone’s boat but, regardless, the message is worth hearing.

Sunday in the Park with George by Stephen Sondheim is about a painter, George, who is creating a painting inspired by characters he encounters on his Sunday strolls in the park. Sondheim created a story from a real painting called A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte by late 19th century French painter George Seurat, basing his fictional characters on the ones in the painting.

George has an overwhelming ambition to create something unique and wonderful enough to be remembered for generations. Because he feels that nobody understands him, he unintentionally pushes away those he loves. Dot, his romantic interest, feels that George is too invested in his work to love her, and she leaves him for a more predictable kind of love. 

The most heartbreaking part of it all is that George has trouble showing emotion, and deep inside he really loves Dot. He just doesn’t know how to say it, so he dives even deeper into his art to escape. He then sings a song called “Finishing the Hat.” 

“And when the woman that you wanted goes

You can say to yourself, “Well I give what I give?”

But the women who won’t wait for you knows

That, however you live

There’s a part of you always standing by

Mapping out the sky, finishing a hat.”

I connected with this song instantly. He sings about “having to finish the hat,” “planning” it, “studying” it, and “coming from the world of the hat.” By this he means that he is working on his paintings, always planning and studying, trying to think of something new. His frustration about work turns into a sadness about why the woman he loved left him and how he will never be enough or be able to give enough, which is just so beautifully heartbreaking. 

The song holds so much ambition, with the feeling of longing to make an impact, and that is something I think about a lot. It is scary to think about coming and going from this world and not knowing if you will be remembered; and I think some people feel this pressure to do something amazing and earth-shattering with their lives. Ambition is a scary thing to have; and, as Julius Caesar demonstrated, it can be your downfall. Like Julius Caesar, who drove away his closest friend that then betrayed him, George ended up pushing away Dot, who then went on to marry someone else and move away, all because he focused so much on his work and his lasting legacy. 

The second act focused on the modern life of George’s grandson who is, would you look at that, also named George. He, coincidentally, is also an artist trying to create something unique and influential, and is therefore facing the same problem as his grandfather. However, this time, young George has his ancestral ties that teach him the greatest lesson of all: moving on. 

The act II finale, “Move On” was not a dazzling, Broadway show finale. There was no showy dancing, no impressive movement — and this is true for the whole show. It was just a duet between young George and Dot, who has long been dead but comes back in his imagination. 

George says: “I want to make things that count, things that will be new. What am I to do?”

Dot says: “Move on.

“Stop worrying where you’re going-

Move on

If you can know where you’re going

You’ve gone

Just keep moving on”

Moving on. That is such an important message. I think so many of us these days are asking, “What am I to do?” just like George, and I think Dot’s answer to his question is an answer to us, too. 

I myself am trying to bring this into my own life. There is a lot of hardship, a lot of struggling, and a lot of ups and downs – with all of that, I think the best thing to do is to move on. A failed test grade? Move on. Having a bad day? There’s a new day tomorrow. Move on. And the same thing with the good times. Lately, I’ve been thinking about how 8th grade was the best year of my life and just look where I am now. I need to move on from that. I think a lot of people might be feeling this way and to that I say, “Move on.” I know that may sound like a harsh command, but if you listen to the song, you can hear the authenticity in Dot’s words.

“Anything you do

Let it come from you

Then it will be new.

Give us more to see”

At this point, it’s the end of the song, the end of the act, the end of the show, and I’m just a sobbing mess. If you are any type of creator, whether an artist, a writer, a musician, an inventor — really anything where you are putting yourself into what you are making — I think you can relate to these last words of the song. 

I know everyone wants to be that person to make something unique and different from the rest, and sometimes that can consume you. Some people might feel of

little worth because they don’t stand out in comparison to others. Some might feel unoriginal or just like others in their art form. Some might feel that they aren’t able to make a difference in this world. To that, Dot reminds us that anything that we do that is from our heart, that is genuinely us, is new and has an impact in the world. Don’t be afraid to show your work to the world. “Give us more to see.”

 Elyza Tuan, Clubs and Classes Editor