Finishing the Hat

February 1, 2008 at 2:46 pm 3 comments

Last Tuesday I had the good fortune to attend a preview performance of the Sunday in the Park with George revival, which officially begins its Broadway run in a few weeks. It is a fabulous production and I encourage anyone in the area to check it out while you can get still get tickets (half price tickets are available day-of-performance at the TKTS booth). Those of you familiar with the show will know that it is about Georges Seurat and his painting Un dimanche après-midi à l’Île de la Grande Jatte (A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte).

Throughout most of the first act, George spends his Sundays fastidiously sketching his surroundings on La Grande Jatte: a tree, a lady with parasol, a couple lunching, a boatman and his curious dog—all receive the undivided attention of the artist. No one can quite grasp George’s excessive interest in these and other seemingly random/mundane subjects which catch his imagination. In fact, most people think him insane.

I see here a curious link to my dissertation in all this. I saw Sunday after completing a few days of archive digging in the New York Philharmonic archives. This work yielded some interesting new clues in my ongoing work on Leonard Bernstein and his complicated relationship with Rhapsody in Blue—a relationship that greatly influenced the reception of the work in American culture. I went to the NYP archives after the head archivist called to my attention a series of marked-up Rhapsody scores used by Bernstein over the course of his career. After completing my work with these, I followed some tangential paths of inquiry. Down one of these I found myself wading through a vast collection of clippings, memos, and other ephemera from the NYP’s 1959 tour of Europe and the Soviet Union. This included everything from Greek-language responses to the orchestra, to a memo from the State Department informing the gentleman of the orchestra to leave their wives at home, to Lenny’s notarized request that his father, Samuel, be extended the same diplomatic courtesies that he would receive.

Both the archivist and her assistant were extremely gracious with their time and knowledge—but I couldn’t help but get the feeling think they found what I was doing (if not me too!) slightly insane. Such self-imposed sentiment isn’t unique to my experience here, but in most places in which I’ve conducted research. At the same time, my requests and questions are probably no more peculiar than any other musicologist doing research. And, at the close of my time there, I had several nice, if slightly imperfect “sketches.”

I have two favorite moments in Sunday in the Park with George—both, I think, relevant here. The first is a song/scene called “Finishing the Hat.” Here’s a YouTube clip of Mandy Patinkin’s performance. After all his efforts, which have come at the sacrifice of all that surrounds him, he proudly concludes: “Look, I made a hat…where there never was a hat.” While I certainly try not to lose site of what is really important, I do identify with his point. After all the interviews, archives, and conference papers…what will I have? Something that never existed: a dissertation chapter. While my hat—in all its effort—will be something to be proud of, it is still just a hat. And what good is a hat on its own?

My other favorite part of the show is the final scene of the first act—“Sunday.” Here is a clip. All of the cast members (each the result of a different Sunday’s sketching session) are on stage. It is only as George physically moves them around, positioning and repositioning, that the audience becomes fully aware of what is going on. On the final chord, each of these individual characters freeze in place completing Un dimanche après-midi à l’Île de la Grande Jatte. The power of this is diminished when not experienced live, but it is one of those rare “aw ha!” moments. The painting is now imbued with all the detailed, focused efforts of the artist as well as the back-stories of each carefully explored person and element—especially the hat. Even those intimately familiar with the painting are taken aback by this new perspective on a classic work.

I’m hoping to do the same thing with Rhapsody in Blue. I’d tell you how I’m planning to do this, but based on the recent conversations I’ve had with those further along (or recently done with) the dissertation, my final canvas will look vastly different than it does now. Regardless, I continue to sketch relentlessly—hoping that all my neurotic work eventually coalesces into a coherent and valuable statement.

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Entry filed under: musicology.

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3 Comments

  • 1. Rebecca  |  November 15, 2008 at 2:57 pm

    Ryan wrote: “…but I couldn’t help but get the feeling think they found what I was doing (if not me too!) slightly insane.”

    This has also been my experience, but I figure the archive had to be insane enough to keep the stuff in the first place!

    It sounds like you are enjoying the process and that is really good to hear.

  • 2. Dan Blim  |  November 15, 2008 at 2:57 pm

    Glad to hear the production is good (I’m looking forward to seeing it in a couple weeks).

    I really like what you have to say about the show here. I too love Finishing the Hat, especially because whether it was really worth it is never completely resolved. But for the scholar side of me, the best song is Beautiful, especially the line “You watch while I revise the world.” I guess theres plenty of revising ahead.

  • 3. Drew Massey  |  November 15, 2008 at 2:58 pm

    “Sir, no man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money.”

    Samuel Johnson was obviously not a musicologist…


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