Nelson-Atkins and KC Rep team up to present Sunday in the Park with George.

Twenty years ago, when Kansas City Repertory Theatre artistic director Eric Rosen was beginning his career, he worked as an assistant director at the Goodman Theatre. The theater is located in the Grand Hall of the Art Institute of Chicago, where the Post-Impressionist masterwork, Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, by Georges Seurat, hangs.

“On lunch and dinner breaks I could go into the museum and stare for hours at this intensely brilliant painting,” Rosen recalls. “I know it better than any other painting and, for Chicagoans, it’s an iconic point of pride that it hangs not in the Louvre or the Met but right here in the Midwest.”

Fifteen years before Rosen was spending his lunch hours gazing endlessly at Sunday Afternoon, Stephen Sondheim began to imagine a musical based on the painting. Sondheim and playwright James Lapine traveled to Chicago together and, like Rosen, lost themselves in front of Seurat’s mural-scaled work.

“We discussed the fact that nobody in the painting was looking at anybody else,” Sondheim recalled in a 2006 interview with TimeOut London. “We started to fantasize about that and the fact that it looks like a stage set. And then James said, ‘The main character is missing,’ and I said, ‘Who?’ and he said ‘The artist.’ Once that was spoken it immediately became a play.”

Sunday in the Park with George won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1985. It cheerfully defies categorization. Frank Rich, reviewing the premiere for The New York Times in 1984, wrote, “Sunday is not a bridge to opera, like Sweeney Todd; nor is it in the tradition of the dance musicals of Jerome Robbins and Michael Bennett. There is, in fact, no dancing in Sunday, and while there’s a book, there’s little story. In creating a work about a pioneer of modernist art, Mr. Lapine and Mr. Sondheim have made a contemplative modernist musical that, true to form, is as much about itself and its creators as it is about the universe beyond.”

In a unique collaboration, the Kansas City Rep kicks off its 2015-16 season with Sunday in the Park with George, jointly produced with the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in the museum’s Atkins Auditorium. Performances will run from September 11 through October 4.

“Sunday in the Park with George is the perfect collaboration with our colleagues at the Nelson-Atkins Museum,” says Rosen. “The musical exists at the intersection between theater and visual art and is about the tension between Impressionist and contemporary art. I can’t imagine a more meaningful environment than the Atkins Auditorium, which sits stunningly between the museum’s grand neo-classical original building and the beautiful galleries of the Bloch building.”

Julián Zugazagoitia, director of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, concurs. “I have desired some type of collaboration between our institutions, and with the KC Rep’s renovation this seemed the perfect opportunity to have a spectacular performance at the Nelson-Atkins that also puts our European collection in the spotlight.”

(KC Rep is currently renovating its Spencer Theatre on the UMKC campus. Work is expected to be completed by late November.)

To enrich the audience’s experience of the musical, the Nelson-Atkins has invited Ellen W. Lee, the Wood-Pulliam Senior Curator at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, to deliver this year’s Atha lecture on Tuesday, Sept. 29 in Atkins Auditorium. Lee’s talk will highlight Seurat’s Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. She will also discuss works by Seurat in the Nelson’s collection, which include a Seurat painting given to the museum from the collection of Marion and Henry Bloch.

The central action of the musical centers on Lapine’s imagination that Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte is representative of Seurat’s eternal battle between his work and his life with his mistress, Dot. This is pure fiction. In a 2013 interview with The New York Times, Sondheim relates, “One of the things that was good about choosing that painting was that Seurat the painter was a very quiet and recessive and non-spotlight man, so very little is known about him or his life. And he died very young at 31 — so we could make up anything we wanted.”

At the end of the first act, Seurat’s mistress, Dot, leaves for America with another man, leaving him to finish his famous painting. In Act II, Seurat’s great-grandson is in the midst of a personal and artistic crisis of his own, facing the same issues as his ancestor.

“I think what’s innovative about doing the production in an actual lecture hall of an art museum is that the context deepens our awareness of what art is and what it does,” Rosen says. “The second act actually takes place in a lecture hall in a major museum. So there’s a blurring of lines, an extension of the audience’s experience, to have the places of the show magnified by the great art that surrounds it. That’s what makes this production unique in the history of this show, and why it’s thrilling to offer Rep and Nelson audiences a once in a lifetime chance to experience the brilliance of Sondheim and Seurat in a completely new way.”

Single tickets for the KC Rep’s production of Sunday in the Park with George will go on sale to the general public on August 3rd.  Contact the KC Rep box office at (816) 235-2700 or online at for more information.

Learn more about the painting that inspired Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George from a noted authority on neo-Impressionist Art. Ellen W. Lee, senior curator at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, will give the 33rd Annual Joseph S. and Ethel B. Atha lecture on Georges Seurat’s Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte from 6 to 7 p.m. Sept. 29 in the museum’s Atkins Auditorium. Tickets are free; reserve tickets at or 816 751-1278.

CategoriesPerforming Visual
Krista Lang Blackwood

Krista Lang Blackwood is an award-winning educator, performer and freelance writer. When she's not teaching or performing, she combs the greater Kansas City region for off-the-beaten-path arts and culture offerings, usually in the company of her husband and precocious, French-speaking son. 

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