"Sunday," from Stephen Sondheim's Sunday in the Park with George is easily one of my favorite songs. On certain days, I'd go as far as to call it my favorite musical theater song. i like it that much. So, I've listened to it what? 100 times? 500? 1,000? many, many times, let's leave it at that. And yet - and yet! - it wasn't until today that I noticed something central to the song's brilliance. Why? Because I am dumb.
The musical is about the painter Georges Seurat, who is remembered for creating the painting style known as pointillism, which is the practice of painting by daubing thousands and thousands of little tiny dots of paint onto a canvas to create a whole. Rather than mixing colors on the palette, say red and yellow to make orange, Seurat would combine red dots and yellow dots on the canvas,never actually mixing the paints themselves. But at a distance, the eye itself combines the red and yellow, creating the orange in a shimmering kind of hazy effect that's quite beautiful. His most famous painting, and the focus of the musical, is "A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Jatte," and 80s movie buffs likely remember its prominent presence in the Chicago Museum of Art montage in Ferris Bueller's Day Off, where the camera shows us the effect by cutting closer and closer into one detail of the painting.
"Sunday" is the climax of the first Act, with the final painting (which Seurat has been painting throughout the Act) finally assembled before our eyes, and the entire company singing as they form a live tableaux of the painting under George's guidance. There's a moment partway through the song when the chorus crescendos to a big, beautiful chord on the word "park." And immediately after we hear George sing, solo, "made of flecks of light and dark." And I never, ever noticed the haunting parallel between the solo voice and the choral voice and the "flecks of light" - the dots of paint. I also never really consciously registered the deliberate parallel between the way many colors combine to form a single image and the complex, multiple-note, dissonant chords Sondheim employs throughout. (This one is especially embarrassing, given that I've spent many hours struggling to clunk my way through the piano-vocal arrangement of this song, contorting my hands to play some of those big, clustered chords).
What this says about my observational powers and critical facilities, I'd rather not dwell on. But what it says about Sondheim's powers is well worth noting.