Thursday, December 2, 2021

Beginning at the End: My first post, all about the legacy of others.

 Hello, all! This is my first post for Across the Board, and I am thrilled to be a part of this writing community and start a fresh, new beginning. 

So of course, I am going to start by talking about death. 

I spent this last weekend thinking about the legacies of two creative people, one who passed away after a long and insanely productive career and one who died suddenly and far too soon. 

  Sondheim and Larson. 

Broadway legend Stephen Sondheim died last Friday at the age of 91. It is not hyperbole to call him possibly the finest composer of the 20th century, in any medium. This led me to rewatch my favorite of all his musicals, Sunday in the Park With George. The show is a biographical look at the artist George Seurat, creator of the pointilism style of art (dots of paint on a canvas that trick the eye into seeing brighter colors), and his creative process in painting his masterwork, Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. It’s paired with a story set in the present day about  his great-grandson, an artist with fears about his legacy and what he’ll leave behind. 

Jonathan Larson was the composer of Rent, the era-defining show of the Nineties. He tragically died on the night of the first off-broadway preview. He also wrote the rock monologue tick...tick...BOOM, recently adapted into a brilliant movie on Netflix by Lin-Manuel Miranda. The film is a biographical look at Larson and his creative process writing his first show - an avant-garde musical called Superbia - coupled with his fears about growing older and what he’ll leave behind.. 

This song is just insanely catchy.

Watching these two films on consecutive days got me thinking about the art of making art. These two works are marvellous, full of memorable songs, revolutionary technique, and are perhaps my two favorite looks at what it means to write, compose, paint, or just create. They are piercing looks at what it is to be an artist, what it means to those around you, and whether you have to live that “tortured artist” life or if you can still be happy both personally and professionally. 

The stories are linked in many ways, beyond the plot similarities. Larson - the film character and the real person - was obsessed with Stephen Sondheim. He is measuring himself against him constantly. Larson is turning 30 in a week and has nothing to show for it. By 29, Sondheim had written the lyrics for West Side Story and Gypsy. Larson has spent eight years working on his convoluted, satirical, science-fiction musical, buoyed by a few words of encouragement that none other than Sondheim himself gave him at a workshop. “First rate lyric and tune.” (And boy, watching that scene a day after Sondheim’s death…)

Seurat also struggles in his painting career. His style is too new and austere for the art salons and the rich patrons who frequent them. He’s cold to his mistress (who is also his model), and he neglects her because he gets consumed in his work, which causes her to leave him for a nice baker. Seurat died young, at age 31 from an unknown illness, and never sold a painting in his lifetime. 

There’s layers of irony here. Like Seurat’s art, Sondheim’s music was often considered austere and inaccessible by contemporary critics. (There’s a line in Merrily We Roll Along that he gives to a producer character. “Just give ‘em something to hum… let me know when Stravinsky has a hit.”) So of course Sondheim feels the connection. In the movie, Larson is shown watching a PBS recording of Sunday in the Park, and it’s obvious what his connection is. Larson has spent years working on his own inaccessible musical, convinced that it will find the right, appreciative audience. In a further tragic irony, Larson died at the age of 35 from an undiagnosed heart ailment. 

It’s a persistent theme in tick...tick...BOOM, the feeling that Larson is running out of time. Director Lin-Manuel Miranda also wrote a little musical you may have heard of, where the main character is repeatedly asked “Why do you write like you’re running out of time?” This character also neglects his family and dies too young and is obsessed with his legacy. No wonder he was drawn to the material.

All of these shows - tick, Sunday, Hamilton - are about creation, be it a play, a painting or a nation. All of them are about men who are desperate to leave a mark, and who do so at the cost of personal happiness. There’s a touching moment in Sunday where an elderly Marie, George Seurat’s illegitimate daughter, sings about legacies as she is looking at the painting that her mother modelled for.. All we leave behind is children and art. 

Bernadette has been my favorite since I saw her on The Muppet Show when I was 7.

There’s a scene towards the end of tick...tick...BOOM that sticks with me so hard. Larson has finally had his reading of Superbia. It goes well! His idol, Stephen Sondheim, came to see it! He excitedly calls his agent, played by Judith Light, to see if any producers want to buy it. She tells him that everyone loved it, but no one wants to invest in it. It’s too expensive to mount off-Broadway and too "out there" for the tourist crowd. Larson is heartbroken. He’s spent eight years on this, it has cost him his girlfriend, it has alienated his best friend, he lives in a terrible apartment because he prioritized his art over a well-paying job.. What, he asks, is he supposed to do now?

Light sighs and tells him what every writer knows, but never wants to hear. “You start writing the next one. And after you finish that one, you start on the next. And on and on. And that’s what it is to be a writer, honey. You just keep throwing them against the wall and hoping against hope that eventually something sticks.”

Let me tell you, this brought me to tears. This is the hardest part about writing, how you can pour your heart and soul into something and be met with shrugs. You can spend years working on a book or a play or a painting, and be met with indifference. Hell, I’d almost welcome the bad book reviews since it meant someone actually paid attention enough to hate it. But you have to keep going. Or, as Sondheim says in Sunday in the Park, Move On. 

Stop worrying if your vision

Is new.

Let others make that decision.

They usually do.

You keep moving on

Bernadette is either a vampire or has a very old portrait in the attic.

While revered by fans, Sondheim’s musicals often met with a mixed response from critics, especially his more experimental ones like Sunday. This couplet is his response. All one can do is create and hope it finds an audience. If it doesn’t, you keep moving on. 

Sunday in the Park ends with one of my favorite lines in theatre. “White. A Blank page or canvas. His favorite. So many possibilities.” 

And that is the dream we hang onto when writing. Maybe today I write the perfect sentence. Maybe today I puzzle out the plot hole that has been bedeviling me. Or, maybe today I write the worst, most cringy bit of dialogue. It’s ok! Possibilities are endless, and it’s up to us to explore them. And keep on doing so till we run out of time.

Victor Catano lives in New York City with his wonderful wife, Kim, and his adorable pughuaua, Danerys. When not writing, he works in live theater as a stage manager, production manager, and chaos coordinator. His hobbies include coffee, Broadway musicals, and complaining about the NY Mets and Philadelphia Eagles. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @vgcatano and find his books on Amazon. 

No comments:

Blogger Template by Designer Blogs