The Huntington Theatre Company is kicking off its 35th season with Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s 1984 Pulitzer-winning musical Sunday in the Park with George, which—as far as I’m concerned—is one of the most stunning works ever written for the stage.
Inspired by Georges Seurat’s painting A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, Sunday is a fictionalized account of both the artist himself and of those he immortalized in the iconic painting. It is a meditation on art, beauty, relationships, and loneliness. Peter DuBois, who directed last season’s solid gold production of Sondheim’s A Little Night Music, is—thankfully—at the helm again.
Josh Breckenridge (The Scottsboro Boys, Come From Away on Broadway this February) plays Jules, a successful artist friend of Seurat. Here, Breckenridge discusses a surprising new layer of this Sunday.
You play Jules, who is a successful artist and considers himself a friend of George, yet he is not always kind to George. How do you view their relationship?
I think there is a kind of war going on in the show between convention and normalcy versus where George lives in change and nuance and boldness, trying to find something new. Ultimately, they are friends—they went to school together. He says how much he admired George’s work, and I think that is genuine, as shady as he can come off sometimes. Where the struggle in their relationship lies is that there is a risk in his reputation if he brings this new, unheard-of pointillist into this art gallery. He doesn’t want to be scarred by whatever experimentation George is up to at this point. So yeah, he honestly cares for him and wants him to do well but is worried. But there are moments when you see Jules and Yvonne [his wife] chuckling in the background and teasing him, and I think that Jules is a man of persona, he’s a man of perfection, and I think that he lives in that perfect state. We see him with not a piece of dust on him, cane, gloves, perfect to a tee until later on when we see him [cheating on his wife] with Frieda and that human side of him comes out.
Do you know if there is any historical basis for Jules, or is he a complete dramatic creation?
I don’t think that he is an actual person, and that is fun for me because I get to create. But it is a specific place and time in society that I can research. It’s been fun to do my research and create something as an African American playing this role. What would a black artist be like, what would they be going through at this time? There are some more layers to play there. For instance, if Jules happened to come [to France] from the States where you’ve got the Civil War going on, you’ve got all this crap; at that time, I would imagine that even the most popular African American artist in the States would be referred to as a “black artist,” not just an artist. That would be reason enough for Jules to want to leave and work in France, to be regarded as an artist more than just a black artist. That’s another reason why he might be so hesitant with George; even in France at that time as a black artist, it would be very important to keep up and keep ahead of any reason why people would pull your work down or not regard it in the same way as other artists. There are some higher stakes there for Jules to maintain that stature and perfection, that need to be somebody and to be at the top of his game and always fighting that societal pressure.
If you’re going to look at it that way—in this production, Jules is married to a white woman.
I don’t want to say that Yvonne is a trophy to him—I think there’s love there—but it could, on the outside, be a form of acceptance: a way for him to blend into the crowd as much as possible. Just trying to survive like the Joneses! [laughs]
That adds such a fascinating layer that is not normally associated with this show!
It’s not, and it’s a fun layer to play. We know that the guy in the picture is Caucasian and yet I’m playing the part, so why not play with that? See what we can find.
SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE. RUNS 9.9-10.16 AT THE HUNTINGTON THEATRE COMPANY, 264 HUNTINGTON AVE., BOSTON. HUNTINGTONTHEATRE.ORG