Sunday in the Park with George (Stephen Sondheim & James Lapine) is my favorite musical. Ever.
To be clear, I don’t think it’s even close to perfect: the book certainly has it’s inconsistencies, and the time gap between Act I and Act II is difficult to reconcile in terms of emotional investment in the leading characters, George and Dot.
However, I’m not here to provide a critical or compositional analysis of the musical, I’m here to discuss casting. Specifically the practice of casting celebrities.
The Huntington Theatre Company’s production of Sunday in the Park with George stars Adam Chanler-Berat as the title role. You may know him from various television programs, or if you were fortunate enough to catch the Broadway production of either Next to Normal (Henry) or Peter and the Starcatcher (Boy). He is clearly a successful actor on the Broadway circuit, and I’d imagine would pull in a somewhat significant amount of ticket sales. That’s a necessity for a company as large and monolithic as the Huntington if it’s to continue to operate on the scale that it does.
However, the star system, especially in a regional market like Boston, often obscures the theatrical event: it becomes about who’s on stage rather than the story of the play. The Huntington’s production takes it a step further. By casting Chanler-Berat as George, the production, by necessity, altered the fabric of the show.
I have absolutely nothing against Adam Chanler-Berat, but it’s very clear his skill set and technical vocal ability differs greatly from the skill set that the role demands to be played authentically to the text. Some musical phrases were transposed up the octave (“Finishing the Hat,” “Move On”) , and in sections of the score the tempo was noticeably altered (“Color and Light,” “Putting it Together”).
The Huntington Theatre Company is a Tony Award winning regional theatre with a plethora of resources. The producers of this show were not confronted with a shortage of actors to play George, they intentionally chose someone who does not have the technical capability to play the role and reshaped the show around the actor. They took a play about a painter who never sold a painting in his life and commodified it.
This is not a review, but rather a jumping off point for system of theatre-making that prioritizes the financial and critical success over the intent of a piece of theatre. Celebrities are famous for a reason: most have unique talents that inspire a group of fans to follow them. But when casting a celebrity, it is essential to make sure they serve the needs of the play, the needs of the story.
Otherwise, a production of Sunday in the Park with George can quickly become a production of Sunday in the Park with Adam Chanler-Berat.