Speaking at a special event earlier this week at the National Gallery, in front of Georges Seurat's painting 'A Sunday Afternoon' which inspired Sondheim and book writer James Lapine to create the musical, Gyllenhaal spoke about how the piece was “finished, and now unfinished again” after he starred in concert performances of the show on Broadway.
“The fact we’ve got to even listen to this musical has been a dream come true,” the actor said, “and it has been since the moment I started working on it with Jeanine Tesori [creative producer] and Annaleigh Ashford [co-star]. And that’s why we’re coming here, because we have so much unfinished business to do.
“There is no place better [to do so] than in the city we love so much, and that I love so dearly. I’ve been wanting to come back here for years, it’s truly an honour to be here.”
Gyllenhaal plays a fictionalised version of the artist Seurat in the musical, and as well as his grandson, a conflicted artist. The show begins with the artist proclaiming: ‘White, a blank page or canvas. The challenge: bring order to the whole, through design, composition, tension, balance, light and harmony.’
Tesori, writer of musicals such as Fun Home and Caroline, or Change, spoke at the event of how parallels could be drawn between the central character, and Sondheim himself.
“The show is about starting with nothing and going to something, and there are consequences about living this type of life”, she said. “It’s a manual labour, but it’s a labour that involves your soul and your heart. It’s the story of this artist, but it’s also the story of this artist, Stephen Sondheim, and he and James Lapine so understood what it was like to start with a blank canvas.”
She added that the show has a “vibrancy and urgency of what it’s like to be at work and the incredible terror that you’re not good enough, and the terror of a blank page”, which is a key theme that has been picked up in the musical.
“When you’re a singer, you think: ‘Shall we start here? Do we come in now? Are we good enough to sing this?’ When we were going through this music, especially when we were going through the songs, Jake and I wanted to find the melancholy underneath.”
The musical returns to London next summer, directed by Sarna Lapine – who made her stage directional debut directing her uncle’s musical, at the Savoy Theatre. Tickets are on sale now.