Words of Advice From Stephen Sondheim … Move On
By Michael Solomowitz
At the very end of James Lapine’s new book, Putting It Together: How Stephen Sondheim and I Created Sunday in the Park with George, the notable playwright and author mentions that Sondheim left us all a message at the end of the song Move On.
It comes in the final lyrics from the lead female character, 19th-Century Dot (originally played by Bernadette Peters) to the 20th-Century George (Mandy Patinkin), great-grandson of the post-French Impressionist painter, George Seurat:
Just keep moving on
Anything you do
Let it come from you
Then it will be new
Give us more to see
In fact, the entire heartwarming ballad is not only a love song connecting past and present, but a message to artists, musicians, writers — anyone in the creative field who has ever doubted himself — who strives to make “things that count, things that will be new.” Dot advises George:
Stop worrying where you’re going
If you can know where you’re going
Just keep moving on
It’s about making choices for yourself — your life and career — and going after your dreams — taking chances — and not looking back with regret. While the decisions you make might not be the best at the time, your reasons for making them probably are. As Dot points out with her own honest confession:
I chose, and my world was shaken
The choice may have been mistaken,
The choosing was not
You have to move on
At some point in the song, the two worlds collide and Dot, Seurat’s former model, is now singing to the artist, her former lover. She reminds him of all the things he gave her and how that helped her grow as a person:
Look at all the things you’ve done for me
Opened up my eyes
Taught me how to see
Notice every tree
Understand the light
While George protests that he wants to move on, explore light in his work and create something new of his own, Dot admonishes him with a timeless line that Sondheim may have been pointing at his own theater critics:
Stop worrying if your vision
Let others make that decision
They usually do
You keep moving on
Dot tells George that it would please her if she could give him something for all he did for her. She boldly admits “We’ve always belonged together,” a direct contradiction of an earlier song in the show — We Do Not Belong Together — in which she stands up for herself and tells him she’s moving to America with Louis the baker — explaining that she and George were never right for one another while in their hearts they both know this not to be true. She had begged George to just say the words and tell her not to go. But he was unable. He’s an artist and his palette of communication and feelings are confined to the brush and his choice of color like some writers are restricted to the written word. She ends that song with the linking lyrics to this one — And we should have belonged together, I have to move on.
Due to their connection to Seurat’s painting but more so because the lovers realize their relationship should have survived, as the song, Move On, ends, they harmonize: We will always belong together! It’s the climactic moment in the show — inspiring, enlightening, illuminating —rewarding even, when we know that these two characters have evolved and, finally, accepted one another for who they are, the choices they made, and how those choices affected their lives. And they could only have done it by moving on.
In Sunday in the Park with George, Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine created a masterpiece in 1984 that continues to endure and find its way onto stages around the world. Like George’s intention to create something new, the playwright and composer did just that, taking chances and developing an unorthodox script, moving from twenty-five preview performances at Playwright’s Horizon, where only the first act was staged, until the second act was fleshed out and performed at the final three performances. It then moved to the Booth Theater on Broadway, where it was nominated for 10 Tony Awards, winning two for design. It received the N.Y. Drama Critic’s Circle Award for Outstanding Musical, among others. Sondheim and Lapine were also awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
But the essence of the show and Sondheim’s lasting advice is — no matter what you do in life — strive to find the new within yourself and move on.
The song haunts me to this day.
Author and Playwright Michael Solomowitz’s debut novel, BEHIND THE FOURTH WALL, was recently published in January 2022 by Black Rose Writing.