In June 1982, Sondheim began a tentative collaboration with James Lapine, a young Off-Broadway playwright. In search of a subject, they began rifling through photographs and paintings, one of which was Georges Seurat’s A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.
The 1884 painting looked like a stage set, Lapine observed, but was missing the main character. “Who?” asked Sondheim. “The artist,” said Lapine. He laid tracing paper over La Grande Jatte and drew a constellation of arrows, each one pointing to an anonymous figure on the riverbank. “Mother?” he wrote. “Mistress? Butler?” It was like an existential game of Clue, a whodunit in which the answer was Georges Seurat.
But who was Seurat? In their research, Sondheim and Lapine were able to gather a few crumbs about the notoriously secretive painter: Seurat worked at night, kept mum unless asked about his experiments with color, and had apparently gone to great lengths to prevent his mother from learning of the existence of his mistress Madeleine Knobloch, a model who appears in Seurat’s Young Woman Powdering Herself and bore him two children (both died in infancy). “When you have a character like that,” said Sondheim, “you can fill him out in any way you want.”