Report from Philadelphia: Jeffrey Coon in the role of Georges Seurat in The Arden’s Sunday in the Park with George.
It’s always an honor and pleasure to watch Jeff Coon perform. He can do it all - musicals, plays, and children’s theatre. He has one of the most beautiful voices I have ever heard on the stage. A staple in the Philadelphia theatre community, Jeffrey Coon is now portraying painter Georges Seurat in Arden Theatre Company’s sumptuous production of Stephen Sondheim’s Pulitzer Prize-winning musical Sunday in the Park with George.
As I listened to Jeffrey’s gorgeous tenor ring out through The Arden’s intimate F. Otto Haas Stage, I realized I have never heard that beautiful score sung so well.
Joel: For those who have never seen it, tell us what is Sunday in the Park with George is about.
Jeffrey: The first act of Sunday is about Georges Seurat and the work that he did to create his masterpiece A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. It also deals with the relationship between Seurat and his love, Dot, and how the inspiration she provides him as an artist comes at the cost of their personal relationship. The second act deals with Seurat’s great-grandson who is also an artist and is as stranded artistically as Seurat was inspired. The larger themes are about creation, both of art and of children, and the legacy that both of those incredible works leave.
Joel: How did you prepare to become and handle a brush like George Seurat?
Jeffrey: Fleischer Museum provided me with drawing lessons and materials, both of which were incredibly helpful. As thrilling as Seurat’s paintings are, I actually think his sketches for the paintings are even more so. I learned some rudimentary skills on how to “demystify” drawing and actually found sketching incredibly cathartic and freeing. I also went to the Barnes Foundation and saw Seurat’s “Three Models” in person. Absolutely amazing! I was in Washington D.C. for a job during the month of March and went to the National Gallery of Art several times to look at Seurat’s work there as well.
Joel: How do you relate to George Seurat and the younger George in Act Two?
Jeffrey: Seurat was absolutely convinced that he was creating something historic while working on A Sunday Afternoon… I relate to him by having had children. My children are historic. They are both a part of me and exist entirely outside of me. And in that sense, they are my masterpiece. I am as fiercely passionate about them as Seurat was about his painting. And I relate to Act 2 George in the sense that I understand all too well that “art isn’t easy”. “Art” can all too often just become another job that you are involved in because it’s the only thing you know to do. Like any other job. And, in some sense, that makes the disappointment even more because, ideally, artists do what they do because they are inspired by something greater than themselves. When that ceases to happen, it can leave you entirely empty.
Joel: Have you ever played this role before or appeared in any other productions of Sunday…?
Jeffrey: I did play this role for a weekend when the Arden produced this show in 1994. I was playing the Soldier/Billy Webster in that production and understudying George. I performed the role for a weekend when actor playing George was ill. It was thrilling and terrifying. I had an afternoon of rehearsal!!!
Joel: How would you describe Stephen Sondheim’s score?
Jeffrey: In a word: glorious. It’s smart, beautiful beyond words, witty (both musically and lyrically), and incredibly difficult to sing and play.
Joel: Which is your favorite song to sing, the most difficult song to sing, and your favorite song that you do not sing in the show?
Jeffrey: My favorite song to sing is “Move On”. The most difficult to sing is “Finishing the Hat” (Joel: It’s my favorite song in the show). It’s incredibly dense with ideas and making the logic of it work from moment to moment can be very hard. and my favorite song that I don’t sing is “Sunday in the Park with George”. I think it is an unbelievably tricky number that Krissy Fraelich knocks out of the park.
Joel: What was some of the advice your director Terrence Nolen gave you about playing this role?
Jeffrey: “Feel less, and think more. And just thinking and breathing onstage is enough”. Terry Nolen gets the best work I am capable of out of me every time. And he gave me my first professional job ever. I am indebted to him for so many reasons, but mostly because he continues to foster growth in me as an actor even as I approach middle age.
Joel: What personal experiences did you bring to your performance as George?
Jeffrey: My kids, my kids, my kids. My kids are the single greatest inspiration for everything I do in my life right now.
Joel: What makes this production so unique and different than the original Broadway production, or other productions of the show you have seen?
Jeffrey: The people involved with this production from top to bottom. I think we have a tremendous ensemble of actors, but we are also using the original Michael Starobin orchestrations with an incredible orchestra under Eric Ebbenga’s direction. He is absolutely the best. We also have a creative and design team that is unparalleled. Truly. And even our crew who run the show on a day to day basis are just so damn good. It is a privilege to work with each one of these people everyday.
Joel: How do Scenic Designer James Kronzer, Costume Designer Rosemarie E. McKelvey, Lighting Designer Justin Townsend, and Sound, Projection & Video Designer Jorge Cousineau bring Sunday in the Park with George to life on the F. Otto Haas Stage?.
Jeffrey: Uniquely and beautifully. This design team, as I mentioned before, is unparalleled.
Joel: Your co-star Kristine Fraelich plays Dot/Marie. Have you worked together before?
Jeffrey: Krissy and I have known each other for over 20 years now. Her husband and I were roommates in college. We’ve done only one other show together. That was Baby Case in 2001, at the Arden. But I have known her for so long that it’s like we’ve done 100 shows together. Krissy is the heart of this production. She is going to blow people away.
Joel: How has musical director Eric Ebbenga helped you with your performance?
Jeffrey: Eric is my favorite musical director. He has an incredible knowledge of everything that he works on and also knows how to get the best from everyone he works with. He is SO GOOD! Smart, hilarious, talented and an incredible person with whom to collaborate. I always want to work harder when Eric is working on a show because he is so dedicated and passionate.
Joel: You are one of the reasons I keep returning to Philadelphia is to see you perform. When did you first decide that you wanted a career in the theatre?
Jeffrey: Thanks, Joel. That’s very kind of you. I don’t think I ever officially decided that I wanted a career in theatre. In fact, I’m still thinking about doing something else. I’m sort of kidding, but also not. It’s wonderful. It’s a blessing, but it’s also really hard. There are sacrifices that have to be made in this line of work that you just don’t have to make in other lines of work. I went to the University of Pennsylvania for college and ended up as a theatre major. But I probably learned as much by working at the Arden and the Walnut. In fact, I know I did.
Joel: How would you describe the Philadelphia Theatre community, and why do you make Philadelphia your home?
Jeffrey: Philadelphia is full of incredible people who I am blessed to know personally and professionally. I make Philadelphia home because it has always been my home and I get to work here. And I couldn’t root for any New York sports teams, and now that McNabb is a Redskin, that would be no fun. But, I just spent 4 weeks in D.C. at the Kennedy Center, and I LOVED it.
Joel: Why do you enjoy working at The Arden?
Jeffrey: Because of the people with whom I am privileged to work there. Every place that I work has its own special reason that it’s good to work there, but The Arden, more than others, I think, is about the people who work there. From top to bottom.
Joel: You have played everything from a frog to a Nazi musical playwright – to a presidential assassin. What are your three all-time favorite roles, and why?
Jeffrey: George is one of them. I just love this show and everything that it says about living as an artist and as a member of the human race. I loved playing Che in Evita. On stage all night and singing really difficult fun music. And, Harold Hill. I have only done a concert version of The Music Man but I am trying to get somebody in this town to do the show in a full production because I could play that role forever if someone would let me.
Joel: Any roles you haven’t played that you still want to play?
Jeffrey: In about 5 years, I’ll be ready to play Fredrik Eggerman in A Little Night Music. I would also like to play Sweeney Todd, and Henry Higgins. The good thing about getting older as a man in musical theatre is that there are a lot of roles that are out there for “grown up men”.
Joel: What’s next after Sunday in the Park with George?
Jeffrey: Aaron Fox in Curtains at Walnut Street Theatre and then the Bing Crosby role in White Christmas there.
Joel: What do you want theatergoers to take with them after seeing Sunday in the Park with George?
Jeffrey: I suppose I want them to see the WORK that is involved in creating art. It is really as much about perspiration as it is about inspiration. And to look at the beauty that surrounds all of us on a day to day level. Open up your eyes and look. It’s all right there!
Sunday in the Park with George plays through July 4th at Arden Theatre Company, 40 North 2nd Street, in Philadelphia, PA. For tickets, call (215) 922-1122, or purchase them at their website here.
Download the studyguide for Sunday in the Park with George here.