Artwork That Inspired Broadway Musicals

Visual art intersects with these classic paintings (and one piece of sculpture) that helped to inspire the stories and the design for beloved classic Broadway musicals such as "Fiddler on the Roof" and "On the Town".

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Sunday in the Park With George

Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte by Georges Seurat, oil on canvas
SuperStock / Getty Images

If you hear the words "painting" and "musical," chances are there's one show that would immediately pop into your head. (Well, that is, if you're the kind of person who thinks about paintings and musicals...) That musical would be "Sunday in the Park With George", the daring and emotionally rich show with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, and book and direction by James Lapine. This was the first show that Sondheim and Lapine created together, after Sondheim and director Harold Prince decided to go their separate ways after the disastrous experience that was "Merrily We Roll Along". "Sunday" is a fanciful speculation on the story behind the inhabitants of post-Impressionist Georges Seurat's masterwork, "A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte" (1884). Sondheim brilliantly captures Seurat's pointillist technique in the staccato arpeggiation in his score and in the fragmented nature of many of his lyrics. 

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On the Town

The Fleet's In by Paul Cadmus
The Fleet's In by Paul Cadmus. Navy Art Collection

When Jerome Robbins was a young dancer with what would eventually be known as the American Ballet Theater, he actively sought opportunities to choreograph his own pieces. After he pitched numerous full-scale ballets and was rejected, Robbins decided to start with a short ballet to attract some attention. It was in the middle of World War II, and New York City was full of servicemen, sailors in particular, and Robbins became interested in creating a show about these ordinary people. Someone suggested that Robbins use "The Fleet's In" (1934) by Paul Cadmus as his inspiration. Robbins thought the painting a bit too risqué, but it did give him the push he needed to set the ballet in motion. He worked with a young unknown composer by the name of Leonard Bernstein on the score. The result, "Fancy Free" (1944), was an enormous success and prompted the pair to expand the ballet into a full-scale musical, which became known as On the Town (1944). 

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Fiddler on the Roof

The Green Violinist by Marc Chagall
The Green Violinist by Marc Chagall. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum

One interesting fact about classic Broadway musicals is that they were created almost entirely by Jewish creators: Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein, Lorenz Hart, Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, George and Ira Gershwin, etc. (One exception was Cole Porter, although he borrowed heavily from the Jewish tradition in his music.) What's striking, though, is that these Jewish creators rather assiduously avoided overtly Jewish subject matter, no doubt because of the rampant anti-Semitism in the world, including the United States, during much of the 20th century. It wasn't until "Fiddler on the Roof" that musical theater really embraced Judaism in a serious way. Producer  Harold Prince wanted the show to capture the authentic feel of the stories of Sholem Aleichem, which served as the musical's source material. Prince recalled the work of Marc Chagall, in particular, his painting "The Green Violinist"and suggested that this whimsical yet melancholy work should serve as the basis for the original production's set design and overall atmosphere. The whimsically hued fiddler dancing on the rooftops even inspired the show's title. 

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A Little Night Music

The Blank Signature by Rene Magritte
The Blank Signature by Rene Magritte. National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

It's safe to say that Harold Prince is pretty devoted to, and knowledgeable about, modern art. In addition to using Marc Chagall as the visual inspiration for "Fiddler on the Roof", Prince also turned to a painting to influence the look and feel of "A Little Night Music", one of his six 1970s collaborations with composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim. The painting was "The Blank Signature" by the French surrealist Renè Magritte, an unsettling work that mixes an odd bucolic subject with a disturbing denial of physical expectation. Prince wanted "A Little Night Music" to capture that same sense of unease among the familiar, with its upper-class characters thrown into romantic turmoil and seemingly lost amid the forest. Prince once described his vision for the show as "whipped cream with knives," which captures the same unsettling feel of Magritte's painting. 

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The Swing by Jean-Honoré Fragonard
The Swing by Jean-Honoré Fragonard. Wallace Collection, London

When "Contact" came to Broadway, there was a lot of heated discussion about whether it was really a musical. It doesn't have an original score, no one actually sings, and the show is almost entirely danced-through. Whatever its precise genre, "Contact" was a rousing and compelling dance show, directed and choreographed by Susan Stroman, and featured three separate but thematically connected scenes, the first of which was based on Jean-Honoré Fragonard's masterwork, " The Swing". The scene depicts a love triangle between master, mistress, and servant, with most of the scene taking place on and around the swing. The scene delightfully captures the amoral playfulness of the Fragonard original and features a sort of O. Henry-type surprise ending. 

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The Little Dancer

Little Dancer of Fourteen Years by Edgar Degas
Little Dancer of Fourteen Years by Edgar Degas. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

We're sort of cheating here, because the piece shown is clearly not a painting, and the show hasn't yet made it to Broadway. But "Little Dancer of Fourteen Years" by French painter/sculptor Edgar Degas is now the inspiration for the Broadway-bound "The Little Dancer", a musical by lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, music by Stephen Flaherty, and director/choreographer Susan Stroman. The show imagines the life of the dancer herself, catapulted to fame by Degas's sculpture, and suddenly thrust into a social world for which she is ill-prepared. The show is still in the development stage -- no Broadway dates have yet been announced. But we're genuinely hoping that the show can help lift the reputations of its creators after their unfortunate stumbles with "Rocky" (Ahrens and Flaherty) and "Bullets Over Broadway" (Stroman).