Why art is theatre: Art and artists on Broadway and famous art-inspired shows
Visual and performing arts collide in many famous shows.
Craving work by pop art icon Andy Warhol? Street art by whiz kid Jean-Michel Basquiat? Photography by Larry Sultan? When you’re in the mood to see art, New York’s museums seem like the place to go — but so are New York's theatres.
Those illustrious three artists and more have taken center stage in Broadway plays. They remind us of something that might not be obvious: Visual art is theatre. A script and a painting begin the same way, according to a famous line from the musical Sunday in the Park With George: “White. A blank page or canvas,” says artist Georges Seurat. “The challenge: bring order to the whole.”
While platforms and means of communicating differ – canvas vs. stage, brush strokes vs. dialogue – the two media have much in common, which may be why art and artists regularly pop up in plays and musicals.
Art, like theatre, can be realistic or abstract or both. Like theatre shows, art is made to be shared with an audience. Both tell a story and spark emotional responses – smiles, tears, curiosity, empathy, outrage. Theatre itself is an art form, after all, and just as art forms like music and dance can fit into theatre, so can visual art.
Evidence that art and theatre overlap is abundant on city stages. Read on for shows to check out for fresh perspectives on art and theatre.
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Theatre about art to see right now
Can't decide whether to see performing art or visual art? Catch both at once at these Broadway and Off-Broadway shows about famous artists and the artistic process.
Blue Man Group
Musical theatre, as Sunday in the Park attests, teaches that the art of making art is putting it together. Since 1991, a trio of mute cobalt-blue alien oddballs have put together art that’s weird and wild – and probably shouldn’t be duplicated at home. That includes using drums as well as mouths to create splatter art. You won’t mistake the Blue Man masterpieces for a Jackson Pollock, but you’ll laugh. That’s the point of the show – and a great cure for the blues.
Famous theatre about art
Art is hardly a new subject for theatre. Plenty of award-winning musicals and plays have art as a subject, featuring fictionalized versions of real artists alongside characters who, like the shows' audiences, are inspired by art to see the world differently.
Sunday in the Park with George
Art isn’t easy, according to this Pulitzer Prize-winning 1984 musical by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine. Sunday in the Park with George leaps centuries as it explores the ups and downs of the creative process. The story follows French pointillist painter Georges Seurat, whose famous late 1880s work, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, comes to life in thrilling fashion at the close of the first act.
Seurat and his mistress Dot have been played on Broadway by Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters in 1984, Daniel Evans and Jenna Russell in 2008, and Jake Gyllenhaal and Annaleigh Ashford in 2017.
Pictures From Home
Photographer Larry Sultan knew every picture tells a story, as he spent 10 years snapping revealing ones of his parents and turned his art into a 1992 photo memoir. Sharr White’s same-named play stars Danny Burstein as Larry as he embarks on this project, opposite Nathan Lane and Zoë Wanamaker as his folks.
"[The play is] about the artistic process, and how art is created," Burstein said. Pictures From Home also looks at the dynamic between artists and subjects and acknowledges how people respond differently to art.
"There's a big argument [about] the point of view of the artist because they're not all just candid shots — he poses them," Lane said. "The father finds that infuriating because he thinks it's all phony. There's this constant back and forth... [the characters] address the audience and fight for their point of view."
Art also literally features in Pictures From Home. “We’re using pictures of the real people,” director Bartlett Sher said. “I didn’t have to cast this based on reality. It’s another trick of art.”
In mid-1980s New York, Andy Warhol, a middle-aged artist whose 15 minutes of fame were ticking away, collaborated with younger, Neo-Expressionist rising star Jean-Michel Basquiat on a joint exhibit. The odd couple’s working partnership and friendship created a stir. Paul Bettany and Jeremy Pope reprise their respective roles as Warhol and Basquiat in Anthony McCarten’s drama that premiered in London in 2022.
Yasmina Reza’s sly and pointed comedy about the art of friendship follows three pals whose 15-year relationship gets tested and stretched tighter than a canvas when one of them invests a small fortune in an all-white painting. Is it a modern masterpiece? Worthless? Something in between? Debate rages.
The 1998 Broadway production starring Alan Alda, Victor Garber, and Alfred Molina won a Tony Award for Best Play, and Art has since been translated into more than 20 languages.
Six Degrees of Separation
Flan and Ouisa, a well-heeled New York art dealer and his wife out to buy a Paul Cézanne painting, are targeted by Paul, a young man who worms himself into their lives. The story also features a fictional Wassily Kandinsky work painted on the front and back of a canvas. Similarly, Paul has two sides – and one of them is a con man. Besides popularizing the premise about social connections of the title, John Guare’s Tony-nominated 1990 play considers authenticity and empathy.
Who would think watching abstract painter Mark Rothko and his assistant prime a large canvas for a painting for the famed Four Seasons restaurant could be so dazzling? It’s all that and more in John Logan’s Tony-winning 2010 play about what it takes and costs to create art. Alfred Molina, as Rothko, and Eddie Redmayne, as his helper, starred in Red in London and on Broadway.
Vincent in Brixton
Nicholas Wright’s play seen on Broadway in 2003 blends fact and flights of imagination in this meditation on Vincent van Gogh. What made him such an outstanding painter — was it in spite of, or because of, mental issues? Vincent in Brixton won the 2003 Olivier Award for Best New Play in London and got nominated for the Tony Awards equivalent that year as well.
Claudia Shear’s comedy follows a woman cleaning Michelangelo’s David in Florence who gets a life makeover of her own. The plot is a clever way to explore the idea that art can make people think deeply and even change their viewpoint on the world and themselves. As a New York Times reviewer wrote, "When it comes to getting to know yourself, it seems, there’s no beating lots of quiet time with a 500-year-old hunk holding a slingshot."
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