Entertainment » Theatre

From 'Bat Boy' to 'Sunday in the Park' with Nick Sulfaro

by Kilian Melloy
Friday Sep 9, 2016

If you've gone to musicals in Boston over the last few years you've probably seen -- and heard -- Nick Sulfaro, who's schedule has been packed with roles all over the region, from Stoneham Theater to Wheelock Family Theater to the BU Theater, where he appeared a year ago in the Huntington Theatre Company's production of "A Little Night Music."

Sulfaro has also featured in (among many other things) "The Little Prince" at the New Repertory Theater, "Photograph 51" with the Nora Theatre company, and been nominated for an IRNE for his work as the title character in "Bat Boy: The Musical."

Sulfaro's current role brings him back to the BU Theater and the Huntington. He plays Louis the baker in Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's "Sunday in the Park with George," a musical that takes its inspiration from a famous pointillist painting -- "A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte" -- and the Neo-Impressionist artist who created the painting, Georges Seurat.

In the musical, Seurat and his lover (and model) Dot make a go at a relationship, only for Seurat's complete absorption in his art to prove too much for their bond to bear. The pregnant Dot ends up with another man, a baker named Louis. In Act Two, the play skips ahead a century to the year 1984, and focuses on Seurat's great-grandson, an artist working in a modern medium who shares the name of his famous forebear.

But let's not skip ahead of ourselves in our turn! Rather, let's join Nick Sulfaro, who graciously gave of his time for an interview with EDGE.


EDGE: Are you a Boston native?

Nick Sulfaro: I grew up here in Massachusetts, mostly in Framingham, and I graduated from Framingham High School and then went on to Emerson College. Yeah -- I've stuck around. I've been in Massachusetts my whole life.

EDGE: What took you into theater?

Nick Sulfaro: You know, that's a good story. Before we moved to Framingham, I grew up in West Roxbury and I went to Catholic school for a little while and my dad is your somewhat typical Boston sports fan, and neither of my parents are particular artists in any sort of way. My dad was a painter for a little while when he was in high school and he actually was pretty good, he had some great paintings that we had hung up in the house. But neither of them really knew anything about the arts -- but I hated every sports team I was ever on, and every sports experience I ever had. I think I was about eight and my mom -- somehow, through a friend or acquaintance -- had the idea to put me into a children's theater program. I cried thought the entire first two or three hour rehearsal. I was totally petrified. I was sure I hated everything about it! But she made me stick it out and here I am. I'm pretty grateful to my mom for that.

EDGE: Fast forward a few years, and you've been in 'Bat Boy,' 'The Little Prince,' 'RENT,' 'A Little Night Music...' What is it about musical that particularly attracts you?

Nick Sulfaro: That is what I grew up doing, which I think is really common for most kids. You don't usually have a lot of opportunities to do plays -- you do musicals. I grew up singing before I ever got involved in any sort of theater production. I always loved music; I always loved to sing. But I think in particular what I love about musical theater and continues to interest me and keep me hooked is the heightened nature of it -- that kind of meeting of the poetry that comes with the music and dance, and also the ensemble nature if it, typically, too. A play usually is a smaller cast; there's usually not a ton of people on stage at one time, and you're usually fighting for your individual wants and needs -- and I love that for other reasons -- but it's a tremendously fun and really gratifying experience getting to be part of a big cast, sixteen or eighteen people, all on stage at once singing or dancing in unison.

EDGE: How did you get cast in this production of 'Sunday in the Park with George?'

Nick Sulfaro: Bevin O'Gara I credit with basically most of my success in the Boston theater community. She sort of came across me as I was graduating from college and she cast me in her production of 'Bat Boy.' I had a wonderful time working with her and over the years she's continually called me in for roles here at the Huntington, and I am so grateful for that -- and I was in 'A Little Night Music' last year, and this year they asked me to come and audition for this one. Everyone at the Huntington is wonderful, but in the last few years in particular Bevin has been such a great advocate for local artists in the Boston community getting up onto the Huntington stage, along with Peter DuBois and Michael Maso and Chris Wigle, as well. They are all such great supporters of Boston actors in that way.

EDGE: You're playing Louie the baker in this production. What is your take on this character? Is he sympathetic? Does he just swoop in and steal Dot from George?

Nick Sulfaro: We've done a lot of table work over the least few days, which is really great, sitting around the table for about twelve hours now, talking about the show and going through it piece by piece. I want to make sure that Louis is sincere and true, and that the audience knows the things that Dot says about him are honest.

It can be easy to write Louis off and make him a bit of a buffoon -- that he drinks a bit, he blinks a bit; Louis isn't an artist; Louis's popular. But I think he's actually a very sweet, good-natured, attentive, caring person, and he in reality imbues all of the qualities that Georges is unable to, and he gets to be there for Dot in a way that she probably hasn't ever experienced before. Georges has this great line where he says, 'Louis is her father now' -- talking about his and Dot's baby -- 'He will be a loving and attentive father. I cannot, because I cannot look up from my pad.' Georges' passion is his art. Louis' passion is caring for Dot and for his family. There's something really noble about him in that way.

EDGE: It's interesting in sort of a meta way that this is a musical theater piece about a painter... so you have one rather specialized form of art that's taking, as its subject, a practitioner of another rather specialized art form.

Nick Sulfaro: You know, it's pretty brilliant. I was reading a really cool piece last night where Sondheim talks about after they were done with the first act, which is 1884 - 1886. Seurat in Paris, painting 'A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte,' how they came up with the second act, and how they got there, which was through a really interesting road of a lot of things they decided ultimately didn't work. They came upon this idea of not creating a parallel story, but creating a story in the second act -- somewhat like 'Into the Woods' -- that is not the direct result of Act One, but removed by space and time and in conversation with the themes and people of the first act -- and it ended up taking place in 1984 in America [the year the musical first opened].

This new George, the great-grandson of Georges Seurat, is an abstract sculptor and inventor, and creates these light things... and they all sort of come to mean, to me, and the way Sondheim and James Lapine I think approached it, is in the music -- it's all in the music. There are these repetitions of certain intervals and certain melodic lines that you hear repeated. Act One starts with Dot on the island singing a song called 'Sunday in the Park with Georges' that has this repeated motif of, 'God, it's hot up here,' and then Act Two starts a hundred years later and the characters who are stuck in the painting sing a song called, 'It's Hot Up Here.' The melodic line is almost the same.

In Act One, Georges sings a song, 'Finishing the Hat,' and the melodic line of the line [sing] 'finishing that hat' is almost the same melodic line as [sings] 'putting it together,' which creates a parallel in Act Two of George -- his great-grandson -- and his art, being not necessarily the art of what he makes, but the art of how he makes it, and how he gets funds and commissions and shmoozes his way to where he is, and the difference over the span of a hundred years of how the art world changes, and how art has become a commodity in a new way and how the process of making art has evolved. It's really all grounded in the structures of the melodic lines that he plays with and in the text. So -- it's pretty brilliant.

EDGE: And of course there's the idea -- which I also think is brilliant -- that Act Two isn't only a follow-up to Act One in terms of biological lineage, but also reflects upon how new kinds of art can emerge as time passes and technology makes it possible. We can even look back at past masterpieces and reinterpret them.

Nick Sulfaro: That's a trend you can see of a lot of over the last fifty, even a hundred or two hundred years, for forever maybe -- major artists reflecting back on periods of art long before -- a hundred years, a thousand years before -- and going back and saying, 'What is the value of this? Its composition, of what it depicts? What is the value of Neoimpressionism? What was his goal? What was interesting about it, what wasn't, and how can I transform that and use that to create something new?' There's the old adage, 'Nothing is new, everything has been done before.' It's a prominent thing in the world of fine art, where artists are reflecting back to other artists and attempting to put into conversation drastically different art forms in effort to form a new dialogue.

EDGE: The really timeless thing about this play -- and you touched on it a minute ago -- is how artists often have to make personal sacrifices in pursuit of their art. As an artist yourself, have you found this to be something that you wrestle with? Or have you found a pretty good balance?

Nick Sulfaro: It's definitely challenging. It's something you have to think about every day, and you have to make little choices about constantly. I imagine it's similar to other kinds of work -- politics (good politicians), or being a really great teacher, someone who is incredibly dedicated to what it is that they do, something that's really time consuming and exhausting. My husband, right now, is studying overseas for a year, in pursuit of a graduate degree, so we are spending a year apart and traveling back and forth when we can.

Luckily, he's coming back to America a bunch. I just spend a month overseas with him, and I'll be going back. But it's hard -- I had to choose whether I wanted to be there, overseas with him for a whole year, or make this commute back and forth and we were going to spend this large duration of time apart. It's a sacrifice to have to wake up every morning without him, but the added bonus is I get to be here, and I get to go up to the Huntington and do a really wonderful show that I love and have always wanted to do. You do make sacrifices, but you hopefully have a partner who supports your passions and your endeavors, and is happy that you're doing something that you love. I know I am lucky to have that.

EDGE: It's so wonderful when you find someone like that.

Nick Sulfaro: Yeah! It's pretty great! Luckily this part of his program is only for a year, and then the following four years he'll be back here. We'll be going to New York City. [For now] I'm just happy to be back at the Huntington. It's a wonderful place and a fantastic group of people who work there.

EDGE: And it's such great news that they are going to be able to continue in that theater space.

Nick Sulfaro: Absolutely! It's such a gem, such a beautiful and historic space. The thought of it not being a theater any more was pretty heartbreaking. It's wonderful that we and the city of Boston, and the regional theatre community in America at large, doesn't have to think about that any more.


"Sunday in the Park with George" runs Sept. 9 - Oct. 16 at the BU Theatre. For tickets and more information, please go to http://www.huntingtontheatre.org/season/2016-2017/sunday-in-the-park-with-george

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


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