Photo by Joan Marcus.

Emotionally Moving Thirds

Scene Change Music: Taking a Closer Listen

A Roundabout Archives Series

Emotionally Moving Thirds

In my last post, we looked at two pieces of scene change music from Sunday in the Park with George—“Scene Change to Studio” and “After Children”—and we discussed how they are constructed by introducing and repeating fragments of familiar musical material as needed. 

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Vamping in the 'Sunday' Score

We also touched briefly on how “Scene Change to Studio” makes use of what we can call the “moving thirds” theme (its primary feature is a repeating series of notes moving in parallel thirds), a musical figure that ultimately becomes the accompaniment figure for the song “Finishing the Hat.”

The first time I saw Sunday in the Park with George was during my junior year of high school. My mom had given me the DVD of the original Broadway production as a birthday gift, and I snuggled under a blanket one night and popped it into my PlayStation, enjoying some pizza and feeling glad to be doing anything but my AP calculus homework. I had no idea what I was getting myself into, and the moment the moving thirds theme began to play during the beginning of “Finishing the Hat” (after Georges sings “But if anybody could...”), I was overwhelmed. The music in that moment crystallized something happening in the story beyond my conscious awareness, moving me in a way no piece of music ever had. Looking back, I understand now that it’s because I had heard those moving thirds several times before in the story, and they brought with them the entire history of Georges and Dot’s relationship as I had known it so far. The moving thirds theme had been imbued with that history, adding a layer of musical subtext to “Finishing the Hat” that deepened everything happening on its textual surface.

To better understand how that works and how scene change music plays a role in developing that association, let’s look briefly at each time the moving thirds theme appears in the score as its most recognizable self:

1. “Sunday in the Park with George”

Figure 1, excerpt from "Sunday in the Park with George". Click here to listen.

The first time we hear the moving thirds is during the opening number of the first act, the titular song “Sunday in the Park with George.” Amid Dot’s frustrated musings on having to remain perfectly still for Georges to paint her, she pauses and reflects that despite all of her discomfort, she does love many things about Georges: his eyes, his beard, his size... The moving thirds theme comes in to underscore her next thought: “But most, George, of all, but most of all, I love your painting... I think I’m fainting...”

2. “Scene Change to Studio” 

Figure 2, "Scene Change to Studio." Click here to listen.

This is the second time we hear the moving thirds, and two things are happening here. As we discussed previously, the scene change music here is recalling something we’ve heard before, and in doing so is contextualizing what’s happening in the story (remember: “But most George of all [...] I love your painting.”) “Scene Change to Studio” is preparing us for what’s to come: a scene in which we will learn even more about how Georges and Dot treat each other during the song “Color and Light”. In a very subtle way, we are being conditioned to associate this music with their relationship.

3. “Color and Light”

Figure 3, excerpt from "Color and Light." Click here to listen.

The moving thirds appears next in the underscoring of “Color and Light” (in a slightly extended form) at what I would call its climactic moment, when Georges and Dot sing, “I could look at [him/her] forever.” Though it is most recognizable in this moment, we hear fragments of it echoing throughout the entirety of the song.

4. “Scene Change to Park”

Figure 4, "Scene Change to Park." Click here to listen.

This is the scene change music that follows “Color and Light,” bookending the whole scene with the moving thirds theme. “Scene Change to Park” has a bit more heft than its counterpart “Scene Change to Studio.” The violin now ascends higher and higher instead of sustaining a single note from the beginning, and a bass clarinet fills out the lower register.

5.  “Everybody Loves Louis” 

Figure 5, excerpt from "Everybody Loves Louis." Click here to listen.

The next time we hear the moving thirds theme is during “Everybody Loves Louis,” a song in which Dot sings about her new love interest Louis the Baker. She parades him around the park in front of Georges, describing all of the things Louis provides for her that Georges never could. Partway through the song, we hear how Dot rationalizes the situation: “We lose things. And then we choose things. And there are Louis’. And there are Georges’.” The moving third theme enters here as Dot catches herself and explains: “Well, Louis’, and George. But George has George. And I need someone.”

6. “Finishing the Hat”

Figure 6, excerpt from "Finishing the Hat." Click here to listen.

We hear the moving thirds theme one final time in the musical underscoring of the song “Finishing the Hat.” This seems like the end of Georges and Dot’s relationship, and Georges reflects on how he is feeling while he finishes the hat in his painting that we saw him working on during “Color and Light,” and was the subject of the argument that led to their breakup. (At least, this is the last time we hear the moving thirds in their purest form. Elements of the moving thirds appear throughout the score before and after this—just more covertly. For example, in a frazzled cello throughout the accompaniment of “Everybody Loves Louis” (stop and think about that!), or in the rhythm of the lyric “That is the state of the art, my friend,” during the song “Putting it Together” in Act II.)


Looking at all of this, one conclusion we can draw is that the moving thirds theme comes to represent the focal point of Georges and Dot’s relationship: Georges’ painting. Dot loves many things about Georges, but she loves his painting most of all, which she expresses the first time we hear the moving thirds. We hear the moving thirds entering, during, and exiting the song “Color and Light”, which is ultimately about how Georges’ painting is as much a source of attraction for Dot as it is a source of frustration. And we hear it during “Everybody Loves Louis” when Dot expresses the reason that she loves Georges—that he is such a singular talent and focuses so intently on his work—is also the reason that he cannot meet her needs. Their relationship would not exist without his painting, but it also cannot continue with it. So, to ultimately hear this theme as the accompaniment to a song in which Georges sings about what it feels like for him to be painting brings all of this context with it. As good as it feels for Georges to be painting, as much as it fills him with purpose and fulfillment, he cannot paint without also being reminded of what painting has cost him.

And the fact that two of the six times we hear this theme are during scene changes is significant. If we have to spend that time waiting for scenery to move, or for costumes to change, what better way to spend it? Hearing this theme makes that time meaningful, and it makes those scene changes feel like organic connective tissue that is part of a larger whole. The use of this theme during those scene changes also strengthens the way that the music is developing in tandem with the story. When we hear it during “Scene Change to Studio” going into “Color and Light,” it feels more placid than it does in the darker, heavier “Scene Change to Park.” We’ve just seen Georges and Dot have a fight, and the scene change music takes on that same tense emotional quality.

What we have not yet discussed is what the moving thirds theme actually sounds like. In other words, Sondheim could have written “Yakety Sax” instead of the moving thirds and put it in all of those same places. And if he had done that, we might still associate that music with all of the same story content, but we would certainly feel very differently any time we heard it. In my next post, we’ll discuss the sound itself of the moving thirds theme, as well as another piece of scene change music, and what they tell us about the story just by virtue of the way that they sound.

Columbia@Roundabout is a collaboration between Columbia University School of the Arts and Roundabout Theatre Company which provides exceptional educational and vocational opportunities for the next generation of playwrights and theatre practitioners.

The program includes an annual reading series for Columbia MFA students, Teaching Artist training facilitated by Education at Roundabout and two fellowship positions in Roundabout’s Archives.

As a part of the Archives fellowship, the MFA candidates conduct deep research into our historic records and are encouraged to produce scholarship that explores Roundabout’s contribution to American theatre. Josh Brown is one of the Archives Fellows, and over the course of the coming months, he will write a series of articles about interstitial music from Roundabout’s musical productions.