Late in the first act of Stephen Sondheim’s “Sunday in the Park with George,” about the painting of Georges Seurat’s masterpiece Sunday Afternoon the Island of La Grande Jatte, as they sit in the park on the eponymous island, Seurat’s mother says to her son: “What’s that? Off in the distance?” A tower, he tells her; they’re building it for the Exposition. It is the lead-in to a song. She sings, warily: “Changing/it keeps changing/I see towers/where there were trees…”
Going, all the stillness,
the solitude, Georgie!
Sundays disappearing, all the time . . .
When things were beautiful.
They are, of course, talking about the building of the Eiffel Tower. Never mind that Seurat’s painting had been finished by the time construction started on the tower in 1888; it is a soft moment at dusk between a mother and a son that shimmers with Sondheim’s watery half-step-whole-step motif, somewhat darkened by the minor key in which Seurat’s mother sings. The tower threatens, replacing the natural with the man-made, rendering the beautiful obsolete.
Jill Jonnes’s recently published history of the building of Eiffel’s Tower, Eiffel’s Tower (and the World’s Fair Where Buffalo Bill Beguiled Paris, the Artists Quarreled, and Thomas Edison Became a Count), takes a different approach to the transformation of the Parisian skyline for the 1889 Exposition Universelle; it is the story of how Gustave Eiffel turned public favor from being dead-set against the building of the Tower to almost universally declaring it an enormous success. There are no minor notes here, only champagne and electric lights, not to mention Buffalo Bill and Annie Oakley, as Jonnes widens her lens beyond the tower itself to write a mini-history of Americans at the fair.