Friday, December 26, 2014

Into The Woods (musical)

ONCE UPON A TIME … Ohio University was on a quarter schedule and the college more or less shut down between Thanksgiving an New Year’s. Six weeks to work, lie about, or travel.

December 1990 the school of theater arranged a trip for England which included tours and shows in London, followed by several days of workshops and shows in Stratford-Upon-Avon with members of the Royal Shakespeare Company.

Our first night in we had reservations for some West End show, reservations which we lost for some reason, and our ticket broker gave the tour a choice of two alternatives - Man of the Moment by Alan Ayckbourn, or the original London production of Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods.

Ayckbourn’s work I was familiar with, and enjoyed. Of Sondheim, I knew nothing. If you do not count West Side Story, I had never seen or heard any of his work. Please forgive me, I was only 22, and by the age of 22 I had pretty much lost interest in musical theater entirely.

And yet, I chose to see that, in large part because like everyone else in the company I was suffering from jet lag, having been awake for over 24 hours straight. I thought a musical would more successfully keep me awake.

Nigel Planer as Neil in "The Young Ones"
 Note: I missed the chance to see Nigel Planer live onstage in "Man of the Moment", though I did eventually see him in "Feelgood" (for better or worse) ten or so years later.

Into the Woods in its original London production was very odd. The New York premiere (1987) featured legit Broadway talent such as Bernadette Peters and Joanna Gleason. In the West End the cast was composed of several famous television personalities, like presenter Nicholas Parsons as the Narrator and Julia McKenzie as the Witch who, though an experienced stage performer (and recognizable as today’s version of TV’s Miss Marple) did not look much changed when stripped of her witchy old-age make-up.

Yes, I am ashamed to have written that. But there it is.

Just appearing on stage these actors received applause. The problem was (and the soundtrack recording gives proof of this) many of them could not sing.

However, I did find the music infectious, as Sondheim’s work invariably is (“There's not a tune you can hum.” my ass.) It was colorful and interesting, and very funny. All these folk tales wrapped up rather neatly, and the title song reprise made it clear, after almost ninety minutes and no intermission, that the show was over. Except for the Narrator adding To Be Continued and the lack of any curtain call.

As you know, if you are familiar with the work, “Happy ever after!” is not how the show ends, and I soon discovered there was, in fact, a second act. This second part was confusing, disorienting, ill befalling absolutely everyone, their mistakes magnified. I did not understand the point of this second act, which I felt was maudlin, mawkish, somnambulant (literally so, I pinched the soft parts of my own hands very painfully to stay awake) and a tale or two too far.

But it kept with me. Later, I got the Broadway cast recording, still later the West End disc (Rapunzel’s Prince has the most bizarre accent) and even recorded the Great Performances production onto VHS, which I still have.

Listening to the albums I grew to appreciate the emotional ambiguity of the second act. Also, on Mandy Patinkin’s eponymous album (1989) he does a heart-wrenching cover of No More.

Tom Ford and Jodi Dominick (center) as the Baker and his wife.
In 2008, Great Lakes Theater inaugurated the “Re-Imagined” Hanna Theatre with a repertory of Macbeth and Into the Woods. I had children of my own by then, aged 5 and 3, and already they enjoyed love theater. We brought them to opening night, but left at intermission - by design. I felt the ending was too upsetting from a child. All the characters they loved were made unhappy (or always were) some would be killed, and horribly, the songs more complicated about complicated, adult issues. There would be a time for such challenging stuff, but not yet.
“Stay a child while you can be a child.”
The Great Lakes production was excellent (the Wall Street Journal called it a “tour de force”) introducing CLE audiences to performers who would develop long-standing relationships with the company (Jodi Dominick as the Baker’s Wife stands out in my memory) and gorgeous turns by returning actors whose work at GLT are becoming legendary (Tom Ford who played the Baker would go on to create a truly bizarre Sweeney Todd at the Hanna as well as a show stealing Monsieur Thénardier in this season’s record-breaking Les Miz).

It was disappointing to know my kids would only receive half of this particular production, and never have the opportunity to see the entire thing. I didn’t see the entire GLT production myself until it was almost closed.

Isn't it nice to know a lot?
Fall 2008 I had used vacation time to canvas in Beachwood, convincing elderly voters that Obama was not, in fact, a Muslim. The day before Election Day, I walked about neighborhoods in Euclid, encouraging likely voters to get out and vote. It looked as though every other house in what was otherwise a well-kept neighborhood was for sale, foreclosed, or abandoned.

November 4, Election Day itself, I was an emotional wreck, despondent in my fear that someone as willfully uneducated as Sarah Palin could attain high office, and demoralized by the fear-mongering and purely racist rumors. The economy was in free-fall that warm, bright fall day, and I did not know what kind of world these children would be left.

I could not even think that day, so I attended a student matinee of Into the Woods.

The second act clicked into place for me. The path from The Last Midnight to No More to No One Is Alone was a map of the psyche of a doubt-ridden parent. I sat in the front row on the balcony (there were fortunately no students in the balcony that morning) and tears, many tears, streamed down my face.

I’ll just come out and say it, Into the Woods doesn’t make sense if you have never had children. Tell me I’m wrong, that’s fine. Sondheim doesn’t have children. My argument can’t be substantiated.

However, just today on Facebook, colleagues far and wide, in speculating upon their decision to attend a showing of the new Disney film adaptation, have remarked upon the original version’s “eeeeendless, repetitive second act” (thank you for that, Henson.) Those who have shared this opinion, within my sphere, are uniformly child-free.

Conversely, my wife says she was always emotionally affected by the entirety of Into the Woods, even before having children. I would argue this is because she has very troubling issues relating to her father. I was never introspective about about my relationship to my own parents, my father was just this guy. I thought myself a solitary man, until the impending birth of and subsequent loss of my first child, a son.

So, allow me to rephrase my original statement … Into the Woods didn’t make sense to me until I had children.

For Christmas we went to see this new film adaptation, which was very enjoyable and arguably the most successful adaptation of a musical from stage to screen ever made. That that is a very low bar to hurdle does not render my praise in any manner faint.


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