The way is dark
The light is dim
But now there’s you, her and him.
The chances look small,
The choices look grim,
But everything you learn there
Will help you when you return there.
— from the Choral Into the Woods
Dear friends and readers,
Jim loved Sondheim’s musicals, and I’ve just spent an hour or so perusing my and Yvette’s Christmas gift to him one year, the tall beautifully bound, Look, I made a Hat! (covering the years 1981-2011),
most of which is by Stephen Sondheim, and contains full and partial accounts of many musicals (not all produced, some just in the idea stage, some extant just as a coupe of songs, a costume design), but for Into the Woods enough of the dialogues, most of the songs, and thinking and ideas behind the stage productions to enable the reader to re-enjoy and understand what he or she has just seen and heard.
Of Into the Woods Sondheim begins by writing that the first act is farce and the second tragedy. As many people know by now, the matter consists of at least 6 folk and fairy tale figures conceived as ordinary people who (like Six Characters in Search of an Author) must enact quests, all of which require them to go into the woods where they collide with one another, and do not exactly live happily ever after by the end. Many may not know Sondheim and James Lapine also saw the characters as “first achieving their goals, and then dealing with the consequences of what they did there.”
They did not follow Bettelheim’s Uses of Enchantment: Sondheim says this book is cited as their source by many people because it’s so well-known. Sondheim seems to dislike Bettelheim’s book and refers to Bettelheim’s terrible behavior at his aslyum. He says what James (who wrote the book) was interested in: “the little dishonesties that enabled the characters to reach their happy endings;” he was “sceptical about the possibility of ‘happy ever after'” (so could not be a Bettelheim person as Bettelheim justified the cruelty of the tales by the happy endings, which he insisted children believed in).
James’s play, Twelve Dreams, shows he was drawn to Carl Jung; they talked to a Jungian psychiatrist; learnt all the tales they chose were known in versions virtually around the world. The exception is “Jack and the Beanstalk” which seems to be a British Isles folk tale. Sondheim much preferred Grimm versions to those of Perrault (and says Disney and US school vesions come from the French). The gimmick was to mash the tales together. Sondheim gives Lapine credit for the elegance of the interweave. They ended up giving 3 midnights for the Baker and his wife to supply the witch’s demands before she’d give them a child:
The cow as white as milk,
The cape as red as blood.
The hair as yellow as corn —
The slipper as pure as gold.
As to himself (he writes the lyrics and music, the core of all opera), he sees the result as a musical about parents and children, about their relationships. Songs are about the experience of learning and gently ironic about what’s learnt. Sondheim remarks that the Baker and his wife are a contemporary urban couple trying to survive and to have a baby. What remains in my memory from Disney’s version is the Baker’s wife seeing Rapunzel’s hair rushing madly to the tower to wrest it, climb up and scissor it off. So Disney captures a current US obsession one finds in married women (they must become mothers).
The photos chosen are from a 2011 production done in Regent’s Park, London. The pages include sample scores, and handwritten notes and songs first written out in fairish copies reproduced. One of the photos is so large but scrumptious because of the park setting; the witch’s outfit is superb. There were no children in any of the parts; adults give the roles more depth.
Onto this year’s Disney movie: I didn’t need to read the the songs and dialogues and outline to recognize that Sondheim and Lapine’s stage play had been changed well beyond the needs of a film. the movie is directed by Rob Marshall, and the credits for writing are to James Lapine. There is a name given to someone else for the screenplay on the film credits, but it does not appear on IMDB. So like a translator a central person responsible for the movie is not named — perhaps he worked his screenplay from Lapine’s to Disneyfy it, and then they collaborated?
When we got out of the theater, Yvette recounted to me all the many literal large literal changes: while on stage and in the movie the baker’s wife (Emily Blunt) and Jack’s mother both die, in the movie Rapunzel (Macknzie Mauzy) does not kill herself after having a nervous breakdown from those years in the tower, but rather has a short episode of PTSD and is rescued by one of the princes.
In the movie the evil witch (Meryl Streep) self-destructs rather spectacularly; in the play she lives on. Each of the changes has the effect of making for more (however serendipitious) justice and less misery. The play is further disneyfied by an over-production that overpowers, prettifies, drowns out the striking moments of exceptional embodiments of some of the characters (e.g., Johnny Depp as the wolf capering into nothingness) and the singing and acting of the lyrics smooths out to make neutral witty lyrics that mock heterosexual romance.
As I watched the movie reminded me of our last year’s time with the Disney Saving Mr Banks: two child stars at the center; the anguish of frustrated husband-hero (here the Baker, James Corden, last year Mr Banks).
There was not one seat unfilled in the auditorium (and yet the movie was playing on two screens) of this house meant for a mass audience I don’t usually sit among so the laughter at inanities further got in the way, not to omit an opening nerve-wracking full half-hour of tremendously noisy, flashing trailers for action-adventure fantasies and crude teenage sequels.
Nonetheless, not all disquiet could be removed, and this masterpiece retains some of its power and intense vivacity: by the middle of the second hour, I was sufficiently intensely engaged that I was surprised by grief when Cinderella (Anna Kendrick) burst into the song lyrics of “No one is alone:”
Sometimes people leave you
Halfway through the wood
Others may deceive you.
You decide what’s good.
You decide alone.
But no one is alone …
Cinderella to the Baker (in original version sung to Little Red who suddenly misses her grandmother)
Jim has left us halfway through the wood. At the moment of that song, of the plangent music, I was reminded of how strangely filled with his absence the world everywhere now is, the very air I see registers he’d not there by its color, wherever I go I wish what even this fairy tale wouldn’t grant, wipe away death, the past year and one half and return to the comfort of his presence. He would not have liked this movie adaptation but would have gone for the sake of the day’s togetherness.
I began to cry and Yvette & I held hands. She felt and knew too. This is not the only passionate adult number. There’s the witch’s sudden appeal to Rapunzel, “Stay with me:” “Don’t you know what’s out there in the world? … Stay at home … Who out there could love you more than I? …
Stay with me
The world is dark and wild
Stay a child while you can be a child …
Or the “Agony” of the two princes (Cinderella’s and Rapunzel’s, Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen). What can have caused this “disdain”? or her vanishing? Not every thing in life revolves around love and human need for company. Jack’s mother (Tracey Ullman) worries about starving; Jack (Daniel Hutttlestone) is attached to his cow:
The “indecisive” Cinderella (the wittiest moment of the whole experience) does not trust to anyone, “The skies are strange/The winds are strong.”
Even the plucky Little Red is not unflappable. Indeed the the sky’s air is filled with a fearful giant who stands for whatever you want. Sondheim’s characteristic staccato rhythms keep interrupting with aphoristic fragments that linger in the mind: “how do you say to a child who’s in flight./Don’t slip away and I won’t hold so tight.” “Children will listen,” and the lyrics from the musical’s secondary big and repeating number, are justly famous:
Careful the spell you cast,
Not just on children.
Sometimes the spell may last
Past what you can see
And turn against you.
There is much sheer situation comedy too: the vexed characters argue at cross-purposes, accusing one another of being at fault.
As to romance, it seems Chris Pine is a new heart-throb (Disney people know what they are doing when they cast roles):
It’s significant to note that there is not one African-American actor on the screen who is visible — except perhaps fleetingly in non-speaking walk-on roles.
I thought Disney ruined Streep’s ability to perform when her aging face was transformed into a youthful mask of such thick wrinkle-free flesh it was clear they didn’t want anyone to identify her as a 50+ year old woman who has some realities of aging. Can’t have that. Of all the performers she seemed least able to overcome the Disneyfying all around her. Maybe she was trying too hard.
Still, especially if you’ve never seen the musical before, or haven’t seen it for a long time (my case), I recommend going, perhaps on off-hours and with a determined attempt to come in just as the actual movie is starting (avoiding attached trailers).
Like so many people in my area (and as far as I could see from the TV news across the US), Christmas day has become a day to go to a movie. The parking lot of our local huge 12 screen movie-house was filled by the time Yvette and I left at 3:30 pm.” Two movies were sold out: The Imitation Game (I do mean to go by myself next week) and Unbroken. If the holiday is still centered in the family, the family no longer spends the whole day home together. Probably wise. Hard to say how many do this as the roads were fairly empty. The streets quiet. I like the quiet of the streets, few people about, later in the day in pairs or little groups or alone, walking with pets.
It may be becoming commoner to do “a Jewish Christmas:” She and I went to an Chinese restaurant I remember going to nearly 30 years ago (not on Christmas), a small one which has Peking duck and well-cooked other dishes at a reasonable price; and while we didn’t need a reservation, by the time we left (after 5 pm) there was a 20 minute wait for a table. We enjoyed talking of the movie afterwards: Yvette has a good memory and regaled me with the details of a production she said she, I and Jim had seen some years ago at Mason University and we talked of the individual actors’ careers and performances.
In the evening my cousin just my age (woman, like me, many years married) phoned me and I was good hour on the phone with her catching up. A planned tentative Boxing Day with my other daughter, Caroline, at the National Gallery (the museums in DC on the day after Christmas are most of them open and crowded with shows mounted for just this holiday time) did not come off today. Among other things, I had the time wrong: Georgian Cinema begins January 12th. But the place will have this unusual early film exhibit, which I will go to in a couple of weeks.
I will ever remember the summer the Kennedy Center allowed Eric Schaeffer to take over the place with his direction of some 8 Sondheim musicals. How Jim, I and Yvette went to 6 (at a high price). How at the end of the summer, the day of the last performance of A Little Night Music (the last of all the performances), there were acts going on all over the building, some seemed spontaneous. How Jim loved best Passion and A Little Night Music and Merrily We Roll Along (not enough well known, a bitterer one about the cost of a successful career whose gimmick is to tell the story backwards). Jim nonetheless wanted to see them all and if any came into our area, or we were in any place where one was showing, he’d choose it as one of the theatrical events we’d go to.
As I read the book last night I found myself regretting I had not sat down and read it with him, nor the one I bought him the year later for Christmas, Finishing the Hat (covering the years 195-1981),
more and earlier musicals told of, younger photos of him, with an essay on Rhyme and Its Reasons, which I will today.
I regret all the time I spent at my computer, on the Net, and not with him. I feel an irony in that I deluded myself I had company, made myself not so alone by my time here; well here I am condemned to do it for life, or until I can’t any more when I’m too old. Like some fairy tale.
Once in a while he’d say “you don’t pay attention to me,” half-teasing. I have to tell myself if he had wanted me to spend more time with him, he’d have asked for it and because he had a way of putting things that compelled my immediate assent if the utterance was serious, I would have. Sometimes I think he didn’t want me all that close. Anyway that’s what I tell myself (the little dishonesties the characters tell themselves in the tales) in this great absence I must live with everywhere and all the time.