In the second week of performances for Into the Woods there seems to be a moment to catch our breath from the head long rush through rehearsals, tech week, and first weekend performances. There is also time now to reflect and consider the lyrics and score of this Sondheim musical. The fairy tales we depict engage children and adults. The life lessons portrayed are probably similar to the original fairy tales which are like early stained glass windows, depicted ideas and grim consequences for those who could not read. There are life and death struggles. The four characters who survive are those who maintain the child-like qualities of innocence, enthusiasm and humility.
The wolf, with his enormous carnality and eating of Little Red Riding Hood, dies early on when Grandmother puts stones in his belly. Compare the admonition of a similar fate to those who corrupt children (Matt. 18:6). Sondheim's witch, the incarnation of evil and power, does not escape death in the woods.
In the Finale, Act II, we all have to grope as a way of learning to cope but then find that there is hope of getting through the journey. Those who lead us to the end are uncorrupted by the woods. Jack's friendship for Milky White never diminishes. It's friendship for friendship's sake. Cinderella admits at times wanting more, but unlike her prince, maintains her marriage vows. Little Red is still one who nurtures not withstanding the death and chaos through which she has lived. The Baker's sense of oneness enlarges and becomes the strength for the survivors' new sense of family.
Sondheim doesn't extol inexperience or naivete' but rather being uncorrupted. There is a goodness that remains intact, resilient to draw upon in times of crises. Watching backtstage, these qualities are often expressed by cast members to each other. For example, one quietly supports a cohort in time of stress. Another shares time and confidence when both seem in short supply. Our wishes can come true.
Many characters are an enigma, it's not easy to define them. Just when you thing that the Witch will abuse Rapunzel, she is kind. The Baker's wife overcomes danger with comedy, but her fantasy for a prince brings her demise. Jack's Mother hides her son but she fearlessly confronts the Giants Wife, who kills in the name of justice. The Stepdaughter's remind us that they were blind before they lost their sight.
What is certain is the strong role that all the women play. The Witch forces everyone to assume responsibility for their own actions when she throws the Narrator to the women giant. In the Finale, Act II, Sondheim directs that we should heed the Witch for being right, and not good. We're told to honor the women giant, even though she brings "the last midnight" to all but four. The Stepmother voices a truth that many who flee, do so for self preservation without a trace of conscience
The actresses have been well chosen for their roles, but they are more than their craft. Backstage, there is no hierarchy. Positions in front of the makeup mirrors are taken on a first come fist serve basis. Small whispers of conversation are shared with everyone as scenes change. In a fairy tale worlds, these actresses are genuine and real.
Signatures: in letters, they indicate the author. In musical theater, signatures take many forms. A director's signature can be seen in the lightning, costumes, and the set. With Into The Woods, the mystery of the woods is created by shades and shadows. Dark themes are contrasted with beautiful capes, gowns, and carriages. Here, the director brings "the page to the stage" with a giants commitment that dwarfs the fantasy.
The signatures of actors are seen in their creativity. As the story teller, the Narrator sets the stage with consistency, purpose, and stature. It is he who must first make believable the double illusion of the fairy tale and Sondheim's play. Cinderella creates a sense of Camelot, an innocent noblesse oblige as she lyrically tells her bird friends that she cannot go "unescorted into the woods." Her feather touch to Little Red's push in "It's Your Fault" is a delicate contrast in the angry exchange of blame. Little Red's signature is running the path, even when it moves.
The Baker's Wife shows a comic, earth sisterhood as she thanks Cinderella for the slipper. Her struggle between rejecting the Prince's advances and following her own fantasy yields in favor of the "And" not the "Or" of being a baker's wife. she makes the choice memorable and touching. The witch is Sondheim's on stage counterpoint to everyone else. Her childlike inspection of herself at the transfiguration from hunchback ogre to spangled beauty brings comedy and the unexpected to the tale. Sondheim weaves many threads in this musical tapestry. One is the importance of self reliance, rather than royal or government authority. His voice comes through the Witch whose own curse is not being believed.
The Baker, Jack, and Jack's Mother so deftly portray their characters that we cannot see their own personalities. Jack is supposedly a "dolt", reminiscent of Forest Gump. In the end he is both wealthy and beloved. Unlike Forest's mother, Jack's mother treats her son as a simpleton. When his life is at stake however, she is resolute and fearless. The baker's pain is so believable that we are prepared to forgive his abandonment of his baby. His insistence that Jack not seek revenge upon the Steward is Sondheim's challenge to the Old Testament's "eye for an eye." The baker's embrace of Love, not Hate, is enduring. The Mysterious Man shows us that redemption and a second chance are always possible. It is he who, by his own life experience, quietly finds a way to resolve the unresolvable. A signature role.
Family: in Into The Woods, Sondheim uses parents and children to reveal spiritual dullness and blindness. He uses the sense of family to create infinite possibilities. Cinderella's stepsisters admit that they were blind before their eyes were pecked out. Blind to what? A prince is blinded by thorns as he leaps from Rapunzel's tower but regains his sight when touched with Rapunzel's tears. The Witch is blind to a mother's responsibility to prepare her child for life. Jack's mother sees her son for what he is not. Ten years before Forest Gump, Sondheim creates Jack as a simple man, not a simpleton, whose life inspires and succeeds against the odds. The Steward is a man whose sensitivities are dulled by carrying out the royal policies. He kills Jack's mother in the name of "the greater good." Cinderella was taught by her parents to be nice and good but cries "what's the use" when it isn't seen.
The prince sees Cinderella slip away from him at the festival and is charmed by what he has not. Not sure of his intensions, she eludes the prince on the stairs and marvels that she can make such a decision. A princess in a gown, but a waif in rags, the "true bride" is accepted without adornment.
What is truth? A sense of family is not the same as a parent and child. The Baker first runs from his own child. Little Red Ridinghood was right. Cinderella's father doesn't protect his daughter. The sense of family is seen when Jack is protected from being given to the giant's wife by the witch. The Baker, Little Red, and Cinderella are not his kin. Their lives can be saved by his sacrifice. The right to vengeance by the giant's wife seems just. Jack is the least able to defend himself-physically and mentally. What do the three hold in common with Jack that the witch sees and cannot abide? She chooses the potential of a second curse from her own mother than remain in thier company.
Sondheim unites the four by thier common belief in infinite possibilities. Jack asks can't his mother be brought back to life? After all, Milky White and the Mysterious Man were. They are united by Sondheim's conviction that regardless of the outcome, there is another life, that no one is alone. With humor and wit, Sondheim expresses his convictions.
Accession, "a coming to an office or special status," In Into The Woods, the King has two sons. One will accede to the throne upon the King's death. The accession to this office is by birthright. Yet, Cinderella's prince doesn't want to be King if it means he must be responsible for his actions. He prefers to be "charming" rather than faithful. Cinderella rejects the double standard with power and nobility. In asking her prince to leave, she leaves wealth, rank and fantasy.
At 5:30, the morning of April 6, 1996, the day of the 24th performance by Knock 'Em Deads production of Sondheim and Lapine's Into the Woods, Idaho song birds heralded the light of day. Their singing seemed identical to the sounds from Curtswold synthesizer. Their singing began in darkness. They have an absolute instinct that the light will come.
In Into The Woods there is an accession of spiritual values by Cinderella and the baker which is just as assured. Those who are blind to virtue become sightless of flee from the woods. The Giant's wife is blinded by the birds. Before the attack, Little Red Ridinghood asks if the giant can be forgiven and wishes for her mother's guidance. The magnificent double duet, "No One Is Alone," offers Sondheim's response. People sometimes make terrible mistakes. Cinderella let us know that we are not alone, even when by ourselves. By the move of a finger, saying the slightest word, we are heard as the single sparrow that falls from a tree. They tell us that the mistake is believing that we are alone. This take can be repaired (Mysterious Man - "all is repaired"). We also make a mistake in believing that the giant or the witch is alone. We each have the same companion.
When seemingly alone with his son, the Baker is told not to grieve by the ghost of his wife. She tells him that "no one leaves for good: and than no one is alone. she urges him to be both mother and father to the child. He does not run from the task but begins the story of his life, nurturing with the qualities of both parents. The witch then tells us that it is our own risk, not destiny, which creates the spell on our lives. Our wishes are our children, They can form our lives and impact others. Steven Sondheim and James Lapine tell us that we will make mistakes but not to compound them with hatred, pride and deceit. Further, that the first mistake is believing that we are alone. Those who live lives of quiet uprightness are valued and counted. Those who do not, cast thier own spell. We are joined by a stalwart sense of caring.
Thanks to all the cast and crew, the directors and the dishwashers, the ghosts and the giants, the music makers and the bakers, the princes and the paupers, the witches and the wolves, and especially Cinderella's Stepmother. It has been a shared privilege to be in the woods with you.
Assassins is about how society interprets the American Dream, marginalizes outsiders and rewrites and sanitizes its collective history. "Something Just Broke" is a major distraction and plays like an afterthought, shoe horned simply to appease. The song breaks the dramatic fluidity and obstructs the overall pacing and climactic arc which derails the very intent and momentum that makes this work so compelling...
- Mark Bakalor
Which is not to say that it is perfect...
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