Theater Around The Bay: Honor Their Mistakes

The INTO THE WOODS panel with Stuart Bousel, Brian Katz, Corinne Proctor, Marissa Skudlarek, Oren Stevens, and Nick Trengove continues. This week they tackle Giants, Witches, and Wolf penis.

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Okay, so last week we pretty firmly established one thing about this show: that we all more or less love it. So this week, let’s get a little harder on it for a moment and talk about it with a more critical eye, because as praised as the show often is, it’s also considered “problematic” or “flawed” by a considerable contingent of critics- including some of its most ardent supporters. What do you think are INTO THE WOODS’ “problems?”

Corinne: There are some significant flaws and inconsistencies in the storytelling. The two biggest problems in my view are: 1) the Baker’s arc doesn’t quite work. The idea that he begins the show as a coward/unsure is undermined by the fact that he’s ordering his wife to stay at home and to go home repeatedly. This feels awfully dominant for a character who is supposed to be reluctant and afraid before coming into his own and becoming “daring” and “sure”; 2) Rapunzel’s hair not being a functional ingredient in the spell because it has been touched by the Witch is seriously problematic for me. Actually, this is the number one cringe moment in the show for me. Apparently Lapine thought it was extremely important that there be a reason the witch doesn’t get the items herself, but for me that’s not a huge concern. In the land of fairytales witches order others to fetch items for them – that’s not something I need an explanation for. I’m willing to go with that as part of the ‘rules’ of fairytale land. But for me it makes ZERO sense that her hair isn’t a “real” ingredient and that it can just be substituted with the random ‘hair’ of the corn instead.

Brian: Oh Rapunzel, Rapunzel- why are you in this show? Okay, sure, the witch needed something to motivate her, and “Agony” would be boring if only sung by one prince, but she’s a plot point/sight-gag/sound-gag with a serious amount of hair that some poor props person has to deal with. Her death NEVER works, or I’ve never seen it solved, and we don’t really care about her, we care about her mother (if the witch is played well.) I’ve also now seen two productions where her death was so poorly staged I had to tell my companion it happened. Speaking of death, the off-stage giant battle just does not work. It’s not as bad as the jousting in Camelot, but it’s bad. The antagonist in the second act is a sound effect and the fight is narrated. It’s the main reason I am excited about the film: we finally get to see some epic giant fighting!

Oren: I think a lot of people find Into the Woods problematic because it can feel like two different shows. The first act is such a lighthearted review of all the stories we know, and then the second act is a dark and twisty assault on moral absolutism. I also think that some people are responding to the discomfort that the musical is supposed to make you feel. There’s something deeply unsettling about suspecting, whether it’s in the back of your mind or blatantly obvious, that maybe our hero Jack is a murderous larcenist, and maybe the monstrous giant actually has legitimate complaints. These stories are stones in the foundation of many people’s childhoods, and Into the Woods rattles that foundation. And just so I can be clear: Jack is a murderer, and he is a thief, and he is a dumb teenager who thought he was having an adventure, and in the court of the theater-going-public opinion, I think he should be tried as a minor. Personally, my only real problem is totally nitpicky: I love the song “Your Fault” to death, but it is ludicrous to blame Little Red for anything because she dared Jack to do it. You can feel how hard they’re reaching to find something to point the finger at her for, and it doesn’t quite work. I don’t think there aren’t any other tough spots in it, but my memory is that there isn’t anything a director can’t figure out somehow.

Marissa: Okay, this might seem really nitpicky, but it’s not: When Rapunzel says to the Witch, “You locked me in a tower for 14 years,” it sets up a backstory timeline that doesn’t make any sense. Rapunzel is the Baker’s younger sister, and the Witch stole her away as soon as she was born. The Baker doesn’t know any of this until he is an adult and the Witch tells him, which implies that he was a very small child when Rapunzel was born. (If he had been older, he’d surely remember his mother’s pregnancy, the Witch coming to the house and taking the baby, etc.) Now, it might be possible to portray Rapunzel as a 14-year-old (it makes her seduction by the Prince pretty icky, but also truer to Grimm reality) but it makes NO sense at all to think that the Baker is 16 or 18. He and his wife have been trying to have a baby for years. They have a successful business. They read as significantly older than Jack and Little Red. They are not teenagers — and thus, Rapunzel has to be older than 14. I really wish that Rapunzel’s line was something like “you locked me in a tower for years on end” instead of “for 14 years” so that we wouldn’t have to deal with this conundrum. Also… the second half of Act Two is sloooow — “No More,” followed by “No One Is Alone,” followed by “Children Will Listen,” is three ballads that are more about imparting lessons, than about advancing the plot or delineating character. It doesn’t help that often, the person who plays the Narrator/Mysterious Man is a character actor with a weak singing voice, which makes “No More” tedious rather than touching. I mean, I guess it makes a certain amount of sense that the show slows down at this point. The Narrator and the Witch (both outsider-figures who helped push the plot along) are dead or disappeared, so of course the remaining characters feel uncertain and lack direction. But “uncertainty and lack of direction” don’t make for a very exciting final half-hour of a musical.

Stuart: Ha- so, for the record, that’s kind of what I love the most about the second half. I agree, the Narrator and the Witch are two sides of the same coin: authority. Both are more or less the people in control or most desirous of being in control. Or as a friend of mine puts it, “They represent the best and worst aspects of both the patriarchy and the matriarchy” so when they’re gone the children (i.e. everyone else) are really alone in the woods. So then the story becomes about them finding direction, coming up with new things to be certain of themselves, and then bravely moving forward. Which to me is super exciting- both that moment of them moving forward, but watching that process of them finding their way back to the path. Most stories end on “happily ever after” or the opposite (“woefully never to be?”) but Into the Woods is about how life is an endless cycle of victories and tragedies, one often spurring the other. That said, while I have a soft spot for Rapunzel (as I said last week), I agree that she is woefully under-developed (even her nameless prince demonstrates more personality than her) and Corinne’s point about the hair not being a viable ingredient to the Act One potion doesn’t help make her feel as important as she actually really is. But she’s as colorful as Cleopatra compared to Cinderella’s Father… perhaps the most worthless role in a play ever written? I mean, Snow White and Sleeping Beauty only have one line but they’re at least a fun joke. Cinderella’s Father is like a character from a first draft they forgot to cut. Maybe that’s the point, that he’s completely obsolete, but talk about a character who is a prop… I mean, that’s just it- Milky White, the prop cow, is more of a presence than Cinderella’s Father.

Nick: Hmm… The show has a lot of characters, and a lot of subplots, so it can be hard to follow for audiences more interested in the current pop musical fare, but… I defy you to find a show with any amount of critical acclaim that is not also considered “problematic.” Personally, my qualms have always been production specific: bad prosthetic wolf penises, and I’ve never heard a voice-over for the Giantess voice that I didn’t think was super hokey. They always sound like overweight ghosts with reverb.

So going back to the stuff about the Narrator, and incorporating the discussion of the second act, which is often a target for criticism, both regarding its pace and tone, how do we feel about the Narrator, who sets so much of the pace and tone of Act One, as a device?

Corinne: The Narrator works really well for me. The show is about storytelling and how the stories we pass down to our children shape their lives, etc . The Narrator fits into that really well.

Oren: I’m not going to say the Narrator is itself a clever idea, so much as a crucial part of an idea that runs throughout the show. Into the Woods spends time setting up the traditional fairy tale narrative in act one, and then breaking it down in act two. The narrator being present and powerful, giving the story shape and direction in act one, and then being literally killed by the characters in act two as the fairy tale form breaks down really brings home the breakdown of structure and absolutes. We move from a world structured by story, to a world like our own — not structured at all. Also worth mentioning: I know I’m throwing back to high school, but the rule “show don’t tell” that Mrs. Lott-Pollack hammered into my head is still so apt. I never feel like the Narrator’s presence is used to tell us pieces of the story that should be shown, but instead used to rush us through the boring information so we can get to the juicy stuff. We don’t need Cinderella to tell us she’s coming home from the ball herself, we just need to see her geek out over the prince with the Baker’s Wife.

Marissa: The narrator of Into the Woods is one of the few narrators you will ever find me championing. I distinctly remember being in elementary school and assigned to create a skit with a group of other kids. One of them started off by asking “Okay, who’ll be the narrator?” and I was like “Why does there have to be a narrator?” I do think that often, the decision to have a narrator is a crutch or an unthinking choice — but I also feel like in this case, Sondheim and Lapine did think about it and figure out how to make it work. A narrator is a traditional component of fairy tale theater (“content dictates form” is one of Sondheim’s dicta) and then in Act Two, when the characters decide to kill the narrator and the story goes off the rails? That’s some pretty clever theatrical storytelling. I know that Pirandello was doing this kind of thing decades before Sondheim and Lapine, but Pirandello doesn’t get produced as frequently as Into the Woods, and I’m all for introducing young people to “meta” tricks and the idea of breaking the fourth wall.

Nick: I too love the Narrator. That little meta-moment when they kill him? Ach! The layers of significance! The sloughing off the authorial voice marks a post-modern shift the narrative!

Brian: I don’t have an issue with a narrator for fairy tales, per se. My problem with the narrator is, as already touched on, in Act Two, where the idea of the story spinning-out-of -control is, to me, not fully explored. When the crowd offers the Narrator up to the Giant, he warns them that they need him to keep structure; where would they be without his presence? This does not ring true at the time because the fairy tales have already started crumbling but okay, we think, “it could get worse, right?” However, it doesn’t become drastically different. The same chaos that is descending upon the story simply continues. The only time this concept gets a nod is the Baker’s Wife’s “What am I doing here?…/ I’m in the wrong story!” before her death. It is not enough, and it is a wasted opportunity- or one that should have been left alone.

Stuart: One of my favorite moments is the Witch to the Narrator: “Some of us don’t like the way you’ve been telling it.” Possibly the best line in the play as it’s funny as hell, but also scary, and it highlights the tension between individuals in a society and the restrictions of that society. It reveals so much about the Witch but also comments on the mentality of most people who fit that archetype: justified in their position, perhaps, but unforgiving, vindictive, and usually proposing irrational solutions to that tension. It’s actually the Witch who finally throws the Narrator to the Giant, after the others have realized that isn’t the right thing to do. But that’s the problem with the Witch: it’s not that she isn’t technically right- it’s that she always takes it too far.

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And speaking of the Witch- she’s also “problematic”, isn’t she?

Stuart: Yes. And I say that as someone who loves the Witch. But there’s been a fair amount of ink in various articles over the years about how the role, which is really a supporting role, has unduly captured the audience imagination and this is often “blamed”, for lack of a better word, on a star, Bernadette Peters, having originally been cast in the role, thus elevating the stature of a character who is not meant to be the main character, and is also essentially missing from the last act of the play. Interestingly enough, a similar observation is often made about Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, who I think has a lot in common with the Witch. Both are outsiders, both have daughters they treat as possessions to be hidden from the world, and both have legitimate gripes against the people they perceive as the insiders, but the intelligence and moral high-ground of both are undone by this unforgiving, embittered world view that doesn’t allow for much mercy or compassion, let alone acceptance of or appeal to whatever good qualities the perceived insiders might have. They have both lost the ability to listen, most likely because they have never felt listened to themselves, and while they speak truths they are incomplete truths, or these kind of law of the jungle/final solution truths that aren’t going to work in a world where humans are social creatures and the lines between right and wrong are blurry. But we all sometimes want to be right more than we want to be like… open to the possibility of a plan B… and that is why I think the Witch is such a fascinating character regardless of who plays her.

Corinne: “Witches can be right/Giants can be good” is such an important lyric in the show because there isn’t a clear answer. That song, “No One Is Alone”, expresses one of the strongest themes in the show – the elusive nature of right and wrong and how people have to find an individual path to moral understanding (“you decide what’s right/you decide what’s good.”) and that path is not straight or clear.

Nick: The Witch is right insofar as we can be expected to subscribe to her rather cut-and-dry personal philosophy. To appease the Giants, we need to set aside our sentimentality and sacrifice the culpable Jacks. In other words, making the rational decision is always the most correct decision. But look what happens at the end of the musical – the Witch, advocate of the Rational Approach, alienates the others and ends up alone. The others band together, forced to face the more dire consequences of their more sentimental, albeit less rational decision to save Jack. But they are together, and through their combined efforts, they succeed. So yes, the Witch is right in a sense, but at the cost of companionship and human connection. And Giants can certainly be good. They can also be evil. Giants are people, too. Duh.

Marissa: Well, the Witch is pretty much a strict utilitarian. She argues that unless they give up Jack to the Giant, it will only cause more suffering. She also suggests that everyone is complicit in getting into this mess. Both of these things are factually true but the question of the show is whether they are morally true. If everyone’s complicit, shouldn’t everyone work to make amends? As for Giants… it’s interesting that Into the Woods kind of glosses over the fact that the Giant tries to eat Jack, which is normally such a huge part of that fairy tale. (Jack sings “Something bigger than her comes along the hall to swallow you for lunch,” but that’s just one line in the song, and despite almost getting chewed up, he still calls them “wonderful giants in the sky.”) If it weren’t for that, I’d say that the Giants really were decent creatures, at least to start out, and Jack is being a jerk when he steals the Giants’ treasure and arouses their anger. But if the giant threatened to eat him, eh, they’re both to blame.

Brian: Again, to quote the show (and Corinne): “You decide what’s right/You decide what’s good.”

Oren: Exactly, that’s the real point: whether or not the Witch is right is impossible to objectively determine, but regardless: she thinks she is. The giant also absolutely believes that she is good as well. Ultimately, all this absolute morality nonsense fades away pretty quickly in the face of real problems, and people have to figure it out for themselves.

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Well, and since we’re on the subject of “No One Is Alone”, that song probably gets the most discussion outside of the show. It’s been called both “sentimental” and “a flat out lie.” What do we think?

Brian: I do not believe it is a lie, nor is it overly sentimental. There is a theme of interconnectedness in much of Sondheim’s work; it is also a theme in Tony Kushner’s plays, my other favorite playwright of the late 20th century. Feeling desperately alone is an emotion, but not a reality. Even if one feels abandoned, Woods says you are connected to your ancestors, your community, and the place your soul holds in our collective consciousness.

Stuart: There is a similar theme in E. M. Forster’s work- and Forster is a major influence for me, and I suspect also for Lapine and Sondheim, as George’s repeated wish of “Connect George” has got to be an allusion to Forster’s mantra of “Only Connect.” I personally believe that the meaning of life is essentially learning how to live together in a way that celebrates our common humanity while still honoring our personal struggles and allowing for the pursuit of our personal definitions of happiness. That is a tall order and in my eyes thats why humans have been given free will and hope and all these other things- opposable thumbs- that is the stuff of fairy tales and myths and religion and philosophy and everything else that essentially boils down to us trying to make sense of it all, find the meaning, find that path, which is, yes, not always straight and clear, but there is a path. And to me that is what “No One Is Alone” is about, but I have often been accused of being sentimental and occasionally of being a liar.

Marissa: I think the problem with “No One Is Alone” is that it’s muddled. The title has a double meaning — it means both “You are not alone: I am singing this song to comfort you in this scary time” and “You are not alone: you are a member of society and anything you do can have repercussions and consequences.” The latter idea, that of communal responsibility, is the one that Sondheim and Lapine really want to focus on. But the former idea, being simpler and more sentimental, is the one that the audience tends to hear.

Corinne: But the song is not a lie. Of course, there are times when a person is alone, physically or on the side of a conflict, but that’s not what the song is about. No one exists in a void; our lives are all part of the greater human story. To interpret the lyric in a literal way misses the larger point. When we are faced with a moral dilemma or challenge, we must choose how to act. Though we may feel isolated or abandoned in these moments, we are not truly alone. The struggle to know what is right is part of the human condition.

Oren: Is it sentimental? Absolutely! Is it a lie? A more complicated question. Since the song is really a paean to grey areas disguised as a comforting ballad, I think the important thing to remember is that halfway through the song they sing “they [giants and witches] are not alone,” a further reminder that just because some people back you up, it doesn’t mean you’re right. Ultimately (and ironically, given that so much of this show undoes some of the bowdlerizing and simplification that many fairy tales received to make them more child-appropriate) this complicated moral lesson is dressed up to make it more palatable to the two young children being instructed.

Nick: I think the worst that can be said about “No One is Alone” is that it’s ever so slightly sentimental. But the message of this song is something I think is espoused by the whole musical – we are all interconnected, for better or worse. We don’t act in vacuums. Our actions and choices are both our own, yes, and also products of our memories and our connections with people, and have repercussions on others as well.

Will this discussion have repercussions? We hope so! Join us next Monday for part three and in the meantime, let us know what your answers to these questions are, or if you’ve got questions of your own you’d like to ask us!

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