Theater Around The Bay: The 2016 Stueys

Stuart Bousel wraps us up with a year-end wrap up. 

Well, here we are again.

Another year has passed here in the Bay Area theater scene, and while many are saying 2016 was a cursed year, I personally found it to be a rather relentless year of change, challenge, growth, and ultimately: reward. Which doesn’t mean I’d do it all over again, but I have a hard time just writing it off either. For better or worse, and for the most part it’s been better though maybe not immediately apparent how so, a lot of stuff that kind of needed to happen, happened this year, and I’m grateful. I think I’m a smarter, stronger, more centered person, and a superior artist to who I was. Which isn’t the same thing as happy, but there’s a price for everything, right?

One of the many things that happened this year was that I branched out, or rather, I branched back out, expanding my participation in the form beyond the writer/director status I had more or less relegated myself to (and embraced) to also include acting, once again. The result was being cast in two shows, one of which, the Custom Made Theatre Company production of CHESS, became so time consuming I actually didn’t see a play by anyone else from August through November of this year. Even then I only just managed to catch Rapture Blister Burn at Custom Made, and if I wasn’t a staff member there it is debatable if I would have done so. I missed all but two nights of the SF Olympians Festival, and one of the two I managed to attend… was my own. That 2016 has been a largely successful year for me on the theater front is undeniably true, and no where is it more apparent than now, writing the Stueys, and finding I have a mere 26 shows to consider. That may seem like a lot, but usually it’s more like 40-50. The fact is, I was at the theater just as much if not more so than usual, but in 2016 the show I was most often at was one of my own.

Many things finished their course this year, including Theater Pub and DIVAfest, two organizations that were quite energy and time-consuming for me, and were indeed the equivalent of part-time jobs (though only one of them was I actually paid for). I’ve debated if the STUEYS should do likewise and end their reign of terror, but I rather enjoy publishing a personal Best Of list, if only to remind people, annually, that I do in fact like quite a lot out there. And because if there’s one thing I’ve come to understand about the Bay Area Theatre scene over the years, it’s far more diverse than most of the accepted press is willing or able to agknowledge, and so an additional voice is not only welcome, but necessary. Hence, here we are again, with all the usual caveats that no awards here mean anything beyond my personal admiration for the named artist, and that no rules apply to this process aside from my own personal whimsy when it comes to determining categories and recipients, and my own personal promise to not give myself or anything I creatively worked on an award because my vanity is a mere 7 out of 10.

So without further ado, the Stuart Excellence In Bay Area Theater Awards 2016, or the SEBATA, or The Stueys.

To all my friends and frenemies in the local rat race we call Art, let’s all do it again next year. But better. And maybe a little more paced out. Cause I am tired and I know I’m not the only one.

The Peter O’Toole Award For General Awesomeness: Jay Yamada
Do I really need to talk about how cool Jay Yamada is? I hope not. But then, if you haven’t worked with him, you might not know. The man is a saint, truly, and even better- he’s an artist, an excellent stage photographer who actually understands how to work with stage lighting and capture moments in shows you could never reproduce as posed shots. The Mohammed Ali of stage photogs, Jay is weaving around your actors at a final dress like a dancer, camera clicking away and sometimes inches from their faces, and yet amazingly unobtrusive. At the end of the night you know you’ll be walking away with at least 40 usable portfolio shots and press photos, and what’s more- your actors and designers will too, because Jay knows to get all that stuff and capture it in use, the way it should be captured. He often does this for dirt cheap or free if you’re a small company, and that’s just cool, providing the level of theater that needs it the most a touch of professionalism and gloss it might not otherwise get.

Best Thing I Saw But Didn’t Actually Like: The Lion (ACT)
I am a white guy who enjoys stories about white guys and acoustic guitar and I do not and will not apologize for it because some of that shit is gold. But man- you know a show is AGGRESSIVELY CAUCASIAN when even I am like, “Wow, this shit is white.” Still, Benjamin Scheuer does for white straight guys who make it through cancer what W;T did for white women who don’t, and if it’s a little Beaches in the mix to boot, all the better. His music is excellent, if utterly innocuous from the sampling in the show (I coined the term “innocurock” after seeing it), and he tells his story well, sincerely and without self-aggrandizement, owning where he comes from with everything from the Trunk Club wardrobe to the Lisa Loeb (™) brand bohemian apartment set, and it all works because the point is- even these guys die. Even these guys face a moment where they will be stripped of dignity and confronted with their insignificance and find out who they really are. When I say I didn’t actually like the show it’s because I found it low-stakes (I mean, we know it turns out okay, he’s sitting there performing it), a little saccharine (nobody in Ben’s life fails to find their place in his heart), and a little too polished (don’t tell us you were scared, Ben, show us, compromise that golden boy image you effortlessly project). But all that said, I found myself thinking, “I like this guy. He’s a good performer and a good spirit. I’m glad he’s okay. I hope he uses all this incredible talent and this second chance at life to make some really good art some day.” The Lion was, for me, all about potential- and realizing you have some. And that you shouldn’t waste it. Cause that clock is ticking, even if you’re a good looking heterosexual white kid whose life has been non-stop options (which, by the way, may actually make it easier to piss away your assets than someone whose daily existence is a reminder not to blow their shot), and I sincerely hope this was the prologue to something bigger in scope, and even better in execution.

The Best Thing I Saw Sans Qualifications: Colossal (SF Playhouse)
Against all odds, I loved this show. I say against all odds because I could care less about football. I don’t even hate it. I just don’t care. It’s like a thing that matters on another planet to people who in turn come from an even farther one from my daily reality and I just don’t get it. But man do I get falling stupidly in love with terrible people, hot gay sex, and the appeal of that which will probably destroy us, and playwright Andrew Hinderaker’s downright nasty, unapologetic, semen and sweat soaked script is one of the edgiest meditations on the mass appeal of self-destruction and its direct link to our urge to fuck one another that I’ve encountered in years. Beautifully directed by Jon Tracy, with some excellent performances (particularly the central character played by both Jason Stojanovski and Thomas Gorrebeeck, each bringing a distinct aspect to their interpretation of the role that highlights the disparity between who we are and who we perceive ourselves to be), the show managed to take some truly commendable risks and for the most part they all paid off in spades (the countdown clock behind the action at all times- brilliant! the relentless football drills- gorgeous!), somehow tricking me into accepting football not only as something people might genuinely want in their lives, but would like… make art about. And really good art at that.

Best Ambitious Failure: Cage (Performers Under Stress)
As usual, I feel like I first need to remind folks that I love very little as much as I love a Good Ambitious Failure. In fact, if pressed, I’d much rather watch a GAF than a Well Made Play any day of the week, because the former is much more likely to surprise me and one of the reasons I head to the theater is to be surprised. I feel like Performers Under Stress sort of specialize in the GAF, and Scott Baker’s continued forays into the realms unexplored and frequently ignored by the general theater community are worthy of a Stuey themselves, but this show in particular is a standout amongst their work that I have seen. Tar Gracesdóttir’s script is witty and interesting, though it borrows so heavily from the Joe Orton comedies that clearly influence it that it runs the risk of predictability and it devolves in to the sort of Facebook Status Update liberalism I’ve grown, as a liberal, to really detest. Still, Baker’s direction kept it moving, and Val Sinckler’s performance in the lead provided the perfect dose of skeptical every person required to make an otherwise alien group of characters at least contextually believable. It’s Valerie Fachman’s humane and sympathetic turn in a supporting role, however, that provided the evening with heart, and made me want to revisit the script again, and think about the production I’d just seen. Was it a perfect night? Far from it. But it got under my skin, and frankly that’s always the harder battle to win with an undeniably jaded audience member like myself.

Best Addition To The SF Theater Scene: Lily Janiak (SF Chronicle Critic)
Those of you wondering if this is me kissing ass in a very public way, rest assured, part of what I love about Lily as a critic is that she knows there are times I think she couldn’t be more spot on, and times I think she is full of pretentious nonsense, and my respect for her is in a large part due to my ability to express, publicly and privately, both of these perspectives at any given time, with the assurance that neither stance will influence her critique of my work, which has ranged from super flattering to just a shade less complimentary than that time the Guardian negatively compared my work to a Star Trek convention. Coming back onto the scene just a few months after she told me she was done with criticism, now bigger and bolder than ever, Lily has been shaking up the local theater scene in ways both admirable and terrifying, and I for one couldn’t be happier about it. Though she’s not my favorite local theater critic, she’s certainly one of my favorite local thinkers, and while some people will claim her importance as a wrench in the way we usually do things around here is the whole being female part, I would claim it’s got a lot more to do with being under 40 and not afraid to ask questions, particular of our very comfortable old guard who could use a little pointed poke in the grey matter now and then. If theater has a future in the Bay Area, it’s time we start getting some next generation (or really, this generation) perspectives and I can’t applaud the Chronicle more for going with someone exciting and fresh and smart and willing to put her mind out there. It’s not about kicking out the old, whose mentorship and legacy are invaluable, but we’re long past the point of making a place at the table for the new and this was an important step in the right direction. How excellent, as a director, to glance at the critic sector of the audience on opening night and see someone stuffing their bike helmet under the chair amidst that sea of venerable, adored, and largely white, gentlemanly heads. I might not always like what she’ll have to say, but then I can’t always predict what that’ll be either, and that, one artist to another, is delicious.

Best Synthesis of Tech and Action/Best Director: Cole Ferraiuolo/Maggie’s Riff (Faultline)
Look, I’ll be honest (cause that’s how I roll these days): I think Jack Kerouac sucks. I think he’s a shitty writer, and from what I’ve read he was a craptastic human being too, and yes I realize I’m basically telling you to revoke my San Francisco citizenship and my Reed College diploma. Jon Lipsky’s play didn’t do a thing to change my opinion, despite excellent performances from Paul Rodrigues, JD Scalzo, Nicole Odell, Rich Lesnik, and if anything it reinforced my assumption that having sex with Kerouac was probably like having sex with a bowling alley only less erudite, but what it did do was foster a new admiration for Cole Ferraiuolo’s abilities as a director, particularly in his ability to synthesize tech aspects of the show with the text aspects of the show to create an aesthetic whole that seemed almost seamless. In particular, the integration of shadow affects, by Alisa Javits, into the narrative highlighted the tension between truth and fiction, perception and reality, legacy and legend that provide the intellectual nut of the show. The piece felt like a fever dream, poetic and important, even if only to the dreamer, and the pacing, which is what kills so many shows for me, was pitch perfect from beginning to end.

Best Five Minutes: Justin Gillman and Cat Luedtke in Middletown (Custom Made Theatre Company)
Will Eno is a mixed bag for me. For everything I like and admire, from the language to the ideas, there’s a thing I’m twiddling my thumbs at, there’s a moment I’m wondering how something so bland can somehow inspire such passionate praise. Middletown epitomizes this for me, and is why if someone asked me “where to begin” with Eno, I would send them here, with the caveat of, “it’ll leave you unsatisfied- which I think is how it’s supposed to leave you- which means I think you’ll have successfully gotten it and him? I don’t know. It’s not really my thing. Even though it kind of is.” That said, my single favorite five minutes of theater this year was in the Brian Katz directed production at Custom Made Theatre Company, and it happened in the second act, when Cat Luedtke’s doctor encounters Justin Gillman’s lunatic and decides to help him out with some birthday drugs she “spills” from the supply of pain killers she apparently just wanders around with. If Brian excels at anything as a director, it’s a kind of stoic naturalism, and in a scene between two such archetypes, it’s his light hand that allows for two excellent actors to soak in the relationship and find the nuances that turn this five minute scene into a stand-alone one-act I’d award Best Short Play to if I could. No where else in the production was that theme of the extra-ordinary ordinariness of things better realized, and the moment was at once sad and funny and romantic and real, like a treasured scene of an early ‘aughts indie film I would have, at another point in my career, played on repeat to actors insisting “that’s how you do that.”

Best Actress In A Thankless Role: Melanie Marshall, Peer Gynt (ArtistsRepSF)
There are a lot of thankless roles out there, male and female, but women more often than not, through sheer numbers, end up in parts that, while not necessarily bad parts, are still just kind of thankless. For every regal queen role, or unrepentant murderess, or inspiring historical figure, or mold-breaking heroine who takes center stage or at least holds her own on the supporting side, there are like three times as many handmaidens, best-friends, random sexies, and blandly supportive mothers or love-interests. Solveig in Peer Gynt falls into the last category, though too his credit Ibsen attempts to give her some personality, he just also sort of forgets about her for 2/3rds of the play after she’s introduced, bringing her back at the end once his hero has learned an important lesson- one she embodies, thus rendering her not just a personified concept, but a kind of reward. That Solveig has a little more grit to her in the Artists’ Rep adaptation of Peer Gynt is no doubt partly due to Oren Steven’s revisioning and direction, but it’s hard to imagine anyone having brought to the role what actress Melanie Marshall was able to bring through a unique combination of earthiness and no bullshit deadpan. Often times Solveig feels beautiful and forgiving, but because she has to be (that’s how she was written to be). Melanie made it clear her Solveig was making it work as a choice- her choice- and that nobody, starting with Peer, should take it for granted. As a long time fan, for all its flaws, of the original work, it was impossible not to be charmed by this fresh take on the character, and even wish that a full spin-off revisioning, WICKED-style, was in the works somewhere, preferably with Melanie at the helm.

Best Surprise, The Big Hot Mess (DIVAfest)
To know Catherine Debon is to know a true San Francisco original, though Parisian in origin (but then, true SF Originals are almost always from somewhere else, right?). A femme fatale come to life, a dancer and performer, a writer and thinker, Catherine has been creating unusual and challenging performance work in the Bay Area for years, but with The Big Hot Mess, directed by Amanda Ortmayer and featuring Kevin Copps in a supporting role, she gave us something unique and unusual even for her. Part film noir, part performance art, this exploration of time and agency, and the relationship between the two, made use of duct tape and wall-clocks, movement and voiceover, one slinky black dress and one fedora to illustrate how our personal sense of control over our lives slips as we age and find ourselves progressively written out by the world around us. As the guy who had done some publicity work on this piece, I knew to expect something heady and stylish, but what I wasn’t expecting was to be utterly and thoroughly delighted by the end product, for it to be by turns elegantly self-aware and comically absurd, yet at its core a heroic journey, a depiction of one woman’s willingness and ability to stand up for what was right. A total inversion not only of the noir genre, but the medium of performance art in general, The Big Hot Mess was anything but, and the only time this year I found myself saying, “Yeah, I know I was paid to tell you to see this- but you really really should see it. It’s so good!”

Best Spirit: Terra Incognita: Through The Waves (DIVAfest/UpLift Physical Theatre)
I feel like it’s already a bit of a legend, how on opening night of this piece, created and performed by Juliana Frick, Hannah Gaff, and Nicholette Routhier, the soundtrack didn’t work and the show went on anyway, with all three women performing in absolute silence to an awestruck theater full of people wondering how you could pull off a movement piece without the music and soundscape it had been created to. As we sat rapt for thirty minutes, watching them tumble and lift and dance and roll with only the patter of their feet and the slap of their skin against the lone piece of scenery, a table, to accompany them, I remember thinking, “This is what it means to be an artist- and to be a small theater artist- this right here.” While a bigger company would have canceled the night, refunded the tickets, and maybe should have, that was not only not an option for these women, but ultimately an asset. When you’re in the business of making art that is raw and real, you know you can’t back down because the tech craps out. When your art gets better because you didn’t back down, that’s when you know you’re the part that’s raw and real.

Best Designer: Carlos Aceves, Scenery For The Awakening (The Breadbox)
The Breadbox’s production of The Awakening, adapted by Oren Stevens and directed by Ariel Craft, earned a tremendous amount of attention this past year, including a truckload of TBA Awards and critical praise, and all of it was, unquestionably, deserved. I could heap more praise myself, but decided that in the spirit of the Stueys, which try to highlight some stuff left off the other Best Of lists, I thought I would call attention to what was one of my favorite aspects: the simple and yet evocative set design that captured beautifully the turn of the century Gulf coast community in which the action was set. One of the more transformative sets I’ve seen in the EXIT Stage Left, Carlos Aceves’ combination of boardwalk and driftwood echoed with Louisiana elegance and bygone nostalgia, evoking not just the sea but the beach, specifically, and the cultures that grew up around The Shore. From the knots in the wood to the knots in the hammock, there was a graininess to it all that practically bled sepia-toned photographs, and sucked you into the world that had to be real before any of the conflicts happening inside of it could truly be understood in context. A precise blend of conceptual and literal, the set accented perfectly everything else the show so adeptly executed.

Image That Will Stay With Me The Most: Mikka Bonel/Amy Sass (A Whale’s Wake, The Flightdeck)
Amy Sass is an admirable theater artist for a number of reasons, but if I had to pick one, it’s this: girlfriend does not compromise her vision. Sometimes this is a wonderful thing, and sometimes it’s a questionable thing, but for what it’s worth, we don’t do art so the audience will be indifferent about it and Amy Sass seems to not only get that, but embody it. There was a lot about her play A Whale’s Wake that I admired, and some I sort of rolled my eyes at, but if I had to pick one moment from any show that I saw this year that best epitomizes this year it’s without doubt from Amy’s personal spin on the domestic drama, and that oldest of tropes in the domestic drama trope bag: the reluctant mother giving birth. In this case, because it’s Amy, she gives birth during a flood, as she’s swept out to sea, and said baby sort of ballet dances away on its umbilical cord, before said cord is severed by a Dude Who Fixes Everything trope. I know this sounds ridiculous, and it was, but somehow, thanks to Amy’s direction, and Mikka Bonel’s icy but graceful performance as the mother, it also worked, and seared itself into my imagination forever. What is life if not the wondrous and terrible moment of seeing your newborn hoisted out of you by forces beyond your control?

And so, there you go. Another year, another list. Hopefully you found it as amusing to read as it was for me to write.

Now, as I sit in the living room of my new apartment (I moved in October of this year, just one of many difficult changes that made me better), tying all this up, I suddenly find myself thinking that while in some ways I flew a little more under the community radar than usual this year (no TBA Award nominations, and I skipped the conference; lower attendance of shows than usual, and more stepping away from administrative roles than times past; and I went to virtually nobody’s parties), I still directed my favorite play, John Guare’s Six Degrees of Separation at Custom Made, had the honor of having my play Adventures in Tech directed by Allison Page at PianoFight, and ended the year directing the American premiere of Clive Barker’s gorgeous Paradise Street at the EXIT Theatre. A show of mine was done in Chicago, I mounted a collection of short plays about a pop star I idolize, Rob Ready slew another llamalogue I wrote, I had a reading in New York, I built a new works development program, I worked with awesome artists in a variety of ways, and I sang in front of paying customers for a month solid and nobody threw anything at me. Not every moment was perfect but in many ways, it was actually a bumper year as far as me doing what I wanted as an artist, though somewhat ironically, I also felt a little more on the outside of the community, for reasons I really can’t quite explain. At the back of my head, of course, I recognize it’s probably got something to do with having followed my own bliss a bit more whole-heartedly, un-appologetically, and occasionally at the sacrifice of passionate obligations and social politicking that at another point in my career would have called the shots more. I de-friended more of my fellow theater artists this year than ever before (albeit mostly due to the election), while at the same time expanding my collaborative circles exponentially, and though I suspect my approach to my own trajectory has always been complex if not outright paradoxical (can one be as diplomatic as I aspire to be, while also holding their integrity as close to the core as I also aspire to do?), I suppose what’s changed is that I’m no longer fighting that intrinsic tension, but rather embracing it. It’s about recognizing that everything is a mixed bag, including me, including everyone else, and sort of shrugging at the people who can’t accept that (or me) and letting them learn that without feeling the need to personally educate them- or apologize for not living up to their idea of what and who I’m supposed to be. Not everything is going to go according to plan, not everything battle is going to be won, not everything is going to be to your standards, but that’s okay. And also how it kind of has to be. Accept it, celebrate it, or let it go and celebrate that, but don’t let it stop you. If there’s one thing 2016 taught me, it’s that: don’t let it stop you. And don’t wait for people to catch up.

The right people always will.

Editor’s Note: In an effort to get this out before the end of the year, numerous grammatical and spelling mistakes have no doubt been made, and as such, will be edited in the future in an effort to uphold some kind of standard.

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Theater Around The Bay: And Home Before Dark

Here’s part three of our INTO THE WOODS discussion panel (you should check out part one and part two if you haven’t) with Stuart Bousel, Brian Katz, Corinne Proctor, Marissa Skudlarek, Oren Stevens, and Nick Trengove. Today we’re winding the discussion down and looking at how this show has impacted us, as artists and as people. But first…

Is there a fairy tale you wish was included in Into the Woods but is not?

Corinne: Not really, no.

Brian: I find the nods to Grimm and Disney fun, but not my favorite parts of the show. Generally, I want more of the (somewhat) original tale of the Baker and his Wife.

Marissa: I can easily imagine a version of Into the Woods that incorporates “Hansel and Gretel.” It’s a well-known Brothers Grimm tale that involves journeying into the woods, parents & children, loss of innocence, baked goods, feeling “excited and scared” — so it would fit the style and themes of the show very well. But perhaps Sondheim felt like he’d already written enough about cannibalism in Sweeney Todd?

Nick: “Hansel and Gretel”, for sure. There could be a whole duet about, like, gingerbread or something. But seriously, where are their parents? They have that in common with Jack and Little Red – absent parental figures.

Stuart: Actually, in the Public Theatre production in 2012, they did work in “Hansel and Gretel” into the show, somehow. I’m not sure how. I’d like to know how, but for all my Googling I’ve only been able to come up with references to it in reviews and such, not an actual explanation of what happened or if material was added. “The Three Little Pigs” were also worked into the first Broadway revival, but as time goes on that whole production seems to be a case of “The Less Said the Better” so they are hardly “canon”.

Oren: Honestly, there are so many more fairy tales that could be woven in. But most of the ones I love are just a little too dark even for this show (“Donkeyskin” comes to mind — Wikipedia that shit), but actually what I’m most sad about is that “Sleeping Beauty” and “Snow White”, two incredibly well-known stories that have so much going on in them (mostly about gender politics — “Snow White” is a condemnation of female vanity and “Sleeping Beauty”, in its original form, involves an already married king cheating on his wife by impregnating the still sleeping princess), are given such short shrift. Ultimately, though, the show is so completely and tightly crafted that throwing any additional stories in there would throw the whole thing off balance — and throw the whole thing over the three hour mark.

Why are fairy tales something we keep coming back to- not just as the backbone for this show, but for so many shows? Why are they so endlessly appealing to many audiences?

Marissa: The rise of fairy-tale-themed entertainment in the last few decades is pretty astounding. Some of it can be attributed to capitalism and Hollywood (Disney got us Millennials hooked on fairy tales young, and now we’re loyal customers for life) but I also wonder if it could have a deeper, more spiritual meaning. Like, as the world becomes ever more technological and scientific, we’re trying to counter-balance that with these age-old tales of magic and mystery. I’d like to believe that. I think it’s important to cultivate the imagination. When I was a lonely teenager it always seemed to me like Rapunzel’s tower was a metaphor for the loneliness and isolation of adolescence, and having overprotective parents who don’t understand you. That’s a hard truth to face and sometimes it helps to face it in metaphorical ways, through the medium of a fairy tale. “Cinderella”, on the other hand, is an insidious tale because it teaches children that women who have big feet are grotesque. As someone who wears a size 10.5 shoe, I simply must protest.

Once a stepsister, always a stepsister. Backstage at the 2006 Vassar College Drama Department production of Into the Woods. Summer Scott as Florinda, Noelle McMurtry as Cinderella, and our very own Marissa Skudlarek as Lucinda.

Once a stepsister, always a stepsister. Backstage at the 2006 Vassar College Drama Department production of Into the Woods. Summer Scott as Florinda, Noelle McMurtry as Cinderella, and our very own Marissa Skudlarek as Lucinda.

Stuart: All Cinderella bitterness aside, I am inclined to agree with Marissa: I think we need magic in our lives, not just right now, but always. I think the acute desire for magic becomes more pronounced in some eras over another, but it’s always there. And I don’t see it as escapism, but rather I think it’s tied in with the part of us that needs language, math, meaning. Myth and folklore are sense-making mechanisms, which we use to understand things like love, death, wonder, loyalty, betrayal, courage, fear- all those aspects of the human experience which we can’t truly explain but so desperately want explanations for. Fairy tales and myths are the language of the imagination, the attempt at charting the unchart-able, with a language as flexible as the thing it’s trying to capture.

Corinne: Fairy tales have staying power because of their simplicity. The stories aren’t tied to a particular time and place and the characters are archetypes that are eternally relevant. Fairy tales are satisfying because they paint a picture of a satisfying world that wish existed – a world where it is easy to tell the difference between right and wrong, where evil is punished and good people are rewarded. (Even the older, gorier, earliest fairy tales of oral tradition nearly always have a sense of justice and triumph of good over evil, though the picture of the world is much less rosy.) The brilliance of this show is how cleverly it contrasts the simple world of fairy tales and then deconstructs it as the characters face challenges that place them in a world more like our own – a world of grey areas and in-betweens where the right way isn’t clear and life is far from fair.

Nick: The strength of this musical comes from our cultural familiarity with fairy tales. We look to them, I feel, in some small way like the ancient Greeks looked to their myths. As sort of moral compasses, or cautionary tales. The lyrics are brilliant and the book’s fantastic, and they succeed in taking these deceptively simple parables and breathing fresh life into them.

Brian: Parents love fairy tales, because first of all they were taught them, so they are sharing a piece of themselves and, secondly, they are tales in which to learn life lessons like “don’t steal” and “don’t run away”. However, Woods and my own feelings go toward Dr. Bertleheim, which hopes that these tales are used in the way Woods uses them, not Disney: harder lessons are beneath their surfaces, such as coping with loss, and dealing with our hidden fears. But it’s because they can be explored on so many different levels, they have remained universal.

Oren: I read an article recently about someone who read children’s stories to her daughter replacing male protagonists with female ones. As I think about it more, I think it was actually The Hobbit, but ignore that for the sake of argument. What’s so lovely and useful about fairy tales is that they are just a little bit hollow — there’s just enough room for us to squeeze ourselves into them and push and prod to make them fit our purposes. Is Cinderella a heroine who gets rewarded for her hard work with a life of ease? Or is she an entitled princess who crashes a party and manipulates royalty to force her way into luxury? I’m also a big fan of adaptation in general, because I think that a strong way to make a big impact on an audience member is to force them to rethink and reexamine something that they believe they know backwards and forwards. That’s exactly what Into the Woods does.

So, speaking of parents and children- is INTO THE WOODS, unedited, for kids?

Brian: ”Kids” is too large a range. I think it is appropriate for age 10ish and up. But if it is right kid and the right parent, go for it. We don’t give children enough credit for having the capacity to understand basic life concepts like love and death, and sheltering them into some kind of make-believe security (which is more about their parents romanticizing their own childhoods) deprives them of necessary emotional skills, such as courage and empathy. Many of us working in theatre started going to much heavier shows than this at a young age. Then again, maybe that’s a case against it? The world needs more financial analysts, I’m sure.

Stuart: Woods was my second Broadway show ever and I was 10 the first time I saw it, so clearly I think it’s okay for kids, but then again, clearly I’m also screwed up for life because of it. Then again, maybe the only reason I’m still here, still working to be a good person in a tough world, is because of Woods, so who knows- it may have saved me even as it condemned me, right?

Corinne: It always depends on the kid, doesn’t it? In general my answer is YES. That said, it is nearly three hours long. Some people are worried about the deaths and adultery being inappropriate, but as far as I’m concerned the more important thing to consider is whether or not the child in question has the necessary attention span.

Oren: I would absolutely read it to kids starting at around fourth or fifth grade. At that point they could get everything, and anything they don’t get they’ll ignore. But just because I take my kids to see it doesn’t mean you have to. You decide what’s right; you decide what’s good. (See what I did there? I seriously think I could spend a week doing nothing but speak in quotes from this show.)

Nick: I’d read it to my kids. Depending on their age, I’d maybe gloss over some of the deaths a little bit, maybe the sex scene between the Baker’s Wife and C’s Prince. I don’t think it’s for kids, though, necessarily. I think it’s written more for parents or adults – you need to have some perspective on your childhood to understand what the book tries to say about parents and their effect on their children.

Nick Trengove, eating the baby prop from his production of INTO THE WOODS.

Nick Trengove, eating the baby prop from his production of INTO THE WOODS.

Marissa: It’s hard to say, because I’m not a mother myself and I’m not even sure how fast kids grow up/what’s appropriate for kids of various ages. I definitely don’t think it’s for small children, because they’ll get bored and the wordy lyrics will go over their head, but older kids may appreciate it. As I said, I first saw Into the Woods at 12, and I think I could even have seen it and enjoyed it at 9 or 10. But I was a precocious kid who loved theater, and it might be different for others. By the time I saw Into the Woods, I’d already seen several Shakespeare plays, so maybe there’s your answer: if your kids are mature enough for, say, Romeo and Juliet, they’re mature enough for Into the Woods. As an aside, it’s kind of a shame that none of us on this panel (as far as I know) has kids, because so much of Into the Woods is about parenting, and it’d be interesting to hear a parent’s perspective in this discussion. If I ever have kids of my own, I wonder if it will deepen or change my relationship to this show.

So who is the ideal audience for this show?

Oren: Preteens and their parents. I’m not kidding. For the preteens, the idea of hammering the childishness out of fairy tales will be attractive, and it’ll be the wittiest damn thing they’ve ever seen. They’ll enjoy the breakdown of moral absolute, because they’ll be just getting into their seriously rebellious phase and “because I said so” will be starting to wear thin. Their parents, of course, are starting to see the rebellious phase. They’re going to be in the mode of clutch-as-hard-as-you-can-so-they-don’t-slip-away. So much of the parent-child relationships (failure to communicate, disappointment, struggle) is going to hit home for them in a very real way.

Brian: I believe this is an everybody show, at least above the age of 10. It works on so many levels; therefore, Woods is enjoyable from pre-teen just getting the silly humor and adventure, to those further along in life thinking about things like morality and passing along the little we have learned. It is also a great show to bring for those who say they hate musicals, which to me is like saying “I hate sculpture.” If they are going to dismiss an entire art form, Woods can be used as a conversion tool, one that will make them go, “okay, you were right, there is a reason to sing sometimes. “Then make them watch Sunday In The Park With George. If they don’t get that, give up – they don’t want to enjoy life.

Corinne: I also believe this show really does have something for everyone, which is one of the main reasons it gets done so often. But I guess I’ll say parents and children. (Everyone is someone’s child after all!)

Marissa: Corinne’s earlier comment that the book and lyrics of Woods contain over 400 questions, plus my own prejudices when it comes to art, makes me want to say that Into the Woods is a show for people who question things. You know, if you’re the kind of person who likes easy answers, you’re not going to like the second half of Into the Woods. I also think it helps to be acquainted with the darker side of life — I’m not saying that this is a show only for neurotic or melancholic people, but it will resonate more with people who’ve already learned, through their own experiences, that happy endings don’t last forever. Also, it probably goes without saying that the show works best for people who come from a Western cultural background and were exposed to these fairy tales as a child. I’d be curious to know how someone who didn’t have that childhood experience would experience the show (although, considering how Western pop culture now blankets the globe, it might be difficult to find such a person). People also talk about how East Asian culture focuses more on the group than on the individual, and has a strong tradition of reverence for parents and ancestors. Those are major themes of Into the Woods, too — does that mean it has the potential to be a hit show in China?

Nick: I think it really helps if you like Sondheim, going into it. And really, what’s not to like? But it does take some getting used to – the orchestrations and the melodies are a bit more substantial than, say, Legally Blonde the Musical, and even most Rogers and Hammerstein. But the thing is, and I know that I may totally be wrong, but I have the feeling that nowadays, the ideal audience are 20- and 30-somethings – people who may be starting families, or new careers. People who are in the midst of sloughing off the last vestiges of childhood idealism and settling, more or less, into an understanding of the world. So much of the show is about children and parents – the inheritance of mistakes, the effect parents have on their children. The ideal audience member for this show is old enough to look back on their childhood and understand it from the lens of adulthood.

Stuart: Right… and maybe still young enough to learn something from it and make some better choices for the future.

Pick one thing you just love about this show. One thing that just rocks you to the bottom of your soul, the jewel of the crown, so to speak.

Nick: Okay, this is kind of a hard question for someone who tends to think that this entire show is just one giant jewel. But if I had to choose just one facet, I’d say it’s the mad dash to the end of Act I. The stakes get higher, everyone’s running around, ingredients are flying everywhere, Milky White gets RESURRECTED FROM THE DEAD, the Witch transforms (spoiler alert!), and that all folds in nicely to Happy “Ever After”,  a song which is totally overlooked and the most perfectly wry ending to the Act possible. It just really gears you up for the next half of the story, which is the mark of really good story construction.

Oren: Surprise! That’s what I think is the jewel in the crown, the thing this show does best: the element of surprise. Here we have a musical built out of the most culturally iconic stories, we’ve all heard them a million times before, we know six different versions, and it still has the capacity to make us laugh, to push us back, to make us think, and to surprise us. Whether it’s the Baker’s Wife and Cinderella’s Prince haggling over a shoe, or the Witch exclaiming “The giant’s a woman!” each scene pulls something fresh and exciting out of stories that we heard before we could make out any of the words. That’s what makes it great theater, and for the sake of this question I’m going to pretend that it’s one thing in the show, and not something that applies to all the best parts of it. Don’t tell Stuart I’m cheating, please.

Stuart: Stuart knows and Stuart agrees with you, actually. SURPRISE!

Corinne: I know I already raved about “No One is Alone” when you asked us about it before, but here I go again. The biggest ideas in the piece — the nature of morality, the relationships between parents and children — come together here as we see the Baker and Cinderella become ‘parents’ to Jack and Red – and try to help them understand that there aren’t simple answers to questions about right and wrong.

Corinne Proctor, as Little Red, definitely struggling with one too many moral quandaries (Jeffrey Brian Adams and Ryan McCraryin the SF Playhouse production of INTO THE WOODS. Photo by  Jessica Palopoli.

Corinne Proctor, as Little Red, definitely struggling with one too many moral quandaries (Jeffrey Brian Adams and Ryan McCraryin the SF Playhouse production of INTO THE WOODS. Photo by Jessica Palopoli.

Brian: I’ve noticed that I am apparently the only one on this panel drawn primarily to the father/son relationship, so bear that in mind with this answer, but in the end, this is a story about relationships, and the first thing we learn is that there is a childless baker, and we then soon learn his father is possibly dead from “a baking accident,” but then probably ran away from life. The baker is internally convinced he IS his father, and has trepidation about having/raising children, especially after his wife is gone. This is what takes Woods from being a fun mash-up of fairy tales to something deeper for me. It’s about not succumbing to our fears, and all characters have this, but what really hits me hard, so “works for me”, is the Baker’s story-line, and how in the end he learns there is true strength inside him – not just giant-battling (that’s kind of easy) but being able to take responsibility for raising another human being.

Brian Katz, deep in the Humboldt redwoods with a mysterious man of his own- CMTC’s first TD, Dave Ampola (left).

Brian Katz, deep in the Humboldt redwoods with a mysterious man of his own- CMTC’s first TD, Dave Ampola (left).

Marissa: Reading the first round of the panel discussion and seeing the huge outpouring of affection for the Baker and the Baker’s Wife made me fully comprehend just how well that element of the story works, and how it’s another thing that I should have credited James Lapine for when we were discussing what’s successful about the book of Into the Woods. It’s hard enough to make familiar fairy-tale characters like Cinderella or Little Red seem human and complex, but I’d wager that it’s even harder to create original characters who coexist in the same world as the familiar characters and have the most meaningful journeys of all. The Baker and Baker’s Wife may have originated as a gimmick to tie together the stories of Cinderella, Jack, Little Red and Rapunzel, but they became so much more than that — they offer a modern, adult audience a way into the story, through a fairy tale that was specifically designed to resonate with yuppie New York theatergoers. (Kids and teens are likelier to find their way into the story through identifying with Cinderella, Jack, Little Red or Rapunzel — because those stories are familiar and, as Brian pointed out, they’re about adolescents coming of age. Adult theatergoers required another way in.)

What have you learned from the show- both as a person and as a theater maker? How has it influenced you?

Oren: “Never wear mauve at a ball. Or pink.” No, but there are so many things! I’m going to reach into the hat of my brain and just say whichever things I pull out first, but trust me there’s a whole lot more where these came from. First, if you haven’t heard me harp on about transitions you’ve probably never spoken to me at all. People tend to forget transitions, but they can suck all the life out of a show if they don’t flow. Every transition in Woods is totally seamless, and it’s beautiful. I think it’s also encouraged me to tell complicated stories – I like it when there are lots of words and lots of characters, and everything is firing off in different directions, but it’s all making one connected, complete, unified picture –– and I think I only got there because I encountered Woods right when I first started writing. It was also the first musical I encountered with rhythmic speech and sung-through scenes (“Very Nice Prince” I’m lookin’ at you), but they sound totally organic (not quite natural, but like exactly how the character would talk). I think that gave me a lot more confidence to tackle things like, for example, writing an entire play in iambic pentameter. Or an essay on a college exam, but that’s another story.

Oren Stevens, learning all the different things theater could be, as the Baker in INTO THE WOODS, set in a Walmart.

Oren Stevens, learning all the different things theater could be, as the Baker in INTO THE WOODS, set in a Walmart.

Marissa: I think Into the Woods made me see how I could engage with fairy tales on an adult level, how I could grow up and still remain attached to the stories of my youth. When I first saw the show age 12, I definitely enjoyed it, but my dad could not stop talking about how awesome it was, in particular the brilliance of how Act II shows you “what happens after Happily Ever After.” And I think it was really beneficial for me to see my dad react that way. When you’re 12 years old and in junior high school, there’s all this peer pressure to stop acting like a kid and start acting like a teenager. But there were so many things I loved about being a kid, especially the fact that it was socially acceptable to like fantasy and magic and fairy tales. I really didn’t want to give those things up! Later on, of course, I learned that there’s a whole 20th-century tradition of smart adult artists engaging with fairy tales in a serious way: Jean Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bete, Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber… But Into the Woods was my introduction to that kind of art, and I was glad to learn that fairy tales didn’t have to end when childhood did. I don’t know if Into the Woods has influenced me as a theater-maker — I don’t write musicals, and while I like shows with large casts and lots of moving parts, I’ve never sat down and looked at the book of Woods and said “let me see how James Lapine did that.” Perhaps, though, Into the Woods serves as Exhibit A for a theory I’ve been developing: if you want to write plays that deal with big philosophical issues, but you actually want people to come see them, you need to pair the big themes with a shiny/humorous/entertaining “hook” that gets people into the theater. I don’t know how successful I’ve been at this (either at engaging deep themes or at pairing them with cool hooks) but it’s something I’ve been thinking about, at any rate.

Nick: This is really gonna be the most cheese-ball thing I write, like, ever, but I guess this show always makes me think of my parents and the way they raised me. When I was younger I was a bit of a Rapunzel – no music aside from country and the occasional soft rock favorite. No R-rated movies until I was 16. Phone updates as to my whereabouts at regular intervals. My parents kept the leash pretty tight, and it was only after I escaped to college that I fully realized this. But I think about how people make mistakes – fathers, mothers. I think about how scared shitless I’d be if I was raising a child in this world full of wolves. I can’t say I’d raise my child under such heavy supervision, but I can’t say I wouldn’t be frightened all the time of making a mistake, of letting them get hurt. As an artist, this was the show that taught me how to direct, plain and simple. As an actor, it helped me to understand a show from a director’s perspective, and as a theater artist in general, it taught me that I was capable of so much more than just acting.

Stuart: Identifying as strongly as I did with one character at such a young age, I was able to pull from Into the Woods both comfort and a kind of vocabulary for beginning to talk about myself and others, and society and the world. It really introduced me to the concept and power of archetypes, both in narrative and life, and it was most definitely the beginning of my own personal cosmology, which has been developing ever since, and is a sort of hodgepodge of medieval legends and Greek mythology. As an artist in general, I think it’s safe to say that my whole life has been more or less dedicated to both preserving and reinventing our mythological roots, and Into the Woods certainly plays a role in that. As a director, Broadway in general has been hugely important (you’ll notice, I basically direct all plays as if they were musicals), at least as important as independent film has been (you’ll notice, I basically direct all plays as indie films). It’s as a writer, however, that I think Woods‘ influence is most evident in my work: even when I’m not writing new versions of old stories, I still tend to create larger stories about groups of people, ensemble plays with multiple lead roles and through lines, and I love breaking the fourth wall, direct address, post-modern structural twists, and surprising you with characters who don’t always act the way you expect them to. But perhaps most of all, I pride myself on writing plays where even the smaller roles are complex, nuanced, and everybody, good or bad, has a soul. I’m big into compassion, as an artist, and as a human being, and I definitely learned that value from Into The Woods, where compassion ultimately wins the day. Especially storytelling as an act of compassion.

Stuart Bousel: lover of trees and stories.

Stuart Bousel: lover of trees and stories.

Brian: The line that hits me hard at the end is “Children may not obey / But children will listen.” I think about that a lot when I teach, and sometimes when I direct; it is a reminder that even if someone is rebelling, pushing buttons, just being what one would consider “difficult,” they are still looking to you. Rejecting a parent/teacher/authority figure is often a necessary stage in someone finding their own path through the woods; the ones who come out of that darkness are the ones you truly reached. As for being an artist… two words: James Lapine. He is an early influence, although Sunday is the show that blew my mind, specifically at the moment George doesn’t like where a tree was onstage, and then it disappeared. The psychological reach of that was, of course, that nothing you see here is real. Or maybe it is, but it can all be altered at a moment’s notice by the creative forces telling us the story. Woods has moments like that too, when Milky White is simply picked up, when the Witch transforms, with the narrator’s warning of the story out of control. I love the deceptive simplicity of Lapine’s staging and writing, and try to remember is whenever I’m stuck: a tree can disappear, if we simply will it.

Corinne: Having the great good luck to work on the show at both 18 and 28 has reinforced for me how much you can find in a piece when you really dig into it. There’s a lot in this show that can pass you by the first few times, but there is SO much there once you begin to pay closer attention. On a more pragmatic level, it’s where I learned how to sing harmony – but only for 5 notes: “MAYBE WE FORGOT!”

And last but not least… what’s the moral of the story?

Corinne: Morality is self-determined; there is no “right” way to live.

Brian:I know this is the obvious choice, but it really is CHILDREN WILL LISTEN, with the added thought that we are all children in this way, we all need these stories to help us navigate life. That is the reason for all the humor, pathos, wrong turns, magic beans, and deaths. It is the reason we do theatre in the first place, or maybe it is how we justify spending a life in the theatre, we have to believe that someone is listening. That the tales we tell, even if misunderstood, mangled, applauded or scorned, have touched at least one person that night, and helped them work through something. Or maybe take something else less seriously, or maybe more seriously, or create empathy, sympathy or maybe just made them laugh when they really needed it. The point is, they are listening, watching, and learning. To me, to always know this is the responsibility of the artist, and our contract with the audience. Careful before you say, “listen to me.” Into The Woods says it better, in its finale, than any other show I can think of: “What do you leave to your child when you’re dead?/Only whatever you put in its head/Things that you’re mother and father had said/Which were left to them too…” This is how our stories continue, and within them are all the truths, lessons and myths we, in the theatre, try to pass along.

Oren: The first act is so full of morals. Every midnight we get another smorgasbord (opportunity is not a lengthy visitor, the slotted spoon won’t hold much soup, the prettier the flower the farther from the path) but in the end we get the truth: shit’s complicated. The point of “Children Will Listen” (which sits exactly where the moral should go) isn’t “be careful what you wish for” but “careful the things you say.” Ultimately what we’re warned about isn’t yearning –– we couldn’t stop that if we tried –– we’re warned against telling these stories thoughtlessly, teaching our children empty, hollow, meaningless lessons that simplify and diminish the world. I know, it’s not fun, but god damn if it isn’t the prettiest song you ever heard.

Marissa: What ISN’T the moral of the story? Trying to distill the musical’s many morals, both explicit and implied, into one overarching message, I’m tempted to say that all has to do with cycles of various kinds. Wisdom is passed from parents to children, who grow up and have their own children. Violence is a cycle and it takes extraordinary effort and courage to break the cycle. One wish begets another. You go into the woods, you come out of the woods, you go back to the woods. And you can’t run from your problems because you can’t run from yourself — no matter where you go, you’ll still be part of that great cycle of birth and maturity and decline and death.

Stuart: Life is complicated. Life is complicated and it’s never going to cease being complicated until you’re dead- and then, we’re actually only assuming that because we don’t know what happens after we die. I mean, in Into The Woods, if you’re the Baker’s Wife, or the Mysterious Man, or Cinderella’s Mother, or Jack’s Mother, or Little Red for that matter, death isn’t exactly the end, isn’t? Even beyond the grave, our stories continue, our influence continues to work itself on the people who shared the world with us and live in it after we’re gone. Life is complicated because everything is connected- there are paths between point A and point B, but also point X, and point Q, and point D, and point O. Far too many points than we can really see or even, maybe, begin to see, sometimes because the woods are dark and sometimes because we’re blind and sometimes because we’re just not meant to see all these paths because if we did, we’d almost certainly lose our way. Not that it’s the end of the world when we do lose our way- sometimes we have to do that, to find it again. Few paths are straight, and all paths lead into the woods… but all paths lead out of them too. And there’s always a light to guide you, you just have to find it, believe in it, wish for it. If there’s one moral in Into the Woods for me, it’s that: “Hold him to the light now/let him see the glow/things will turn out right now/tell him what you know.”

Nick: “No one is alone…” And no prosthetic wolf dongs.

We hope you have enjoyed our panel on INTO THE WOODS. We’ll do a follow up after the movie is out and we’ve all had a chance to see it. In the meantime, leave us questions and comments below!

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!

Theater Around The Bay: Once Upon A Time…

Today is the first of our five (including last week’s prologue) part panel discussion of INTO THE WOODS, which is about to become a major film release from Disney Studios, but if you’re a regular follower of this blog, you probably don’t need to be told it’s also a seminal Broadway musical by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine that has spawned countless remounts across the world, acres of commentary and discussion, and launched more than one career. While we wouldn’t say it’s the “Great American Musical”, it’s certainly a great American musical, hugely influential, hugely popular, and just a touch controversial. We’ll use today to introduce our panelists and get to know them better, before diving into some deeper exploration of these enchanting, but treacherous, woods.

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Okay everybody. Imagine it’s like… AA for INTO THE WOODS addicts. Tell us who you are, and why you’re here.

Corinne: Hi! I am Corinne Proctor. I’m an actor, dialect coach and dramaturge. I’ve performed in Into the Woods twice, most recently as Little Red in San Francisco Playhouse’s production this past summer. I also played the Witch in a community theatre production in Maryland about 10 years ago. I may have just come out of the woods a few months ago, but I am raring to go back in again. This show has so much going on, it’s always a joy to be dissecting it.

Stuart: Howdy! I’m Stuart Bousel. I am a Founding Artistic Director of the San Francisco Theater Pub, which means I run this blog, amongst other things. I’m also the Artistic Director of No Nude Men Productions, the Executive Producer of the San Francisco Olympians Festival, a resident artist/social media manager/hospitality coordinator at the EXIT Theatre, and a freelance playwright, director, and occasional actor. I saw the original Broadway production of Into the Woods twice, including the final performance, and I’ve seen it three times since. It was the second Broadway show I ever saw and I consider it, and Sondheim, a major influence on my life and work as a theater maker.

Brian: Hello, I’m Brian Katz, Artistic Director of Custom Made Theatre Company. I’ve been obsessed with Sondheim since the early 90s, and have directed Assassins (twice), Merrily We Roll Along, and Putting it Together. This could have been about any Sondheim show, and I would have been happy to engage in a discussion. I am also very interested in musical theatre as an art form, because it is often dismissed en masse. I think it is just as important to be engaged with its masterpieces with the same intellectual fervor as, say, Shakespeare’s. Sondheim’s musical plays are the best we have.

Oren: Hey, I’m Oren Stevens. I’m a director/playwright, and the Production Coordinator and Artistic Associate at Bigger Than a Breadbox Theatre Company. I’m a huge fairy tale buff, and have used inspiration from them in both writing and directing projects; most recently I mashed up the stories of Baba Yaga, Cinderella, and Snow White in my new play Hungry/Happy. Full disclosure: I played the Baker in a production of Into the Woods in high school. It was set in a Wal-Mart. I will never bring it up again.

Marissa: Hi, I’m Marissa Skudlarek, playwright and SF Theater Pub columnist. I’ve been a huge Sondheim fan ever since I first saw Into the Woods at the age of 12 (the title of my SF Theater Pub column is a reference to A Little Night Music). In my junior year of college, I took a course on fairy tales and played Cinderella’s stepsister Lucinda in the drama department’s production of Into the Woods.

Nick: Oh, hello there! Perhaps you’ve heard of me? Nick Trengove, acclaimed local Bay Area actor and man-about-town. ITW holds a very special place in my heart — I directed a production of the show at UC Berkeley on a shoe-string budget. It was essentially the last thing I did as a student there. Aside from graduate. In any event, it was the last thing I did there that held any sort of significance for me.

Nick aside, it sounds like everyone is a pretty die hard Sondheim fan, and clearly when we talk about this show, we have to talk about Sondheim, especially as INTO THE WOODS is a bit of a standout in his career. So where does INTO THE WOODS rank in your personal “Best of/Favorite” Sondheim list?

Oren: This is always a painful question to answer — with most of Sondheim’s musicals I feel like I’m being asked to rank my children, and then with the rest I think to myself “Oh yeah… that one.” Company is, hands down, my favorite Sondheim show, and it’s completely because I think “Marry Me a Little” and “Being Alive” are such phenomenal songs, and between the two of them such a flawless summary of the show. Follies also occupies a very special place in my heart; besides the breathtakingly beautiful music, the aggressive and overwhelming nostalgia is so fully realized in every aspect of the show that at the end I’m an emotionally destroyed husk of a person in the best possible way. I can’t rank the others without ripping my soul into little pieces, but I will say that Into the Woods is definitely one that I love. If you want to point fingers at me for being safely non-committal, go ahead! You’re right.

Marissa: Into the Woods will always have a special place in my heart because it’s the first Sondheim show I saw and loved. I don’t think it’s my all-time favorite, though. A Little Night Music and Sunday in the Park with George move me more deeply. Sweeney Todd is flat-out brilliant and hard to mess up. I even have days where I think that Follies has the best set of lyrics ever written for the American musical theater. I guess I tend to lump Woods together with Company in my personal Sondheim ranking. Both of them are among the first Sondheim shows I loved; both have incredibly strong scores; both have about equal numbers of male and female roles, but the women are more interesting; both expertly depict neurosis and indecision in song; and both of them generally work when the production is thoughtful, but are not 100% foolproof.

Stuart: Well, I’m going to part company (get it?) with you on the idea that the women in Company or Into The Woods are more interesting than the men (nobody in Company is more interesting than Robert, and the Baker and the Princes are, to me, of equitable interest to the women in Woods), but otherwise I’m more or less on the same page that Sweeney Todd is unquestionably brilliant, as is A Little Night Music– both to me are perfect shows, and are tied for first place in the “Best Sondheim show” category. Both are also in my top ten musicals of all time. Probably top five. Woods comes second, Company a close third. That said, I think Follies is probably “The Great American Musical” if there is such a thing, and I will always, always, love Passion. That’s actually the one I’d most want to direct at some point in my life. And my favorite Sondheim song, ever, is “Someone In A Tree” from Pacific Overtures.

Corinne: Into the Woods is also solidly in second place for me, (with Sweeney Todd taking first.) Disclaimers: I am not familiar with every single work of Sondheim. Also, I do not think of Gypsy or West Side Story as “Sondheim Shows”, even though Sondheim worked on them. Is that weird? If I have to count WSS and Gypsy then I guess Woods will come in 4th.

Nick: Oh, it’s definitely first for me. As I see it, Woods watches, sagely aloof, from its pedestal while Company and Sweeney Todd duke it out for second and third place. Somewhere, far far down on the pecking order, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and Assassins wonder what it’s like to be as good as Into the Woods. They wonder and dream.

Brian: For me, top five, but never above number three.  Sunday in the Park with George and Follies fight for that top spot. Both those musicals have aged well with me, while Woods was more relevant in earlier decades. This is probably more about the type of story it is, rather than its quality. I was more into the hero’s journey as a teen, and I discovered Woods when other stories like this were my favorites, from Lord of the Rings to Siddhartha. In one’s teens and 20s, the path ahead is everything. When one reaches middle-age, looking forward is part of the process, but so is sustaining what one has, and passing along some kind of legacy. Those themes are more prevalent in Sunday and Follies.

Huh. Notice how nobody has mentioned “Anyone Can Whistle?”

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Stepping away from Sondheim for a moment, what are your thoughts on James Lapine, his collaborator, who wrote the script of the show and also directed the original production- still for many, the definitive version of INTO THE WOODS?

Nick: Oh Lapine is also a genius. Sunday in the Park with George, am I right? No, but seriously, I credit Lapine with really honing in on the psychology of these characters, lifting them out of their two-dimensional fairy tale origins and granting them each an interesting and relatable complexity.

Marissa: Yes, I love the characterization of Little Red as brash and bloodthirsty. I love “I was raised to be charming, not sincere,” which is one of the funniest lines in the show and yet gets at something very real (the thin line between smarm and charm) about life and the character. I love that the book of the show occasionally has these moments of winking at, or mocking, fairy tale tropes; but that, for the most part, it is sincere and the characters are fleshed out, rather than treated like cartoons.

Oren: What’s brilliant about the book is how effortless it is. I think it often gets overlooked because it glides by so smoothly, and when there’s about a hundred characters who are all on different missions, whose paths are crisscrossing constantly, that effortlessness is an insane achievement. In some ways, each scene feels very discrete — Jack and the Mysterious Man have an altercation, then both exit and the Baker and the Witch argue — but the reality is each scene feeds into the next flawlessly. People are watching each other, interrupting each other, hiding from each other (sometimes poorly) and the result is that you never for a moment think “I can relax, we’re between scenes.” The audience never checks out that way. As both a playwright and a director, I find this elegant seamlessness enviable. And not for nothing, it feeds into the music, too. Very rarely do you have a moment where you think “oh, a song is starting!” The music is constant enough, and the line between scene and song blurred enough, that everything flows together.

Brian: See, but that is partly why I maintain that no one really knows the entirety of Lapine’s contribution. Sondheim steals mercilessly from his book writers, and the sparser the book, the more you can bet he stole. That said, there are beautiful moments in act two that make the journey worthwhile, especially leading up to “No One is Alone.” The dialogue always seems well placed, the one-liners are hard to mess up, and he is invisible when it is called for. I’m also a huge defender of Goldman’s original book of Follies, which is also minimalistic, poetic, and deceptively simple.

Stuart: The flow between dialogue and song which is so effortless in Into The Woods is also part of what I love so much about Passion, another Lapine/Sondheim collaboration, which feels like a fever dream, if done right, and largely because the blurred line between line and lyric supports the blurred lines between passion and obsession which is the core of that story. I agree with Brian that Sondheim steals so much from his book writers that it makes it hard to tell, in some places, who is contributing what, but I also agree with Oren that Lapine is undeniably good at building a complex and byzantine network of plot and characters, which doesn’t always happen in Sondheim’s works, while it’s safe to say it pretty much always happens in Lapine’s to one degree or another, though this may be as much his contribution as director as it is writer (his film Impromptu, by the way, is an excellent non-musical, non-authored example of this). I will say this: I was much less worried about the film of Woods when I heard Lapine was writing the screenplay.

Corinne: The book has some shortcomings, and the score is so brilliant that it’s easy to see why it’s overlooked, but that said, it does the job of expanding on the story being told by the songs very well. There’s more meaningful repetition and connections than stand out in the first few readings and viewings- always a good sign. The script, like the score, is full of questions — which is so fitting for a show about people grappling with rights and wrongs. (FUN FACT: There are 420 questions in the show including questions asked in song. Trust me, I asked a computer.)

So, considering the songs are the bulk and thrust of the show, we gotta know: what’s your favorite?

Nick: “Moments in the Woods,” for so many reasons. Like any great Sondheim song, it’s a challenge for both the actor and the vocalist. Also, like most of the Sondheim greats, the important discoveries the character makes happen within the song. And when it’s done right (see Joanna Gleason), it really encapsulates a lot of what this musical is about – the tension between the fantasy of the lives we want to live and the reality of the choices and compromises we have to make. And that recognizing that having a choice and making it lends significance to our lives, even if it means we aren’t living our perfection. See? I told you. For so many reasons. Someone stop me.

Corinne: I actually really love another of the Baker’s Wife’s songs: “Maybe They’re Magic”. It’s so short and quick but so perfect. It tells us so much about who she is all while diving headfirst into core theme ideas about how right and wrong aren’t as clearly defined as fairy tales lead us to believe.

Marissa: “It Takes Two.” It’s almost a cliche to have a charming, witty, mid-tempo song that comes halfway through the first act and ends an argument or brings a couple closer together. Sondheim is fully aware of the cliche, so this song, while charming, is also a little bit knowing and ironic, which suits the characters of the Baker and his Wife. The title is generic but the melody is slightly odd and unexpected. And the lyrics are brilliant. “It takes trust / It takes just / A bit more / And we’re done / We want four / We had none / We got three / We need one / It takes two” — that’s nine lines, 27 syllables, seven rhymes, a recapitulation of the plot up to that point, and a pun on the song’s title. Sondheim, you take my breath away.

Brian: “No More.” It kills me. I don’t care how good or bad the production is, I’m going to be weeping like a baby when we get to: “No more giants waging war!/
Can’t we just pursue our lives/With our children and our wives/
’Til that happy day arrives/How do you ignore/
All the witches?/All the curses?
/All the wolves, all the lies/The false hopes, the good-bye’s/
The reverses/
All the wondering what even worse/Is still in store!
” Of course, it is important to remember that the Baker, who sings this, has just lost his wife, and that the actions he took on his journey led, more or less, to her death. There’s simplicity in the sentiment that gets to me. Into the Woods explores the theme of getting what you want, which is what you think you need. But at the end of the deceptively happy first act, only the evil stepmother and her daughters (and okay, Rapunzel, but more on that later) have learned the lesson. In the second act, character after character suffer the consequences of their paths, until the Baker is left with the child he thought he needed, but without the only person he truly cared about. The song makes us reexamine everything we thought we knew about the show. In act one, we want the “curse reversed,” for heaven’s sake – the Baker and his wife can’t have a child! In act two, we want them to defend their home by any means necessary. Over two hours into the story, we are forced to question the central journey of the play, just as we thought we knew the answers.

Oren: I always root for the underdog, so: there’s a song in the first act that usually doesn’t make it into the show. It’s called “Our Little World” and it serves as an introduction to the relationship between Rapunzel and the Witch (spoiler alert: it’s a weird relationship). It usually gets cut because… let’s just say it’s not the best one Sondheim ever wrote, but nonetheless I love it for two reasons. First, the monotony of Rapunzel’s existence is beautifully mirrored in the repetitiveness of the song. Secondly, because the Witch/Rapunzel relationship becomes very important later in the play, and this is the best introduction we get to it when everything is good. Here’s a real spoiler alert: it also drops a few hints as to why the Witch wants the curse broken, and why she would accuse Rapunzel of being biased against her ugliness — Rapunzel herself says it in this song. So, storytelling opportunities in both text and music, as well as its underdog status, make “Our Little World” one of my favorite songs ever written (objective quality be damned).

Stuart: Okay, so my favorite song, like Oren’s, is a bit of an underdog: “He’s A Very Nice Prince.” In particular, I like the full version, found on the Original Broadway Cast Recording, but usually trimmed out for stage productions. To me, this is where the show really starts to work its mojo, because you have a moment where the heroines of two separate stories, Cinderella and the Baker’s Wife, sit down and reflect on everything- and this is before the Wife realizes Cinderella has the shoe she needs. For a moment they are just people, connecting in the woods the way random people connect in life, and over the course of the song they sort of switch places: at the beginning Cinderella seems like this lost child and the Wife is this much more worldly person, but by the end of the song we see that the Wife is full of unrealized childish dreams, and Cinderella is already realizing not every dream is all it’s cracked up to be. There’s just a real poetry and nuance to the song and the character interaction that breaks my heart.

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So, considering how character driven the songs are, we have to ask: who is your favorite character?

Stuart: I’m going to use this moment to make a plug for Rapunzel and Rapunzel’s Prince. Secondary and supporting characters often really fascinate me in any show, but to me, these two in particular are both very innocent, and the show is just brutal to them. They’re not particularly well developed (I consider this a weakness of the show, actually), but what little hints we are given draws two very idealistic people who rush, like most young people do, into a situation that at first is a fairy tale and then turns out to be a total nightmare: she’s a broken, devastated person who can not exist in the real world and he is utterly ill-equipped to deal with her despite his best intentions. Rapunzel is often dismissed as kind of dumb, but she’s not: she’s had no experience of the real world, that’s been denied her, and her outlook is one of a prisoner who is brave enough to look outside her prison- she’s optimistic, not dumb. And when the world turns out to be the world, like many optimists she is crushed, but her inability to forgive the world, her mother, her prince, results in her refusal to grow and ultimately she is physically crushed as well as spiritually crushed. Rapunzel’s Prince is often lumped in with Cinderella’s Prince and therefore dismissed as a cad (for the record- I hate when some directors have him ALSO play a Wolf, as it dismisses the character to make a banal, cliche statement about young men), but there are many hints throughout the show that he’s actually a pretty good guy- shy, self-deprecating- and unlike his brother he suffers for his love- he’s blinded and wanders for two years looking for Rapunzel! When Rapunzel turns out to be a nightmare, he plays at being a cad but it’s so half-hearted: a mere dwarf deters him from Snow White when a Witch couldn’t deter him from Rapunzel. When Rapunzel died in the Broadway production, a moment that always stuck with me was Chuck Wagner’s look of grief and utter helplessness, and Rapunzel’s prince vanishes from the show after that until the end. I always fancied he basically banishes himself for being less than the hero his competitiveness with his brother lead him to believe he had to be, and that when he once again stumbles across Snow White, his decision to kiss her is really his goodbye to Rapunzel- after all, when he kisses he thinks she’s unwake-able/dead, so his only motive would have to be personal. Anyway, if there is one thing I’d do with a production of Into the Woods, it would be to fully realize the potential of these characters. To me, they epitomize the shattered idealism theme of the show, and that’s a storyline I find very poignant in anything, because I am an idealist. So is Cinderella, but more on that later.

Marissa: I’m going to say the Baker’s Wife, just because currently, I have the most unanswered questions and unresolved feelings about her. If I typically find it annoying and retrograde when female characters just want to have a baby, why do I like the Baker’s Wife? Maybe it’s because she’s shrewd and funny, strong and active. Maybe it’s because having a baby is a mutual goal for both her and her husband, and he seems like a pretty hands-on dad. Maybe it’s because he acknowledges that he needs her and he couldn’t have accomplished his quest without her help — but then does that edge dangerously close to the patriarchal trope of the incompetent husband with a smart, endlessly forgiving wife? And then, when the Baker’s Wife gets killed right after having sex with the Prince, is it the equivalent of the sexist horror-movie trope where the slutty girls get killed and the virginal ones survive? And then, does the answer to that affect how seriously we’re meant to take her epiphany in “Moments in the Woods”? I don’t know. But I like characters who make me wonder.

Brian:The Baker’s Wife. Smart, funny, passionate, generally a truth-teller, and truly the hero of the first act, and the central tragedy in the second.

Corinne: I love the Baker’s wife for her relentlessness pursuit of what she wants, her strength and her cleverness. She also has a wonderfully interesting personal journey. If I were to do the show a third time, hers is the role I would most want to play.

Nick: Baker’s Wife, obviously. For the long answer, see my thoughts on my favorite song. For the short answer, she has the most interesting character arc in a show full of interesting character arcs.

Oren: I could spend hours looking at characters and trying to pick a favorite I don’t think anyone else would say, but fuck it: the Witch. She’s a popular favorite, and not just because she has all the best songs. The utilitarianism that lets her try to sacrifice Jack seems psychopathic, but ultimately she’s the most exciting character because she’s the most free — she is completely uninhibited by social mores. The only reason we find it unsettling is because one of those mores is putting a high premium on human life. I’m not saying sacrificing Jack is the right thing to do (I’m not disagreeing with it either — it’s a complicated question), but when something is based on fairy tales, then it has to take opportunities to push, prod, and refocus the way we think. If someone’s going to talk about murder, let them be convincing, let them seem clearheaded and intelligent and make everyone around them seem like emotional, foolish, goody-goodies who can’t get anything done. She is the starkest reminder that in the real world, right and wrong are messy.

Well, and because Western psychology, Freud and Jung’s archetypes, etc. is very much at the heart of INTO THE WOODS- now who is the character you RELATE to the most?

Nick: Still the Baker’s Wife. Maybe it’s a function of being young or whatever, but I’m still obsessed with trying to live a meaningful life, with reconciling what I want my life to be with what it is becoming.

Oren: I would have given a very different answer in High School, but I’m going to also have to go with the Baker’s Wife. She’s pragmatic, but still emotionally driven and passionate. She doesn’t take no for an answer, and can recognize when the people around her are being ridiculous. At the same time, she’s able to step back and analyze (sometimes over-analyze) her own actions. Her willingness to lie to Jack to get his cow is the gentler, more human, less psychopathic version of the Witch’s willingness to sacrifice him (and while I probably wouldn’t throw anyone to the giant, I do appreciate a do-what-you-gotta-do mentality). She’s also easily distracted by fantasies of an alternate life (“Very Nice Prince” and “Any Moment” — I’m lookin’ at you). Regardless of whether or not I actually have any of these qualities, I certainly identify with them in her.

Brian: The Baker. I think most of us want to be like the Baker’s Wife, but truly we are the Baker. We think we’re the hero, but really we’re making a lot of errors, bumbling along, trying to do the right thing, and making a heck of a mess.

Corinne: The Witch. While I picked the Baker’s Wife as my favorite, most of the traits I love her for are ones I wish I had. I’ve always identified with the Witch (maybe even more so when I played her at 18 than I do now) because I have so often found myself on the outside of groups of people I don’t feel I can really connect with. It’s also not unusual for me to be the once voicing the unpopular or opposing opinion. I identify with her sass and her ability to criticize/call others out without remorse. (Hey, I’m not good, I’m not nice – I’m just right. 😛 )

Marissa: I’m not sure if I currently identify with one Into the Woods character above all others, because frankly, nothing can compare with how deeply I identified with the Witch as a high-school freshman. I’d gone to a new school that year and not found it welcoming, and I very much felt like an outsider. To avoid feeling sad and lonely, I decided that I was actually misunderstood, that I was better than everybody and they’d be sorry one day. I remember walking around campus, cultivating my resentment while singing “Last Midnight” under my breath; “I’m not good, I’m not nice, I’m just right” felt like my credo. What I ignored, of course, is that at the end of that song, the Witch self-destructs. And that’s what I did that year, too. I felt angry, self-righteous, and invincible — and, in an attempt to make friends, I did something incredibly stupid and hurtful that backfired, big time. It’s dangerous to identify with the Witch.

Stuart: Cinderella. In fact, I would maintain that part of the reason why I’ve always loved this show, and why it made such a huge impression on me, is because Cinderella was probably the first character in a play I really, truly related to. I had related to characters in books before, but at 10, when I saw Into the Woods, I hadn’t yet seen a play where a character just made sense to me. And as I’ve gotten older- she makes more and more sense to me. Like Rapunzel, who is her doppleganger in the play, Cinderella wants something that isn’t material, but rather spiritual: she wants an experience, one she believes will transform her and allow her to finally feel like she belongs to somewhere. Then she has the experience and it’s not what she thought it would be, and comes with more than she bargained for. Her line in Act One, “Wanting a ball is not wanting a prince” nails that, and killed me the first time I heard it, I was like, “I know exactly what you mean.” Unlike Rapunzel, Cinderella is disillusioned but never stops learning while also never ceasing to believe in a benevolent world, and it’s her ability to live somewhere in-between “the nightmare” of her father’s house and the “dream” of the Prince’s castle, that ultimately becomes her strength: she, more than any of them, discovers that she can live in the woods. She’s learned to speak with birds and the spirits of the dead, she knows when to run and when to stand and fight, and she protects the people around her- whether it’s Jack, Little Red, or the Baker’s child- and believes in them even when they fail- she’s the one who welcomes the Baker back after he abandons them. Her journey in the play is about learning to be a good parent, someone who is neither the vague but purely supportive dead woman in a tree, nor the nasty wicked stepmother, nor the opportunistic survivor Wife, nor the overbearing and un-compassionate witch. She’s a high self-monitor, and thus often worries, even when she’s sitting on a throne or wearing a crown- that she’s an imposter or a failure (something I constantly worry about, especially when I’m sitting on my throne or wearing my crown), but in the end she wants to be more than a survivor and she comes to understand that entails being a leader and looking for ways to help, to protect, to forgive and to create. I’ve always read the relief with which she accepts the Baker’s invitation to move in (“Sometimes, I really enjoy cleaning”) as a combination of finally being included and appreciated, but also having finally found something she can truly contribute to. Her “I wish” that closes out the play I have always seen as a note of hopefulness, a recognition that we never stop believing in dreams until we’re dead. I have personally always believed that hope is the best within us and imagination is what keeps us alive and Cinderella epitomizes that while also being a neurotic mess on the inside. “An imaginative, hopeful, neurotic mess” is pretty much the most accurate description of myself that I can come up with.

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Join us next week as we dive deeper into the structure and themes of the show, talk about what it means and how it works. Meantime, how would you answer these questions? Sound off in the comments section! Have questions for us- post them there!

Theater Around The Bay: INTO THE WOODS- A Prologue

Starting next week, Theater Pub will be running a three-part commentary panel doing a retrospective on Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s INTO THE WOODS, featuring the thoughts of Bay Area theater makers Stuart Bousel, Brian Katz, Marissa Skudlarek, Oren Stevens, Corinne Proctor, and Nick Trengove, each of whom have their own special connection to the seminal Broadway musical. To whet your appetite, we’re running a review (taboo for us, we know, but this is special) of the new film version of the show, from New York based actor/dancer Tommy Stefanek (who, by the way, in 2000 originated the role of Hugo in the very first production of THE EXILED, back in Tucson). Tommy caught an advance screening of the film on Sunday, this is his response. Oh, and *#*SPOILERS*#*. 

Okay, here are my thoughts about Into The Woods and some comments about tonight because it is not often that after seeing an amazing movie I get to hear Rob Marshall, Meryl Streep, Tracey Ullman, Christine Baranski, Emily Blunt and Anna Kendrick talk about the experience of making the film.

So, if you are a fan of the musical Into the Woods I am pretty sure that you will LOVE this movie. The film had me at the edge of my seat from beginning to end. And yes, there are some things that I didn’t like and some numbers that I missed, but overall I thought the movie was fantastic.

And as they brought up in the Q&A they were able to do many things in the film that you can’t do on stage. For example, how they filmed ‘Steps of the Palace’ was brilliant! All the special effects made you feel the magic so much more! I mean you really get to go into the woods.

Huge stands outs are the kids: Jack (Daniel Huttlestone) and Little Red (Lilla Crawford). They knocked it out of the park. Meryl is even better than you are thinking she will be. And I loved Anna as Cinderella, Emily as the Baker’s Wife, Tracey as Jack’s Mom and Christine Baranski was fantastic as the stepmother. Oh, and the 2 Princes (Chris Pine, Billy Magnussen) singing “Agony” will be a laugh out loud moment for you. We were ‪#‎DYING‬. And yes, both Princes DELIVER. ‪#‎sweetbabyjesus‬

Now, Johnny Depp’s costume is the worst thing in the film. And maybe the second worst thing for me was the fact that I just wanted him to play the wolf but he was playing Johnny Depp as ‘The Wolf’ and I was just like ‪#‎overit‬. But again I am being very picky.

The Baker (James Corden) didn’t connect for me but he had awesome moments and somebody else might really like him so I will leave it at that. I just wanted him to play it more like Chip Zien, the original Baker, but that’s probably just me.

The thing that I mentioned to my partner after the film was that I just feel the original material is so perfect, every lyric, every verse – it is structured so perfectly. And when you trim (which you HAVE to do for film) you lose some of the depth. So, some of the moments near the end don’t have the impact that you need because you had to short change some of the earlier scenes.

And then some of the more “violent” moments were lessened or rather done off screen and I thought that was a poor choice. I think the dark tones of Act 2 really build when you see the Steward hit Jack’s Mom over the head which kills her. The stakes are raised immediately in that unexpectedly violent action and you need to see it. In the film they cheapen the whole moment so it isn’t as dark but I think you need the darkness…

But let me be clear I am being picky right now because the film is that good. We all remember what a piece of shit Les Mis was and this brings us right back to the Chicago days. If you’re a theater person (or not), this movie should be at the top of your list this holiday season and I think you will really love it.