I’ve been tied up with moving and getting myself resettled back in New York City for the last few weeks, so I’ve neglected not only my writing, but my blogging. But look out — I’m back! I’m also going to be discussing theater along with books and (I hope) tying together the ideas of narrative and storytelling in both. And my first theater experience back in New York had everything to do with storytelling.
I was lucky enough to score a ticket to the Public Theater’s production of Into The Woods on my first day back. It’s part of their Shakespeare in the Park season (technically, Sondheim in the Part) that plays in the Delacorte Theater in Central Park. It’s always a wonderful experience – the setting and the excitement of outdoor theater make it incredibly special.
For those of you not familiar with the show, Into the Woods is Stephen Sondheim’s 1987 Broadway musical (with a smart book by James Lapine) that uses the Brothers Grimm versions of the tales of Cinderella, Rapunzel, Red Riding Hood, and (added for the show) a childless Baker and his Wife in the first act, while in the second act we find out what happens to the characters during the “happily ever after.” It’s also one of my favorite Sondheim shows, although it’s hard to single any one out as the best. I remember during the original Broadway run some audiences complained that the first act was great, but it all fell apart in the second. For me, that idea is ridiculous. The show takes flight in the second act, examining the grey moral area of the original tales, and reframing what it means to be a family, a child, a parent or a sibling. I still get choked up during the song between the Baker and the Mysterious Man and I’ve seen it a number of times. It’s a beautiful, moving show that uses great literature (fairy tales) and storytelling to its advantage.
If I have any issue with the current production, it’s the storytelling aspect. The director, Timothy Sheader, has added a framing narrative in which the narrator is now a boy who has run away from home. To calm himself he tells the stories and before our eyes the characters come to life. It’s not a bad idea, but it doesn’t really add much, so I don’t know that it’s quite necessary. It also muddies the sacrifice of the narrator to the Giant’s Widow (a great bit of metafiction on the stage, if that’s even possible) and made me wonder how it was that the boy was still alive at the end of the show (late spoiler alert). Like I say, it’s not a bad idea, but it’s not thought all the way through to the end and doesn’t really add anything to the story. The theme of parenting (and parenting one’s self) is strong enough in the original without it being underlined.
In the preface to his book Finishing The Hat, Sondheim sets out three rules:
“Content Dictates Form; Less Is More; God Is in the Details, all in the service of Clarity without which nothing else matters.”
I wish he would make this required reading to the acting editions of his shows. The framing device surrenders a bit of the show’s clarity, but even more, the direction and staging make a good deal of the storyline opaque. The characters have been given what I guess is a sort of hip makeover – Red Riding Hood is a sort of skater-girl, Cinderella’s Stepmother is an S&M queen, etc. Again, these aren’t necessarily bad ideas, but since the musical turns the stories on their head in the second act, it isn’t really helpful to have them turned inside out in the first place. Also, the staging on the unit set, the sound design, and the lighting in the opening number make distinguishing the separate storylines a bit difficult. It put me in mind of the John Doyle production of Sweeney Todd in which I thought that if an audience member hadn’t already seen the show, they would be rather confused as to who was who and where they were supposed to be in relation to each other. I love a new fresh take or a different way of looking at something, but not just for the sake of difference. Clarity, clarity, clarity. And believe me, I say this for my own good too – I need to remind myself of it over and over and over again.
But all of this quibbling aside, it was a beautiful night that I wouldn’t have missed. The dusk settling as the show opens, the moon rising, Sondheim’s gorgeous music on a beautiful summer night – all of it a gift. If you haven’t had a chance to experience a show in Central Park, put it on your list.