Wednesday, August 18, 2010

"You've changed. You're daring. You're different in the woods."

Into the Woods was the musical that made me like rap music -- well, made me receptive to it -- and was also the musical that introduced me to Stephen Sondheim. I brought home the soundtrack from the library because it was a musical, and it was about fairy tales, and really, that in itself was enough.

I think I was 12. 13? There was an awful lot that I didn't pick up; I knew that it was different from Rodgers & Hammerstein, but if you'd asked me how, I'm not sure that I would have been able to say anything more than that it sounded completely different in terms of rhythm, melody, and harmony. Now I can think back to some of the more saccharine R&H numbers (Surrey With the Fringe On Top, anyone?) and Andrew Lloyd Webber's cloying Puccini imitations, and think, with horror, that were it not for Sondheim, musicals would have become intolerable.

This isn't to say that Sondheim can do no wrong. I think that Sweeney Todd is amazing; so well-crafted that I dare you to find a single word or note that's superfluous. But what makes Sondheim great is that he could set insecurity, annoyance, and ennui to music -- and that's probably also his greatest weakness. I remembered feeling, when I finally got to see the video of the original Broadway cast, that the second act was less tight than the first one; that the stories just get sort of mushed together. Getting thrown together by chance rather than by choice is part of the point, I know, but it felt sloppy, too.

I didn't know that Into the Woods was playing in London, let alone at an outdoor stage in a wooded grove in Regent's Park, until I went to the Sondheim prom, and people were talking about it; and lo, when I went got home most of the good seats were gone, but I scored one in the fourth row center section.

The set is quite elaborate: three levels of platforms stretching across the stage; each tall enough to stand on, and ladders and stairs running between them. Rapunzel's tower at the center, in the back. And trees all around. The costumes were rather Tim Burtonesque, but it worked. The Witch seemed to be midway through a transformation into a tree (which meant that she had creepily root-like figures), but midway, turned into Louise Brooks (with more of a mod-Victorian outfit than flapper look, though). She really did own the part, and I did not find myself making Peters comparisons (aside from being aware of slightly different rhythms in her opening number, and this only goes to show how many times I've listened to that track over the years).

I thought that the whole cast was outstanding, though. You need a strong Witch, and a strong Baker's Wife especially, and you'd better have an interesting Red Riding-Hood, if you're not going to just skate through. This production had each of those things, but I was equally aware of the chemistry between the Baker's Wife and the Baker, and the parallel (but not identical) sexual awakenings of Red and Jack, and how much this show is about the ways that parents and children can and do wound each other as much as it's about sex.

There's one innovation that this production does that works particularly well: the Narrator, traditionally played by a Bettelheimesque man in a suit, becomes a child, probably 10-12, who has run away from home, into the woods, with a sleeping bag, a lunchbox, and a small backpack of toys who become representations of the various figures. This adaptation is so effective that I wonder that no one has thought of it before. Or maybe they have?

In short, sure, it's not the razor-sharp libretto of Sweeney Todd, but with a strong cast, the stories echo each other, rather than merely repeating. And the setting, in which the story deepens and darkens as the sun drops down out of the horizon, really couldn't be improved. In the second act, dusk had fallen, but the whole sky was an eerily washed-out orange, and the trees were lit with blue lights, which made them appear to have an ashy-grey patina; and it was a perfect accompaniment for the darkness of what takes place. Just as the Baker and the Old Man begin to reconcile, the orange had faded away, and the lightest of rain showers (delicate as lace) fell for a few minutes, only to ease away in the very last song, and in time for the curtain call.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

If you miss a beat, just find another.

Do I really have 25 posts on this blog?

I suppose I might. And yet I keep on letting it sink into oblivion, but once again, I'm going to try to pull it out.

This summer, I'm in London -- I've been here for 40 days; and I have about 35 left. I'm balancing between work on a research grant, dissertation work, spending time with my partner, and seeing wonderful art, theatre, and music. So far, this is what I've learned, or seen:

* Enron, Lucy Prebble's semi-musical about selling ideas and corporate collapse, only failed on Broadway because its satirical portrayals of corporate culture pale in comparison to the way that members of that corporate culture satirize themselves every day.

* The Tempest is a very hard play to do well when you are being traditionalist, as the Sam Mendes production at the Old Vic is. Christian Camargo's Ariel is intriguing enough, but the rest was such a lifeless fidelity to the script that I found myself genuinely fascinating by the lighting design.

* On the other hand, the same cast presented a stunningly good As You Like It, such that I forgot entirely that I was watching a play at all. And I think they are to be commended all the more for inhabiting the script so thoroughly while remaining so traditional.

* The V & A Small Spaces exhibit is as wonderful as you would expect it to be. I climbed in Ratatosk, thought that I could probably sleep very comfortably in the In-between architecture, and of course, climbed up through the space that has gotten the most attention, Rintala Eggertsson Architects' Ark, the "flat made entirely out of bookshelves." It's not really a flat, as there is hardly room to sleep anywhere, but it is a fascinating and restful space. Most fascinating, to me, anyways, was the fact that though it was chock full of books of all sorts, my eyes kept landing on books that were familiar to me, that I might have on my bookshelf. This could not have been simply a question of recognizing the spines, as many of the editions were not ones that I owned or had seen before. When I first entered, I spotted several Henning Mankell novels, and later on, found Marguerite Yourcenar, Harper Lee, John Betjeman, James Herriot, and Jean M. Auel. I even spotted a paperback edition of Harriet Walter's memoir, Other People's Shoes. I don't know if other people have the same experience, but it would be interesting to know if they did.