Tuesday, December 30, 2014

The Garden of Song and Story: Sondheim's 'Into the Woods'

            We want to pay heed to the lyrics in Stephen Sondheim's "Into the Woods." (A new film version of this musical with a strong cast and imaginative cinematography opened recently; we saw it last weekend.) The words go by very fast, and are often very clever. They don't paint billboards of truth, but drop their pearls of wisdom like breadcrumbs scattered by lost children. We want to find them, these crumbled pathmarks, to retrace our journey and discover where we've been.
            The play is built from some of our best known folk or "fairy" tales (few fairies in these, though), a common treasury of childhood's cautionary tales. We never leave these stories behind, evidently, though I would have said their interpretive possibilities were used up decades ago. The little girl in the red cloak is threatened by a character called a 'wolf' -- well, of course. "Hey Little Red Riding Hood," the song goes, "you sure are looking good..." Any fable including a seductive-scary male animal, a lot of inter-generational eating up, and some cutting out at the end has 'Freudian game time' written all over it. It's a consuming scenario.
            Sondheim might have started out with "Little Red," and then as the depth psychologists did, noticed that some patterns ran across many of the old tales. Rapunzel is locked up in a tower where no one can get at her, yet her hair gives access. It's sexually attractive power draws princes; it's a way up the tower and into the picture. In "Into the Woods," the witch who is her mother -- a phrase eager young boyfriends might widely apply -- keeps Rapunzel locked up in a tower to protect her from the world because, obviously, the world is a dangerous place.
            But that's where you have to go, the life inside us tells us, if in fact you desire to have the range of experiences we have lately come to call "a life." There are a lot of towers out there and a lot of people staying locked up in them. And, sure, some parents do want to keep their children safe from harm at all costs; and a few like Meryl Streep's deliciously heartless and self-involved witch in the movie must be given a cold shoulder shove-off if you're ever going to escape from that tower. This story's witch eventually goes up in smoke, but we know in reality none of these characters is easy to get rid of: no smoke, no special effects, no Hollywood endings: everyone just gets older.
            Giants are found in these "Woods" as well. Men used to call the lure of a potentially cataclysmic confrontation "seeing the elephant." Going to war is one way of seeing the elephant. As with exploring parts unknown, pursuing adventures that offer rewards but pose serious risks, running away to sea, almost anyone can go -- but not everyone is coming back. Women had a harder time running off after adventure -- in "Into the Woods" the baker keeps trying to send his more competent wife home -- but sex, childbirth, and child-raising often prove dangerous enough in themselves. The Baker's Wife persists and wins recognition from her husband of her right to share in the challenge of lifting the witch's curse that has left her barren. But after she conceives, births, and mothers her infant in comically short order (a few swift cuts in the magical universe of film), the Wife also has a quick fling with a prince -- who offers this apogee of ironic self-assessment: "I was raised to be charming, not sincere" -- and proceeds to pay a very steep price for stepping off the straight and narrow.
            So does the mother of Jack (of "Beanstalk" fame), whose determination to protect her offspring is expressed in belittling what he cares about and telling him what he cannot do. Jack's encounter with "the woods" of the world shows him quite capable of stealing from giants (though why exactly does anyone want a giant's harp?). But his adventure also brings the wrath of the giant down on the community.
            And then of course there is Cinderella, who discovers she doesn't really want a "prince"; what she wants is an escape from oppressive domesticity, the household servant role in which so many girls find themselves slotted by circumstances in the so-called real world. Her self-assessment is also on the mark: "My father's house was hell," she tells the prince, "your house was heaven. I want something in between."
            Yet, at the end, after all the sex-and-stranger danger, witchery, monsters, and cautionary turns of plot, the show is most centrally about parents and children. When the tumult of so many forays "into the woods" with its liberating and dangerous encounters, twists and turns of plot clearly representative of our own journey into the "wilderness" of time, place and humankind's terrible freedom, we are left with a man and three young survivors seeking to comfort a baby. They sing "Children Will Listen":   
            How do you say to your child in the night?
Nothing's all black, but then nothing's all white
How do you say it will all be all right
When you know that it might not be true?
What do you do?
Careful the things you say
Children will listen
Careful the things you do
Children will see and learn
Children may not obey, but children will listen
Children will look to you for which way to turn
To learn what to be
Careful before you say "Listen to me"
Children will listen
Careful the wish you make
Wishes are children
Careful the path they take
Wishes come true, not free
Careful the spell you cast
Not just on children
Sometimes a spell may last
Past what you can see
And turn against you
Careful the tale you tell
That is the spell
Children will listen
How do you say to a child who's in flight
"Don't slip away and I won't hold so tight"
What can you say that no matter how slight
Won't be misunderstood.
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
Careful the things you say
Children will listen
Careful you do them too
Children will see
And learn
Guide them, but step away
Children will glisten
Tamper with what is true
And children will turn
If just to be free
Careful before you say
"Listen to me"
Children will listen ...

            Sondheim's "Into the Woods" uses the tropes of these depth psychology-fraught folk tales to ask the questions human beings still need to ask themselves. How do you say to anyone "it will be all right" when you know that it may very well not? And sometimes even when you know it won't be (certainly not all right), saying that it will be may still be the best course.
            And yet there is also, as both the lyrics of "Children Will Listen" and the events of the story demonstrate, a danger in holding on too tight. When it comes to songs and lyrics by Sondheim, audiences should listen too.