I have a powerful, emotional and visceral connection to musical theatre. When I go to see a musical, any musical, I start to cry. It doesn’t matter if it’s a show I know and love or one I can barely sing along too; whether it’s a comedy or a tragedy. You can guarantee that, before the orchestra has a chance to find their groove, I will be in floods. (There is only one exception so far to this rule: Miss Saigon. I really hate that show. And Grease but I would never willingly go to a theatre to see Grease. Unless one of my former students was starring in it and offered me complimentary tickets and it would have to be a former student I really, really, really liked.)
It doesn’t even have to be a live stage production. Glee held me in its saccharine grip for three seasons. After one episode I had to phone a friend and sob about it to him. I went through an entire box of tissues during Les Miserables. Even the recent televised Tribute to Tim Rice had me misty eyed. Is it any wonder that I spent most of the two and whatever hour performance of Into the Woods quietly crying into my daughter’s hair? (She sat on my lap throughout Act Two and, for the record, hair is not terribly absorbent. #shouldabroughttissues)
Why do I get so verklempt by musical theatre? At first I thought it was just musicals I loved at an early age: Les Miz, Into the Woods, Chess, Sunday in the Park with George, Evita, Cats (I was nine, ok?), Pirates of Penzance, Jesus Christ Superstar… I’m going to stop listing now because this is taking too long. But why did I sniffle through Wicked, a show I like very much but am not particularly attached to emotionally? Why did a scene from Lion King performed at the Tony Awards reduce me to a gibbering puddle? I hate that stupid film!
My conclusion is that I am Pavlovianally (there’s an adverb for you) hard-wired to respond with deep emotion to musical theatre because so many of my happiest, most fulfilling moments from the age of 8-18 can be linked to musicals: shows I’ve been in, shows I’ve seen, soundtracks I’ve listened to so often they are in my blood. When the lights going down and the orchestra tunes up I’m transported through a worm hole where sequins, recitatives and cycloramas mix with willow trees I’ve climbed, friends and family I’ve loved, opening night jitters, closing night tears, a lighting gel sample fan I carried around for years that taught me everything I know about colour, practising my tap dancing on a discarded plank of driftwood in my living room when I was ten, my dad in a pink dress playing the role of Hysterium in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Forum when I was seventeen.
Most of all, musicals remind me of my small town high school which put on a musical every spring. Some parts of my adolescence sucked, but once a year there was a musical and all my friends were in it. Every night we rehearsed, every weekend we painted sets, hunted for props or made costumes and every moment I remember thinking there was nowhere else I would rather be. On my eighteenth birthday, after our last dress rehearsal of the last show I would do on my high school stage, the entire cast sang “Happy Birthday” to me and someone brought cake and ice cream and there was nowhere else I would rather have been. Spring is still my favourite time of year and I still put on high school shows—only now I’m the teacher/director. Magic, memory and music combine into a heady emotional cocktail, rendering me powerless to resist the siren songs.
I should pause at this point for an interval/intermission because this blog was supposed to be a review of Into the Woods and it’s turning out to be Confessions of a Musical Junkie.
At the age of sixteen, right in the middle of my most musically emotional period, I discovered Into the Woods and immediately claimed it as my own. Sondheim wrote it for me. I am as convinced of this now as I was at sixteen. What could be more Kate than a musical fairytale? Nothing.
For me, this show is a coming of age story in every way. The characters and story, lyrics and themes taught me a lot about the kind of person I wanted to be but also warned me about the pitfalls of growing up and making choices. “Nice is different than good,” Little Red Ridinghood taught me. “Isn’t it nice to know a lot…and a little bit not,” she also sings, which resonated with me as a self-confessed Miss Know It All. Jack warned me about giants in the sky, but also reassured me that when I came back to my small world, it would seem different but dearer. This is what every kid needs to know when they leave home to go to university. Cinderella and The Baker’s Wife taught me about men. Handsome princes might be good for “whatever” but it was likely that they would be “charming not sincere” and I should wait for someone in-between. I learned that for sure.
The Baker taught me the most because Into the Woods really is his story. In the first act he tries so hard to complete a quest without losing his moral compass—unlike his wife who is willing to do anything to get what she wants. But when he loses her in the second act, he loses his way in the woods. Scared that he will become “like father, like son”, he runs from the consequences of his choices. Everyone runs from the consequences of their desire to achieve their dreams because their choices leave a big, bloody mess on the stage. This musical is all about choices and the consequences of those choices and the realisation that while you are chasing your dreams, others are chasing theirs or just trying to keep their heads down and get on with their lives. The final choices that these characters face are not necessarily good ones, but you can see them trying hard and that is the point. You will make mistakes but fix them as best you can then tell your story and hopefully the next generation will learn a truth from it. Into the Woods is a big chapter of my Bible which, I guess makes Sondheim a major prophet of some kind.
As with Les Miz and Sweeney Todd, I was scared (“well, excited and scared”) to see the film. I heard they had changed it, Disneyied it, sanitised it. They didn’t really. There were a few changes but mostly it was the musical I knew and loved with a cast cooked up in fairyland. Chris Pine, Emily Blunt and Anna Kendrick are just perfect. Little Lilla Crawford (I was scared at first that she had lip synced it but I looked her up and she’s totally a Broadway baby) is a gem. I liked Meryl Streep, but as a fan of the show I wish they had cast Bernadette Peters so there could be one connection to the original play. James Cordon continues to challenge my expectations and my biggest regret of the film is that he didn’t get to do “No More”. Hoping for a director’s cut DVD.
As with Les Miz and Sweeney Todd and even Noises Off, I did find myself thinking throughout the film (when I wasn’t crying): great cast, great costumes and staging but can I please just see all these people do this on stage? I’m a boards and greasepaint gal over screens and celluloid I guess. I crave the live.