"I felt like Salieri, or a dog watching TV: furious and hostile and confused": Bellowing about trees with Sondheim
Roughly once a year or so, in an effort to better understand my friend and sometimes-business partner Nicole Cliffe, I sally forth and attempt to shove some Sondheim into my person. This has never worked, because I am categorically not smart enough to Get Sondheim. Working with Nicole for the last three years reminded me that there is an unambiguous difference between being smart and having read a lot of books. One can be both, or neither, or one or the other. Nicole is both. I have merely read a lot of books, and have experienced diminishing returns on the experience with every year past twenty.
I should like Sondheim. All the necessary ingredients are present. I like patter and Sondheim People and the idea of being in a theater audience and feeling like a smart person; in theory I like Bernadette Peters, although if pressed to name a single movie of hers I’m afraid I’d mix her up with Madeline Kahn. Perhaps it is truer to say that I like the idea of being a person who has seen a lot of movies Bernadette Peters has been in, and is sure that she was in The Jerk, not just pretty sure but would have to look it up before committing to the assertion.
A number of years ago Nicole showed me a recording of Into The Woods’ original Broadway cast and I prepared myself to placidly adore it as I had been instructed to do; this is not usually difficult for me. If I begin watching a movie having already decided to love it, I will almost always succeed. This time, I failed immediately. The subsequent three and a half hours were a shock and a blur. An endless succession of figures in burlap strode about the stage bellowing about trees to such an extent that even John Muir might have plausibly begged off. From almost the first note I knew I was going to hate Into The Woods, was already hip-deep in the hating of Into The Woods, but felt none of my usual joyful exhilaration in realizing I was going to have fun hating something for a few hours. I knew I was wrong to hate it, which is not nearly as fun as being willfully contrarian. I felt like Salieri, or a dog watching TV: furious and hostile and confused.
Anyhow, earlier this week my friend Jon told me he had an extra tickets to Fiasco Theater’s touring production of Into The Woods, and asked me if I wanted to go with him. I did not want to go – decidedly and assuredly did not want to – knew that to go would mean pizza-ing when I wanted to french fry and would result in a guaranteed bad time – but I very much wanted to see my friend Jon, and I wanted not to be on the wrong side of Sondheim, and I want to understand people and be understood by them in turn, and I don't make a very lovable contrarian, so I decided to go.
My friend J, who spent several years in daily psychoanalysis and is the bravest person I know, loves Sondheim and is deeply patient with me. I texted J during intermission; here is an abridged version of that conversation:
SELF: oh my god
J: Did they really polish off the whole show in two hours? That was a quick trip into
SELF: It’s intermission
J: ahhh, they still gotta go back
SELF: OH, DO THEY GO INTO THE WOODS IN THIS MUSICAL? THAT POINT FELT UNCLEAR
J: See, the thing about the woods is
you gotta go into them
SELF: *INTO* THE WOODS, YOU SAY?
J the actual second the show started I said to myself “Oh God, oh no, I still entirely fucking hate this thing”
J: yes, hating is a thing one can do
SELF: but then I didn’t hate it anymore by the end of Act I?
J: oh wow
SELF: I just sort of gave up on wanting to be happy
also everyone onstage is monstrously talented and after a while the ceaseless introductions and repeated phrases started to feel like I was either being hypnotized or being told something very true and I owe them at the very least my full attention
J: That’s the whole point of psychoanalysis!
SELF: IT WORKED
also I did like the song where the princes yelled about agony because I am a simple child and it had a melody and I felt safe
because if I hear one more goddamn note from the woodblock denoting the act of someone angrily throwing a bean I will lose it
how did you do psychoanalysis every day for YEARS
J: Every day!
SELF: EVERY DAY
J: The thing is, when you are doing analysis, you get to be the woodblock rather than the person who has to listen to it
SELF: I am a weak and broken vessel and deserve to be particulated
J: The woods are many, and here are some things you can do to them:
Go into them
Come out of them
Go into them again
Never come out of them again
SELF: oh god it’s starting again
J: you’re going to die and that’s okay
This was, it turned out, the correct spiritual attitude to adopt; the second half of the show passed in an instant, while the first half ran for roughly eight thousand ultraviolet years. By the end I no longer hated anyone, not even myself; I desired only to be reconciled with all of humanity. I could not imagine leaving the theater, nor in letting any of the actors leave the stage. They were all my children, which meant they were also my beans, and beans are wishes, and dreams don’t exist.
Most of the second act consisted of a character I did not recognize announcing the offscreen death of a character I dimly remembered, whereupon all the other onstage characters sank to their knees in shock and reminded the audience members that wanting something is a very bad idea, and you’ll hate it.
THE ENTIRE CAST OF “INTO THE WOODS,” WHICH I BELIEVE IS STEPHEN SONDHEIM SPEAKING TO ME PERSONALLY BECAUSE HE RECOGNIZES MY NUMEROUS PERSONAL FAILINGS: Have you ever thought about trees, or sex
what if no one ever liked anything, have you ever thought about what that might be like
P.G. Wodehouse: "Are there any books of that sort nowadays? The only ones I ever see mentioned in the papers are about married couples who find life grey, and can't stick each other at any price."
Me (quietly, from the audience): if one more person drops to their knees in shock over something they have done I am going to climb into the sun and kick Helios in the head.
TECOITWWIBISSSTMPBHRMNPF: having things is worse than wanting them, have you ever thought about wanting things, what if wanting things were a bad idea and happy things made you sad
Me (quietly, from the audience): this is pretty much just what Spock says to Stonn and T’Pring in “Amok Time,” we could just be watching “Amok Time”
me, to me: all you ever watch is things you have already watched and know you enjoy. You are perhaps the most fearful person in this entire building.
THE WITCH: that cute little line about not being good or nice just right
Me: admittedly that is a solid line but you have been demonstrably wrong about most things and also I think your badness has been super-firmly established so suggesting everyone else is equally morally compromised for being unwilling to resell a cow or whatever feels THIN
SOMEONE ELSE ONSTAGE: we are back in the woods again, let’s really think about the woods
Me: where is my PAP, where are my CLEARLY DELINEATED SONGS with MARKED BEGINNINGS AND ENDS with a CHORUS, enough of this Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo pun-bantery
My friend Jon, at intermission: Do you want to go? We don’t have to stay, I’m fine with leaving if you want to leave –
Me: I can’t leave because I don’t understand life and this musical knows how wrong I am about everything
(An aside to you, the reader: I just want to point out that when you google “Into the Woods” the first suggested related search is “how many times do they say ‘into the woods’ in Into the Woods”)
me, to me: Okay but like do you think Stephen Sondheim didn’t KNOW what he was doing, like obviously he is aware of how many times people say into the woods in Into The Woods, it’s not like the lyrics got away from him or something, he’s clearly trying to do something on purpose here
me: BUT WHAT IS IT
me, to me: life is stern and life is earnest and children listen to stories, I guess, life is full of suffering and you are a whimsical little puff of cloud and it’s time you sat in a big room for a hundred years and really THOUGHT about trees and how bad it is to want things, allow this to purify and ennoble you
me: Okay but can we all agree that the Baker was well within his rights not to sell the cow back to Jack because he clearly said he “might” and not that he would
me, to me: Sure, if that’s important to you
I came home, feeling more than a little defeated but not especially troubled by that fact, and told Nicole of my latest failed attempt to Get Sondheim. She made me promise never to watch Sunday In the Park With George (“You will hate it, and that will upset me; I can barely handle this right now and I keep thinking ‘maybe if I play her ‘Being Alive’ from Company things will be different’”), and I have thus far kept my promise.