Wednesday, December 31, 2014

once upon a time

Warning: spoilers ahead!

In 1987, I was an ambitious, undereducated, oversexed, too-smart-for-my-own-good, 24 year old. Ronald Reagan was President, Ed Koch was the Mayor of New York City, and AIDS was ravaging both coasts of the country. To those who weren't there, it's difficult to explain how extreme the levels of fear and anger permeating nearly everything in New York City, especially the world of the performing arts. Rock Hudson and Liberace were the highest visibility celebrity casualties of the epidemic (Hudson died in '85, and Liberace in '87), but the worlds of fashion, opera, ballet, and Broadway saw daily losses. Casting directors were actively overlooking gay men for less talented heterosexual actors for fear of illness or death, and in social circles, friends would get sick and return to their childhood homes to wither away with their families, or they'd simply disappear. On the dance floor Saturday night, gone by Monday. These were very scary times.

Amid the horror and tragedy, Stephen Sondheim, who is both openly gay and arguably the father of the modern American musical (that particular torch having been passed to him from Oscar Hammerstein), opened his eagerly awaited Broadway musical parable, "Into the Woods," which featured a cast of characters straight from the pages of familiar fairy tales. Incongruous? More ingenious, really. 

He's never said so, but to those cognoscenti-New York-theater-goers who were lucky enough to have seen those first run of performances at the Martin Beck Theater on West 45th Street (renamed the Al Hirshfeld Theater in 2003), it was clear that Sondheim was using the murderous, and in that production, unseen giant as an allegory for AIDS. In the play's second act, characters we'd grown up with, known all our lives, and felt a deep kinship to were inexplicably taken from us; violently snatched away, some as retribution for personal transgressions, others completely randomly. The Happily Ever After at the end of the play's first act proved a fallacious construct that couldn't be realized no matter how much we wished for it (I wish...). 

Robert Westenberg as the Wolf
Despite its fancy-free, fairy tale facade, "Into the Woods" was a dark piece of theater, one that dared to address and even push the public's comfort boundaries on topics that rarely see the light of day, at least not in musical theater. The original scenes between Little Red as a sexually curious teenager and the Wolf as an insatiable sexual predator deliciously teetered on inappropriate. So much so that when I saw the original production in previews, the wolf appeared on stage wearing just a motorcycle jacket and a huge, hairy, prosthetic cock and balls. I understand that after many complaints from theater patrons who'd brought children to the show expecting a family-friendly fairy tale musical, the Wolf's costume was changed, and he got a pair of pants for the opening.

The Disney-fied film version completely avoids addressing any sexual content within Little Red's story line by casting the prepubescent Lila Crawford. While the young Ms Crawford's performance shone for me in the film, of course, none of the vital and electric topics (childhood sexuality, female sexuality, sexual curiosity and experimentation) that made her story line in the stage production so compelling were able to be addressed. And given the cartoon phoning-in of Johnny Depp's, Wolf (more like Pirate Jack Sparrow in a kitty-cat costume), it would be preposterous if he'd had any sexual appeal at all. Though Little Red's lyrics remain unchanged, what I remember in the theater as clearly indicating newfound sexual knowledge and loss of virginity, read as hollow in relation to her bizarre encounter with the Wolf in the film.  

There are numerous other vital happenings that were in the stage production that have been scrubbed from the film. Perhaps most notable, and most mentioned in nearly every review I've seen (which is admittedly, not many), is the absence of the Narrator; an important role whose song, "No More," a partial duet with the Baker (his son), was not only beautiful and poignant, but important to the trajectory of the story. The Narrator also served as a go-between from audience to action, and when he was brutally killed in the second act, the delineation between audience and on-stage action was symbolically eliminated, making the tragedy of the second act that much more real for the audience. 

Also sadly departed, and I feel equally important, is the reprise of the song "Agony." The Princes sing this song in the first act when they're longing to be united with their Princesses. The reprise of the song in the second act (missing from the Disney version), comes "happily ever after," when the Princes have already been united with their Princesses, who are now waiting for them at home. In the reprise, however, the Princes are not only bored with their Princess wives, but long to stray with, respectively, a sleeping girl as white as snow encased in a glass casket (there's a dwarf standing guard), and a sleeping beauty isolated in a castle surrounded by brambles and thorns. The song sets up Cinderella's Prince's adulterous encounter with the Baker's Wife, and also highlights the piece's overarching moral, "be careful what you wish for." Those who saw it will remember that in the original stage production, the Wolf and Cinderella's Prince were played by the same actor. This, of course, is harder to pull off on film than it is on stage where the audience's suspension of belief is heightened, but it was a very successful device, which helped to suggest that perhaps there is a little bit of Wolf in even the most charming of princes. 

The theme of death and disillusionment remains in the film, but seems so watered down so as to not offend or challenge Disney's target demographic. In the stage production, for example, when Milky White (the cow, and Jack's friend) dies, Jack's loss (Jack, simple-minded and also played by a teen on stage) is deep and poignant, yet Milky White's screen death seems to pass with no mention at all, save how the cow might help resolve the Witch's spell.

Also absent was the vital struggle of the Baker's Wife to be seen as an equal by her husband. The action of the film seems to start with both Baker and Wife on equal footing, seemingly eliminating any need for this feminist subplot. And while that may be a good indication of how far we've come in the past 27 years, the urgency of the Baker's Wife's struggle to be seen as an equal in breaking the spell (a struggle which won Joanna Gleason a Tony award for Best Actress in a musical) was missed by this viewer. 

Perhaps most intrinsic in the film's not working for me is the Witch. There are two points related to the Witch where I feel the film goes astray. The first is that, in the original, Repunzel is killed by the Giant. This, of course, helps explain the Witch's urgent and extreme descent into madness and her disappearance. 

There is certainly more to be gleaned from the Witch's character that I may be missing or am glossing over simply for the sake of time and space - notably that the Witch's love for Repunzel indicates that "Witches can be good," among other things. This piece is very complex and rich with plenty of room for analysis. 

The second problem for me with the Witch in the film, and I know I may get some flak for this, is the casting. Yes, Meryl Streep is an amazing actor; a magician who can do no wrong. She can conquer any accent, time period; she can sing, dance - we love her, really, we do, but, forgive me, she is just too old for this role.  

In 1987, when Bernadette Peters, as the Witch, was freed from the spell that turned her into a crooked-nosed, wart-covered, hump-backed old crone, she transformed into, well, Bernadette Peters! And not just any Bernadette Peters, but a sparkling, voluptuous, 38 year old Bernadette Peters, whose snowy-white breasts were spilling from atop her silken curvy hourglass silhouette. A transformation that made the audience gasp as one - we all suddenly realized how unfair and cruel the spell was to hide this glorious beauty behind the mask of an old shriveled gorgon. When Meryl Streep's Witch, by comparison, breaks the evil spell, she is transformed from a disheveled old woman, to a very well-put together old woman. Again, she's terrific! I love her, but no amount of cinematic movie-magic is going to transform a 65 year old Meryl Streep into a 30-something year old knockout. She gets transformed into a great-looking 60-something year old Meryl Streep.

Some of this may read as petty and nit-picky, and I apologize for that, but as I watched the film, I actually wept remembering what was going on in my world when I'd first seen the show, and how deeply it had effected me. Watching the film, I also felt cheated that such an important and richly textured piece of musical theater had been robbed of its dark and prophetic messages, and turned saccharin for Disney's box office, family-friendly purposes. While perhaps understandable that the celluloid version be sweetened up for its Christmas day release, it's also, unfortunately been stripped of its psychological complexities and much of its emotional content.

In light of what was happening at the time of its premiere; Right-wing religious fanatics claiming that homosexuals had brought a pestilence upon themselves, FDA regulations refusing life-saving drugs to dying young men, hospitals denying humane treatment to patients, and a President who hadn't mentioned AIDS until that very year (compare Reagan's response to more than 20,000 dead Americans with how the press treated Obama when 1 American was diagnosed with Ebola), I continue to hold the show's original messages close; not only that I must continue to be careful for what I wish for, but that someone is on my side, and that no one is alone. 

That damaged and beaten small community; that nontraditional family of those frightened and traumatized few that remain at the closing of the show promise to rebuild, and that is just what we have done, and continue to do. 

Isn't it nice to know a lot?
... and a little bit not.

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