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The Kids Are Alright – “Into The Woods” Edition

May 29, 2012

Attending a high school musical is different from attending a middle/elementary school show.  The teenagers are older, more competent, more resilient, more experienced (usually).  There are occasional moment of terror when a singer looks (with eyes wide and brow knitted) to the conductor to make sure she doesn’t miss a difficult starting cue…or when the lights close on one scene and nothing happens for a few awkward seconds before they come up to start the next one…or when two actors stumble on a bit of rapid-fire comic dialogue…but it’s nothing like the emotional roller-coaster of watching the younger kids when the whole show could fall apart at any moment (but somehow, miraculously, doesn’t).

High school students are almost adults.  (In most societies in human history, they would be.)  They’ve mostly grown into their adult bodies (the girls more than the boys) and voices (ditto).  Still, Stephen Sondheim’s “Into The Woods”?  This is not early, “West Side Story”-era Sondheim, when he was just providing lyrics to fit the music of that great populist, Leonard Bernstein—and working off “Romeo and Juliet”, still the most commonly read Shakespeare play in American public high schools today.  This is late Sondheim, in which his music and lyrics are matched up with (and spark off of) James Lapine’s book, itself heavily influenced by Lapine’s off-Broadway-honed, avant-garde instincts.

Sondheim and Lapine don’t just re-present Grimm’s Fairy Tales.  They deconstruct them, mash them up, and shatter the confines of storytelling that begins “Once upon a time…” and ends with “…happily ever after.”  They’re like DJs sampling and mixing beats and riffs.  In fact, Sondheim’s rapid-fire lyrical inventiveness bears more that a passing resemblance to a rapper with great flow—and presents similar challenges for anyone trying to perform it.  (It’s just that Sondheim’s flow is as deeply rooted in the musical theater tradition as great rappers are in hip-hop, soul and funk.)

Add to this the challenge of mounting the production in a “black box” theater that seats 150—not counting the orchestra squeezed in the far corner of the room–and has a “stage” that’s at most 50′ wide and 20′ deep.  (The school was built nearly 100 years ago, and the bare-bones auditorium barely has enough A/V equipment to hold assemblies.)

But these are ordinary (which is to say, extraordinary) city kids—products of public education in early 21st century America.  They’re resourceful.  They’re talented.  They’re daring.  Where older and wiser performers might fear to tread, they step boldly into the fairy tales from their childhood, even as they stand on the precipice of the complex, conflicted, murky world of adult moral responsibility—where actions have unforeseen and sometimes horrible consequences, where nothing ends “happily ever after”.

And so the scenes between Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf crackle with sexual tension.  The baker and his wife scramble minute-to-minute to keep their love alive as the constantly shifting challenges of life threaten to overwhelm them.  The relationship between Jack and his mother teeters as precariously as any modern single-parent family beset by the grinding, unending struggle to make ends meet.  The princes are as broadly self-satisfied (and thus humorous) as any Wall Street scions—and just as suddenly vulnerable once they leave their castles and encounter the wider world.

All of this takes on heightened meaning because these young people are themselves on the verge of going “into the woods” themselves…into the adult world.  (The seniors will graduate in a few days.)  They know it and we the audience (their parents, grandparents, classmates, friends, neighbors, teachers, sisters and brothers) know it.

Is it a “better” production than in a professional theater?  Technically, no.  Is it a more powerful and emotional theatrical experience?  Oh yes.

After all, there’s more at stake here.  What if, after all these years and all this preparation, they’re not ready to go “into the woods”?

But as the show unfolds, as you follow its twists and turns, as the orchestra wrestles (mostly successfully) with Sondheim’s tricky score, as the actors rise to meet the challenge of this (by turns) heady, ironic, emotional, and philosophical script, as the small stage is packed for the rousing finale, and as we stand and cheer while the children-adults before us bask in the self-knowledge of their accomplishment and the adulation of their audience, it hits you again:  despite all the challenges they face (and have yet to face), despite the free-floating anxiety and sometimes-scarily-concrete fears of their elders, the kids are alright.

That’s good for them.  It’s good for us.  And it’s an-oh-so-small, but oh-so-important sign of hope for the future of our nation.

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