The following is an excerpt from Stephen Sondheim’s Look, I Made a Hat: Collected Lyrics (1981 – 2011) with Attendant Comments, Amplifications, Dogmas, Harangues, Digressions, Anecdotes and Miscellany. Thank you to Alfred A. Knopf for allowing us to share the author’s insights with our audience.
After the exhilaration of Sunday in the Park with George, I wanted immediately to write another show with James Lapine. I suggested that we write a quest musical along the lines of The Wizard of Oz, the one movie musical I had loved in which the songs not only defined the characters and carried the story forward but were wonderful stand-alone songs as well. James replied that it would be frustratingly difficult to invent a fantasy quest that could sustain itself for two hours or more because there were too many possibilities: a shining irony when you consider that the last line of Sunday in the Park with George comes from the young artist looking at a blank canvas and exalting, “So many possibilities.” But indeed, how do you go about inventing a picaresque adventure peopled with fantastic creatures? When you have infinite choices and no point to make, every plot is possible and every character is arbitrary except for the principals. In Candide, for example, Voltaire had a simple moral observation to propound and tailored a plot to illustrate it, but the episodes are arbitrary (which is one reason the musical Candide has had no definitive script and score since its premiere in 1956). We had nothing we wanted to say, merely a desire for a form, which is not a good way to begin writing a play. (Content Dictates Form.)
Then James came up with the notion of inventing a fairy tale in the tradition of classic fairy tales, one that could be musicalized and fleshed out into a full evening, which excited us but died aborning. After a couple of tries, James realized that fairy tales, by nature, are short; the plots turn on a dime, there are few characters and even fewer complications. This problem is best demonstrated by every fairy-tale movie and TV show since Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, all of which pad the lean stories with songs and sidekicks and subplots, some of which are more involving than the interrupted story itself. And those are all less than two hours long. It seemed to be an insoluble, self-defining problem until we remembered something he’d concocted a year before when we were looking for a quick way to make a buck.
It was an idea for a TV special: a story involving TV characters from situation comedies (for example, Ralph and Alice Kramden, Archie and Edith Bunker, Mary Richards and Lou Grant, etc.) in a car accident which brings to the scene characters from the cop shows (T.J. Hooker, Joe Friday, Cagney and Lacey, etc.) who take them to the hospital where they are treated by Dr. Kildare and Marcus Welby and Ben Casey, etc. I loved the idea and proposed to James that we write a brief treatment and sell it to Norman Lear, the most imaginative producer of such fare. Lear loved the idea, too, and declared he couldn’t wait to see the script. We explained that we weren’t interested in writing the script, just selling the idea. He in turn explained that he wasn’t interested in buying the idea, just in reading the script. This concluded our conversation. Now, in 1986, James came up with the notion of applying the TV idea to the Brothers Grimm. We would write a story in which the lives of famous fairy-tale characters would collide and intertwine in a mutual meeting ground, and where else but the woods, where so many of the stories take place? To weave them together, James invented his own fable, that of a Baker and his Wife, a pair who would go on a quest that would touch and involve such characters as Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Jack, Rapunzel, the Three Little Pigs, Snow White and, of course, a Wicked Witch. The pigs and Snow White got left behind in San Diego, where the show tried out, but the others remained to populate an olla podrida of (mostly) farcical and (finally) tragic events. We ate our cake and had it, too: it would be a fairy-tale quest.
And ah, the woods. The all-purpose symbol of the unconscious, the womb, the past, the dark place where we face our trials and emerge wise or destroyed, and a major theme in Bruno Bettelheim’s The Uses of Enchantment, which is the book that everyone assumes we used as a source, simply because it’s the only book on the subject known to a wide public. But Bettelheim’s insistent point was that children would find fairy tales useful in part because the protagonists’ tribulations always resulted in triumph, the happily ever after. What interested James was the little dishonesties that enabled the characters to reach their happy endings. (Dishonesty was something Bettelheim preferred not to deal with, as the posthumous revelations about his falsifying his academic credentials would seem to indicate.) James was also skeptical about the possibility of “happily ever after” in real life and wary of the danger that fairy tales may give children false expectations. As his play Twelve Dreams had demonstrated, he was drawn not to Bettelheim’s Freudian approach but to Carl Jung’s theory that fairy tales are an indication of the collective unconscious, something with which Bettelheim would be unlikely to agree. James and I talked about fairy tales with a Jungian psychiatrist and discovered that with the exception of “Jack and the Beanstalk,” which apparently is native only to the British Isles, the tales we were dealing with exist in virtually every culture in the world, especially the Cinderella story. African, Chinese, Native American – there is even a contemporary Hebrew version in which Cinderella wants to dance at the Tel Aviv Hilton.
In inventing the story of “The Baker and His Wife,” James contributed his own cultural fairy tale, an American one. The Baker and his Wife may live in a medieval forest in a fairy-tale medieval time, but they are at heart a contemporary urban American couple who find themselves living among witches and princes and eventually giants. Cinderella gets transformed into a princess, Little Red (which is how we always referred to her) gets eaten by a wolf and comes back to life, Rapunzel gets rescued by a prince, but the Baker and his Wife are merely trying to earn a living and have a baby. Their concerns are quotidian, their attitudes prototypically urban: impatient, sarcastic, bickering, resigned – prototypical, except that they speak in stilted fairy-tale language and are surrounded by witches and princesses and eventually giants. This makes them funny and actable characters, and their contemporaneity makes them people the audience can recognize.
In any event, the gimmick – or, more respectably, the idea – of mashing the tales together gave us a form, much as gimmicks have done in the past (see Schnitzler’s La Ronde). If we were to focus on the consequences of the little transgressions each character makes in pursuit of his or her heart’s desire, it followed naturally that the first act would deal with the traditional telling of the tales up to the Happily and the second with the Ever After. The first would be farce, the second melodrama (still with laughs, of course). As I say, Content Dictates Form – or should.
Into the Woods is now playing at the Laura Pels Theatre through April 12. For more information and tickets, please visit our website.
2014-2015 Season, Education @ Roundabout, Into the Woods, Uncategorized, Upstage