Sendak and Sondheim and Mother's Day

By David A. Rosenberg

“That very night in Max’s room, a forest grew,” writes Maurice Sendak in “Where the Wild Things Are.”

 

“Into the woods without delay, be careful not to lose the way,” writes Stephen Sondheim in “Into the Woods.”

 

Last week’s death of Sendak, our Ridgefield neighbor, coupled with the opening of Sondheim and James Lapine’s musical, “Into the Woods,” reminds us that Sendak’s books are as astute about mothers and children as are the Grimm Brothers stories on which “Woods” is based. Further, both Sendak and Sondheim had emotionally distant moms.

 

In “Wild Things,” Max is sent to bed without supper by his disapproving mother. In his imagination, he flees into a forest to encounter and tame, fuzzy, funny, threatening beasts of the title. But Max “was lonely and wanted to be where someone loved him best of all.” So he returns home to mom, wiser for the experience.

 

In Sondheim’s work, fairy-tale characters also go into the fearful, deep, dark woods, emerging better equipped to deal with a hostile world. “You mustn’t stop / You mustn’t swerve / You mustn’t ponder / You have to act,” they tell themselves. Why? Because “everything you learn there / Will help you when you return there.” We define ourselves through our mothers, our first nurturers, searching for her warmth throughout our life, yet know we must eventually strike out for ourselves.

 

In the musical, mothers die or are already dead or badger stepchildren. Alternately thwarted and encouraged, offspring confront the classic struggle for meaning, for making choices, for maturing and facing reality.

 

At Westport Country Playhouse, director Mark Lamos’ version of “Woods” makes the script’s narrator into a puppet master. Beginning with a stage lit only by a theatrical ghost light, the narrator wanders about limp bodies. Uncovering a shrouded toy theater, he picks up its cardboard figures.

 

“Once upon a time,” he says, and the limp, rosy-cheeked shapes spring to life: Rapunzel, Cinderella, Jack (of the Beanstalk), Red Ridinghood and the Wolf, plus princes, ghosts and a curse-spouting witch. At the show’s center are a Baker and the Baker’s Wife (they have no other names). Because of an indiscreet raid on the witch’s garden by the Baker’s father, the couple is cursed and barren.

 

But they can reverse the curse if they bring the witch four talismanic items. And so into the woods they go, seeking to wrest the “cow as white as milk” from Jack, “cape as red as blood” from Red Ridinghood, “hair as yellow as corn” from Rapunzel and “slipper as pure as gold” from Cinderella. This they do and Act One seems to end happily. But there’s a catch, as the artificiality of perfect unison and fairy-tale happiness turns sour and realistic in Act Two.

 

Sondheim’s music is shot through with memorable songs: “Children Will Listen,” “No More,” the hilarious “Agony,” the plangent “No One is Alone,” the yearning “Giants in the Sky” and the sprightly yet cautionary title tune. His lyrics are tricky with shrewd rhymes (“clue, shoe, do, you, stew, goo”).

 

Lapine’s libretto is darker in tone and tougher than the production, which substitutes feel-good for fear and anxiety. But the cast, articulating the complex lyrics with clarity and feeling, doesn’t condescend to the material.

 

Diana Steingold stands out as a sassy Red Ridinghood. Jenny Latimer is a lovely Cinderella, Justin Scott Brown an appealing Jack and Nik Walker imposing as Cinderella’s Prince and comically menacing as the Wolf.

 

The evening is not as moving as it should be: we don’t get emotionally attached to the Baker and his wife, as played by Erik Liberman and Danielle Ferland. Yet Lamos’ precise, intelligent concept results in an evening of no small pleasures. Both Sondheim and Sendak are chroniclers of our time, and our psyches.

 

 

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