Avidly is very avid about beloved cultural objects — movies and musicals among them. In anticipation of the new movie version of Into the Woods, due in theaters December 25, we asked one of our most beloved families of Sondheim fanatics, the Blum Eburnes, to give us their thoughts. Reporting that they “live in jaundiced anticipation” of the upcoming cinematic version, the Blum Eburnes “came up with a list of questions about the musical to ask each other and passed around a notebook on a train.” Here is what they shared.
The Mother: Hester Blum
The Daughter: Adelaide Blum Eburne (Age 8)
The Father: Jonathan P. Eburne
1: Which song makes you most emotional, and why?
Hester: “Stay with Me.” Before having a child (and even earlier, before embracing feminism), when I was pretty identified with the Princes, I might have answered “Agony.” But now it is the Witch’s doomed plea of crushing maternal love that slays me. When she sings to Rapunzel “Who out there could love you more than I?/ What out there that I could not supply?/ Stay with me” you know that this is a perversion of healthy parenting, a coercive distortion of the bonds of love. And yet I look at my daughter and think–with the Witch’s panic–don’t you know what’s out there in the world?
Adelaide: “No One Is Alone” makes me emotional because of all the granted wishes, this one can’t be granted and somebody is always part of your life even when they may be dead.
Jonathan: “Children Will Listen.” Though the idea of having to go it alone in the woods is also gut-wrenching (“sometimes people leave you/ halfway through the woods”), by far the baldest sentiment has to do with the idea that our actions are never solitary, in the sense that our behaviors, our decisions, our bad habits get passed on to the young. Children will listen. It’s also one of the strongest, if more tacit, metafictional reflections in the play: nursery tales pass on beliefs and impressions from generation to generation; it’s time to take stock of them and pay attention to and revise what they’re saying. Children will listen.
2: Which lyrics resonate most with you?
Hester: “Isn’t it nice to know a lot? and a little bit not.” The song of innocence and experience that Little Red Riding Hood sings early in the show is in some ways deliberately irritating, like the character herself. When the musical came out in the 1980s I rejected the song in my over-identification with it: being a know-it-all conferred neither social ease nor knowledge, really (especially if one reads Judy Blume too early to understand fully what menstruation or erections are). And as I grew I came to seek out, to inhabit the dazzling clarity of the song’s companion line: “And though scary is exciting, nice is different than good.” That one sticks.
Adelaide: “but how can you know what you want till you get what you want and you see if you like it?” Because that was how it was with my school. [Parental note: we have spent the fall semester abroad in Paris; the French school Adelaide is attending has not worked out well for any of us.]
Jonathan: In the same song as in my answer to the question above — “Children Will Listen” — the melodic line modulates so that the final “listen” is dramatically higher in pitch than the prior iterations of the line. This is part of its emotional impact for me, but it’s also–as is the case throughout the show — part of its analytical genius as well. The modulation is especially ear-catching.
3: Have live performances changed your idea of the show? if so, how?
Hester: Yes–the strong local productions I have seen in recent years made me realize that the Princes are comic characters only until they become wantonly destructive. This was key to my belated feminist awakening about the Baker’s Wife and the Prince. There is a tremendous scene in the second act in which the Baker’s Wife sleeps with a Prince in the Woods; it didn’t make as much of an impact on the soundtrack, but it thrums with significance when staged. The encounter is a trifle to him but a revelation to her, the narrative price for which is her death. (This is also why the usual double casting of the Wolf as the lead Prince works so effectively, given the Wolf’s sexually predatory menace.) As the Baker’s Wife is working through her shock, delight, and guilt in the aftermath of her adulterous fling in “Moments in the Woods,” but still determining to return to her plain marriage, she reasons:
Just remembering you’ve had an “and”
When you’re back to “or”
Makes the “or” mean more
Than it did before
Now I understand
And it’s time to leave the Woods
As soon as the Baker’s Wife makes this determination to rejoin her weak husband she is killed by a Giant.
Adelaide: ???? I only first saw the play and then heard the music so I can’t really answer that question.
Jonathan: I once saw a live performance of the show in Lebanon, New Hampshire, in one of the years I spent in the region after college. Then, as now, I was upset by the fate of the Baker’s wife. She had been a model of rational decision-making up to that point, and yet her infidelity, her googly-eyed attraction to the predatory Prince Charming, and the dramatic irony of her “punishment” all sat uneasily with me. Her life–its consistency with regard to choice, to love– was illegible to me. If bored by the tedious Baker, why be with him at all? Was this an inconsistent character, or a deftly drawn existential crisis? The fact that a local production could make this resonate so strongly was one of the great strengths of the show.
Also, I was sitting next to a narcoleptic, which I remember strongly as well. He kept nodding off during the performance and waking up with a start; he also had very hairy wrists.
4: Who is the character with whom you most identify?
Hester: The Witch. This was not the case when I first saw the musical in 1988 in its original Broadway run, possibly because the role’s luminous, magnificent originator Bernadette Peters had just been replaced by Phylicia Rashad. But I’m easing into middle aged now, encountering the limits of my remaining powers, keeping an eye on the girl child I am raising, and totally in awe of Bernadette Peters.
Adelaide: Cinderella. Because she really wants to do something (like for me, going to school in Paris), and she does it and it goes badly.
Jonathan: See my answer to question 3, above, I guess. Or maybe the cow? In a more recent local production, the cow was played brilliantly–and I mean brilliantly–by a young junior high school student, who, clad in a white t-shirt, silently chewed her cud onstage. It was a terrific dead-pan, and it stole the show, much like Alec Guinness’s fabled Osric in Hamlet.
5: Whose fault is it?
Hester: The Baker. He is a passive, incompetent, ninny. Also the Narrator, for trying to impose causality on desire and loss.
Adelaide: The Baker’s mother. Because she wanted the beans in the garden in the first place and so the Baker’s father would never have stolen it and made the Witch angry in the first place.
Jonathan: The author. But also the stories themselves: in bringing the various fairy- and nursery-tales into concert, the consequences of their entanglement is bound to be disastrous. And Sondheim inverts the asymptotic vector of the arbitrary “happily ever after.” The show hinges instead upon an open series: “I wish… I wish…”
6: What do you wish?
Hester: I wish I could find a place of ease between shielding my child from the world and letting her go into the woods, as she should.
Adelaide: I wish that great grandma was still alive and that my school was better.
Jonathan: I find myself constantly falling prey to the persistent non-satisfaction of the play’s characters. The formal insistence on the wish, not the thing wished for. It’s what makes the characters most compelling, as well as most insufferably identifiable. It’s precisely the point that the object of their wishing is never fixed, or at least never complete. The irony of the Disney version: when you wish upon a star, it makes no difference…
7: What does it mean to go into the woods?
Hester: Sondheim’s woods are not the dim, occluded forests of The Faerie Queene or literary allegory; you don’t find yourself there only to perform or fall victim to ill action, away from divine sight. (For one, the musical’s characters don’t need the cover of the woods to falter or be cruel.) Like the list of verbal infinitive forms in the score defining what it means to go into the woods–to flee, to seek, to shield, to slay, to find, to fix–the woods are all potential until converted into action.
Adelaide: To go in a place with trees and stuff.
Jonathan: To cite the X-Files, it’s where the truth is: out there.
8: What are your expectations for the Disney movie this December 25?
Hester: It is hard to imagine that the studio that feeds us princesses and enchantment will be able to tell a story that finds little profit in wishing. The conflicting reports of cuts of the key scenes featuring the Baker’s Wife and the Prince in the second act are depressing and tiresome. I haven’t loved Johnny Depp since Tom Hanson and Doug Penhall were the McQuaid Brothers on 21 Jump Street, and I think something crucial is lost when a Prince is not the Wolf. I am also perfectly aware that I will weep throughout the movie and love it despite myself.
Adelaide: I expect that it is going to be a bad movie. There are bad actors. One scene and one death and two songs are taken out of it. I don’t know if I will dislike it, but I am not excited to see it. And I heard that they were making a movie of Into the Woods from a bad Franklin Institute camp.
Jonathan: We’re back to dead biological mothers and witchy step-mothers, but the rumor of getting rid of some of the “adult content” of the show, including the infidelity and death of the Baker’s wife, is especially depressing. And shouldn’t Johnny Depp have been put out to pasture by now? Who knows, maybe some of the animated characters will storm the live-action CGI sequence and take it over. I’m thinking of the dancing penguins from Mary Poppins; maybe they will team up with the seven dwarves and shut the whole thing down.
9: Favorite wordplay in Into the Woods?
Hester: [Princes agonizing over sleeping princesses:] “As they lie there for years/ And you cry on their biers/ What unbearable bliss.” Cry on their biers!!
Adelaide: “Agony, misery, woe.” I think it could be a wordplay because woe could mean w-h-o-a or w-o-e.
Jonathan: [Little Red Riding Hood] “The way is clear/The light is good/I have no fear/ Nor no one should./ The woods are just trees/ the trees are just wood/ I sort of hate to ask it/ But do you have a basket?” The insistence on “woods” being made of wood is ultimately so tautological as to betray the delusion.
10: What is your favorite Sondheim Musical?
Hester: Sunday in the Park with George, Company, and Sweeney Todd.
Adelaide: Into the Woods and Merrily We Roll Along and many others.
Jonathan: Sweeney Todd (onstage) and Into the Woods.
We wish: to thank the Blum Eburnes, Adelaide especially.