Why Into the Woods Matters

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Last night I went to the movies to see Into the Woods, which is based off Stephen Sondheim’s play of the same name.  For those who are unfamiliar with the title, it is a Broadway musical combining the stories of Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk, Rapunzel, and a few other fairytale favorites with a serious twist.  Unlike the fairytales we all know through the Brothers Grimm or Disney, Sondheim’s characters experience major challenges and are forced to face the consequences of their actions and choices.  Essentially, it is a fairytale about the reality of human nature and the ambiguity of life.  Fast forwarding to the end: there is no “happily ever after.”  Much like in real life, there is just, “After.”

My first exposure to Into the Woods was my sophomore year in college when I was cast as “The Witch,” the seeimingly stereotypical ugly, old spinster of fairytales who seems to enjoy making life difficult for all around her so everyone else can experience her misery.  In the fairytales of my youth, the witch, much like other stock characters, is not explained or humanized.  She is flat and two-dimensional.  The stories of our youth never asked: what made her the way she is?  What more is there to this character?  Into the Woods changes that, and as the play progresses we begin to see the character take shape as a three-dimensional woman: someone who was wrongly robbed of her youth and who desperately wanted to love someone and be loved fully in return.

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She keeps her daughter, Rapunzel, locked in a tower with no doors or stairs, but when a Prince happens upon Rapunzel by chance, things begin to change.  Rapunzel is drawn to the Prince and wants to leave her mother’s safety.  When the witch finds out, she scolds Rapunzel angrily, saying, “Children should listen!”  And we really begin to see the character become human as she sings:

Don’t you know what’s out there in the world?
Someone has to shield you from the world.
Stay with me.

Princes wait there in the world, it’s true.
Princes, yes, but wolves and humans, too.
Stay at home.
I am home.

Stay with me,
The world is dark and wild.
Stay a child while you can be a child.

Although all of the songs in the show are of importance, a few really stand out as carriers of the central message: the world is dark and wild and full of humans and princes and wolves and wolves dressed in princes’ clothing. 

Often, Cinderella’a Prince (Prince Charming) is played by the same actor who plays the Big Bad Wolf, which really hammers the theme of the multiple ways evil masquerades as good; and even more than that, the ambiguity behind it.  Unfortunately, this was lost in the movie version.  Chris Pine played Cinderella’s Prince and Johnny Depp played the Wolf, and while I enjoyed Depp in the role, it watered down the true meaning of why the actor is supposed to be double-cast.  Cinderella’s Prince is charming and handsome, but he is also a lothario, unsatisfied by one woman and continuously searching for the next thrill.  However, as mentioned above, when Cinderella confronts him about his unfaithfulness, he does not lie to her–he tells her he thought he could be happy with her alone.  With this admission the character proves his own complexity because he willingly admits his wrong, and both part on their separate ways.  While the Prince is definitely not a character who displays positive traits like courage or integrity, he isn’t exactly a villain either, as he has no outright malicious designs.  He is simply a human motivated by his own selfish desires.

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Happily ever after?

The story of Cinderella and the Prince is important to Into the Woods because it takes the story and asks the real questions: exactly what WAS that fabled, “Happily Ever After”?  What did Cinderella and the Prince actually have in common?  What were their common interests?  Assuming Cinderella only received an education up to thirteen or so, what was her actual level of knowledge/cultural awareness?  Was she, as a simpleton, able to adapt to the Royal Family?  How did she and the Prince keep ‘the spark’ after those butterflies began to wear off?  Were they always faithful to one another?  What kind of a person was Cinderella and what kind of a person was the Prince?  What would have happened if one of them got sick or they had a child with a serious illness?  Would their marriage make it?  Although I, like many other little girls, enjoyed watching the Disney cartoon full of pretty gowns and singing mice, as an adult I recognize the poor message behind the story.  It basically tells children that someone will someday come along to rescue them (as long as they are pretty) and everything in life will then just magically go swimmingly.  They will be rescued from poverty, or from an abusive family, or from the boring hum-drum of their life.  This is a poor message to send to children; because the reality is that we are the only ones who can rescue ourselves, and more often than not, there is no “Happily ever after,” there is just  “After,” and it contains both happiness and sadness, good and bad times.

There is no prince; there are just humans.

***

The First Act ends with what we would normally call a “Happy Ending,” but even so it is left with some outstanding ambiguities.  The Second Act IS the play.  In the First Act, there is a narrator, who leaves clues to help guide the characters along, but he is killed at its end.  In the Second Act, the characters are left to fend for themselves, with no one to guide them.  People die, a major conflict arises, and we realize that there is neither a true protagonist nor a true antagonist.  Each character has experienced a shortfall in their moral foundation at some point: a little white lie, a lack of good judgement, deception, theft, unfaithfulness, selfishness.  The characters play the blame game for awhile until they realize in order to save themselves, they must forego the issue of “blame” and recognize they must do what is necessary to survive, and even that in itself will have consequences. Red Riding Hood tells Cinderella she is ashamed of her actions because she is about to kill a giant–who is a person, too–and Cinderella begins to sing another song central to the meaning of the play, “No One is Alone.”

The characters sing:

Witches can be right, giants can be good,

you decide what’s right, you decide what’s good.

Just remember someone is on your side,

Someone else is not.

Into the Woods is a poignant portrayal of human nature.  It takes the fairytales of our youth and transforms them into cautionary tales about the complexities of life.  It takes the two-dimensional characters of traditional stories and turns them into people.  Witches, wolves, and princes all become the same thing: HUMAN.  Although I enjoyed Into the Woods when I was younger, as I have gotten older and experienced more in my own life, the messages and emotions behind everything in the play become much more clear and apparent.  It is a dark story, but it is not one completely without hope.  All characters go through major transformations and grow from the hardships they endure.  Most importantly, they learn compassion toward others from their own personal challenges, and indeed they do learn that in life, no one is alone.

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Wishes come true, not free.

***

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KP circa 2010 (in the center)

-KP out

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The Stranger’s Always You

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A few years ago I discovered John Cameron Mitchell’s movie adaptation of his stage play, Hedwig and the Angry Inch.  Actually, I first watched it after I had ended something that I now wouldn’t even say had any semblance of a relationship…but at the time I was hurt.  In the wake of everything that has happened recently, I have found myself suddenly turning back to this movie.  I have’t listened to the songs or watched it in about two years, but after watching it again only just recently, I realize how perfect a play and film Mitchell created.

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At first glance, the posters and trailer make one think of the flamboyant glam-rock film, The Rocky Horror Picture Show.  It certainly portrays a lead character who demands attention, but this film and its music are vastly different from Rocky Horror.  The central concepts center on identity, human complexity, love, and understanding what “wholeness” is.  Mitchell created a story based on a character who believes love from another will form the missing other half to the whole.  One of the songs, “Origin of Love,” is an illustration of this, pulling from Aristophanes speech in Plato’s Symposium explaining heterosexuals, homosexuals, and their longing to feel “whole.”  The story is that in ancient times human beings existed as three different types of creatures: male/male, female/female, and male/female.  Much like in other religions, notably Christianity and Judaism, humans made a costly mistake in trying to acquire too much knowledge (similar to Adam and Eve, the story of the Tower of Babylon, etc), and so Zeus sent thunderbolts to split the beings in two, causing them to then forever feel compelled to “find their missing other half.”

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In Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Hansel is a young man living in Communist East Berlin who falls in love with an American solider.  In order to marry the soldier and leave the country, Hansel must get a sex-change operation to fool doctors that he is actually a woman.  Note: he did not previously feel like a woman trapped in a man’s body.  The operation is botched, and what remains is something in-between male and female.  After moving to the United States, the solider leaves Hansel–now Hedwig, using his mother’s name–for another man.  Alone and devastated, Hedwig picks herself up and begins odd-jobs and writing music, sometimes performing with local military wives.  She meets Tommy Speck, a quiet, very Christian young man, and the two begin writing music together and falling in love.  Hedwig teaches Tommy about rock music and gives him the name, Tommy Gnosis (Gnosis being the Greek word for “knowledge”).  Tommy ends up rejecting Hedwig for her physical deformity from the operation and runs off with Hedwig’s music and claims it as his own, rising to stardom.  Hedwig now has her own band, and is in the middle of a lawsuit to reclaim what is rightfully hers.  She is caught between her desire to be with Tommy, who she believes is her other half, and wanting to destroy him if she cannot be with him.  Ultimately, she receives justice and the fame and recognition deserved for her music.  In the end, she comes to realize there is no “other half,” and that “wholeness” comes from within.  Tommy and Hedwig part ways, and Hedwig leaves behind all the wigs, costumes, and makeup, and comes to terms with who he is.  My favorite song, Wicked Little Town, sung by Tommy to Hedwig as a form of apology in the end, probably boasts some of the most powerful lyrics in the entire show:

Forgive me for I did not know
’cause I was just a boy
And you were so much more

Than any god could ever plan
More than a woman or a man
And now I understand
How much I took from you
That when everything starts breaking down
You take the pieces off the ground
And show this wicked town
Something beautiful and new

You think that luck has left you there
But maybe there’s nothing
Up in the sky but air

And there’s no mystical design
No cosmic lover preassigned
There’s nothing you can find
That cannot be found
’cause, with all the changes you’ve been through
It seems the stranger’s always you

The line “You were so much more than any god could ever plan, more than a woman or a man,” really drives home the theme of human complexity.  Ultimately, we are not “destined” to be with anyone; we are whole as we are and life unfolds based on the consequences of our choices and actions.  Love comes not from the need to feel “complete,” but by feeling complete as we are.  None of the characters in the show can be easily defined, which makes them so much more human and real.  Not male, not female, not gay, not straight, but human.  This film is definitely highly unusual and non-traditional, but it has one of the best story-lines I have ever seen and the music is wonderful.  John Cameron Mitchell really drives it home with this one.  I highly recommend for anyone who likes off-beat films with a sense of humor and a good message.

Moonstruck on Easter

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Happy Easter from Japan!  Things have been quite hectic here (as always), but we managed to get in Easter Dinner with a few friends.  And what Easter could truly be complete without a good dose of none other than Cher and Nicholas Cage?

I am most definitely NOT a lover of romantic comedies.  I love horror (NOT gore!), thriller, or dramas.  Romantic comedies rank pretty low on the list of movies I usually want to see, but Moonstruck is, without doubt, one of my favorite movies.  It won three Academy Awards in 1987, with Cher winning best actress.  I had never seen the movie until last year, but had heard that it had taken a few awards.

The plot is not overly-complicated.  It is not a grandiose piece.  It is a portrayal of an Italian-American family living in Brooklyn.  The first time I watched the movie, I was not completely moved.  It took me a second time to really begin to take things in; the beauty in this movie lies in its subtleties.  The basic story is as follows: Cher is a 37-year old widow named Loretta Castorini living with her parents in their Brooklyn townhouse.  Her father is a plumber and makes good money.  Loretta is proposed to by a respectable, albeit spineless, gentleman by the name of Johnny Cammareri.  Loretta isn’t head over heels for Johnny, but he is a respectable man with a job.  He says his mother (in Palermo, Italy) is dying, and he must tend to her before he can fully commit to Loretta and their relationship.  He also asks her to invite his brother, Ronnie, to their wedding.  Loretta agrees and telephones the bakery where Ronnie works.  She goes and finds that Ronnie is eccentric with a few screws loose; years earlier he was talking to his brother and became distracted while slicing bread, his hand subsequently getting sliced off.  He says his fiance at the time left him because he was then maimed, and he fully blames Johnny for the pain he incurred in his life afterward.  I would venture to say that the scene in the bakery is undoubtedly Nicholas Cage at the height of playing Nicholas Cage–it is absolutely fantastic.  It is so over-the-top, but it’s absolutely perfect!  

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Loretta and Ronnie end up creating this passionate connection and the rest of the movie deals with the relationships among the different characters.  Loretta’s mother finds out her husband, Cosmo, is having an affair and proceeds to ask various men throughout the film, “Why do men chase women?”  Johnny gives her the answer she seeks, “Because they fear death.”  Again, this film is not monumental in its cinematography or by way of some epic story; it is a simple portrayal of human beings, but it is done so well that it forces you to go back and take a second, third look.  It’s a love story about people who find love in each other’s imperfections, and acceptance of those imperfections.  Ronnie says to Loretta after they go to the opera:

Loretta, I love you. Not like they told you love is,
and I didnt know this either, but love dont make things nice – it
ruins everything. It breaks your heart. It makes things a mess. We
arent here to make things perfect. The snowflakes are perfect. The
stars are perfect. Not us. Not us! We are here to ruin ourselves
and to break our hearts and love the wrong people and die.

Oh yeah, and it’s got a bit of opera in it too (and may be a modern-day opera of sorts).  You will definitely get a good laugh out of this one.  My personal favorite line is when Nicholas Cage picks up Cher and just screams, “SONOFABITCH!”  Definitely recommend Moonstruck for anyone looking for some laughs and a good story!

Cinema Inspiration

As noted, I’ve taken up writing again.  Not that any hiatuses are planned, it’s just that because of the nature of my work I tend to have very little time to really just sit and reflect.  However, I firmly believe that the lack of healthy outlets causes a person to really start to lose sight of themself; when work becomes the entirety of a person’s existence, things go south pretty quickly.  Anyhow, I am going to try my best to get in a few entries a week (if anything, for my own well-being).

So as I was getting my apartment fall-ready, I was thinking about inspiration in general, considering why I like certain influences and want to reflect them.  That goes for clothing, decor, artwork, writing, life in general, whatever.  In this case, specifically, I was thinking about my favorite movie–Almost Famous.

I will hands down say that Kate Hudson’s eccentric and fanatical muse, Penny Lane, is definitely a major style-influence.

Penny Lane asks the main character, William (based on director Cameron Crowe), if he wants to go with her to Morocco.  The character of Penny Lane is, up until the end, almost completely surreal.  Kate Hudson does a fantastic job of portraying an individual who is always on somewhat of a different level of reality, right down to the   very fact that she doesn’t even use her real name, or let others know what it actually is.

I love this movie for a variety of reasons, another being the music.  As Zooey Deschanel’s character Anita leaves home to become a stewardess, she hands William a note and tells him, “Look under your bed, it’ll set you free.”

William inherits Anita’s record collection and begins to pursue his dream as a rock writer, which is the basis for the entire movie as he travels the country with the fictional band of Stillwater.  Elton John, Led Zeppelin, Simon and Garfunkel, the Beach Boys, and a handful of other classics paint the movie’s soundtrack.  One of my favorite scenes is the morning after the character Russell has a bit of a debacle the night before.  Divided on a few things concerning the path the band is taking, they seem to come together as they all join in to sing “Tiny Dancer” on the tour bus.

As William travels with Stillwater, he is faced with the challenge of writing what the actual truth, despite the pleas of the band members to just, “make them look cool.”  Eventually he does end up writing the article for Rolling Stone as he sees fit, even with a few bumps along the way.  William leaves home young and misses his high school graduation, which hits home for me because I left home during my senior year to study abroad in Japan.  I also missed my high school graduation, along with a handful of other high-school staples.  I think there is something for those of us who feel the need to find whatever it is that we are looking for–we seek it by travel, by writing, by whatever.  But there is something that compels us to leave behind what is the usual and comfortable to seek that which is foreign to us.

Anita tells William before she leaves, “One day, you’ll be be cool.”  Maybe what she actually meant was, “One day, you’ll know who you are.”