ArtsLink: Lessons Learned from Musical Theater Icon

By Jason Young on June 12, 2020 from A&E Blog via

Everyone has a favorite Sondheim musical, or at least they should.
Stephen Sondheim is one of the true icons of the American musical theater. As a composer and a lyricist, his career and his work reimagined what a musical could be, reshaped the Broadway experience, and reignited my love of theatre several times over. Here are just a few of his musicals that you might know: West Side Story, Gypsy, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Company, Follies, A Little Night Music, Sweeney Todd, Sunday in the Park with George, and Assassins.
And my personal favorite, Into the Woods.
While I would love to go into great detail about the story and the plot, I will spare you my theatre kid nerd-ism and mercifully draw your attention to one character within this very complex story, the Witch, originally made famous on Broadway by Bernadette Peters in 1987.
In the very beginning of the show, the Witch pays a visit to a Baker and his Wife who are struggling to have a child. She tells the couple that the Baker’s father stole from her vegetable garden many years ago, which resulted in a curse being placed on his family. Because of the curse, the Baker and his Wife will never be able to have children; however, the Witch promises to lift the curse if the Baker goes into the woods, where a plethora of familiar fairy tale characters await, and collects certain ingredients, which will allow her to be youthful and beautiful again.
Since I have you hooked, the ingredients are a cow as white as milk, a cape as red as blood, hair as yellow as corn, and a slipper as pure as gold. Sorry. I couldn’t resist.
The musical unites the Baker, his Wife, and the Witch with Cinderella, Jack of beanstalk fame, Little Red Riding Hood, handsome princes, evil stepsisters, and not one but two giants. By the end of Act One, the curse has been lifted, romances abound, the Witch is gorgeous again, and all are on course to live Happily Ever After. Act Two explores what happens after the fairy tale ends and real life begins, and by the end of the show, death and divorce have shattered dreams and left only a few characters to pick up the pieces.
I was reminded of a big life lesson this week. That’s why I have this musical on the brain. It’s full of life lessons, like all fairy tales I suppose. But the lessons here that Sondheim captures in his mesmerizing melodies and eloquent lyrics are meant for adults as much and even more than they are meant for children. In a story filled with characters from our childhood, he masterfully examines the unexpected, darker, and more harrowing elements of the human experience.
My life lesson this week was certainly aligned with those themes. It dealt with hate in all its forms.  
I felt like I couldn’t get away from it. Around every corner was something that reminded me of how tense and ugly our world is. One night it got so bad I cried myself to sleep, and when Sarah asked me what was wrong, my response was, “How did so many evil people get to be so powerful?”
I am skirting a line here. I try not to be political in these blogs. That is not their intent nor is it the intent of the website where they are published. But I really didn’t have anything else to say this week because hate seemed to remain in my face for days. Even in several interpersonal exchanges with family, friends, and acquaintances, I heard words and phrases that shocked and sickened me. And it wasn’t until I was trying to unpack all of this with some trusted confidants that it dawned on me. All of these exchanges that I was wrestling with were between myself and someone older than I.
This thought somehow allowed me to dismiss them. It let me off the hook. I felt like I had suddenly solved hate. We’ll just let the old people keep on hating. Then they’ll die off, and hate will be buried with them.
Laughable logic, I know, but I was desperate. I couldn’t fight these people; their beliefs were hardened, engrained deep inside them. I wasn’t getting through to them. I wasn’t making a dent in their armor. They weren’t going to budge because this is what they had been taught.
You see, hate is learned. That is what I had forgotten and had to be reminded of this week.
Hate is a learned behavior. Like bigotry and prejudice, people learn these behaviors as they become products of their environment and culture group. Parents, family members, friends, schools, and political and religious leaders teach these behaviors. Sometimes without even knowing it, sometimes very much on purpose.
Once that lightbulb lit, the dark clouds parted a little; and a song came into my heart.
The Witch, due to circumstances and decisions, becomes a mother figure to Rapunzel. Rapunzel is actually the Baker’s sister. It’s complicated. During a tense exchange between her and the Witch mid-way through the first act, the audience is treated to a musical moment called “Children Should Listen”, which leads into the larger song “Stay With Me.” Later on in the show, that musical theme returns as the Witch sings “Children Don’t Listen”; and in the finale of the piece as the story seems to begin again, the Witch appears one last time to share her new-found wisdom with “Children Will Listen.”
Careful the things you say
Children will listen
Careful the things you do
Children will see and learn
Children may not obey, but children will listen
Children will look to you for which way to turn
To learn what to be
Careful before you say, “Listen to me”
Children will listen
I can’t get through to my elders. That’s become painfully obvious to me. I applaud those who keep trying, but I have to redirect my energy. They get my love but not my pluck. I don’t have any children, but I have been blessed that many parents have allowed me to be a part of their children’s lives through my work as a theatre artist and educator. That’s where I can make my impact, not on our past but with our future.
What do you leave to your child when you’re dead?
Only whatever you put in its head.

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