[This month we celebrate the 150th anniversary of Arbor Day, so this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of tree-tastic stories. Leading up to a special weekend post on the holiday’s histories!]
On the deep dark heart of fairy tales—and musicals?
No AmericanStudier can be equally familiar with every part of our culture and history, and I’d be the first to admit that musical theater is an area where my knowledge is relatively thin (despite my Mom’s best efforts to share the collected works of Rodgers & Hammerstein among others, efforts which at least did result in that weeklong blog series!). But even a relatively newb like myself knows that when Stephen Sondheim passed away this past November at the age of 91, it was the passing of a true titan, not just in literary theater or theater but in all of American culture. He achieved that success and influence across a fifty-year career that included writing the music & lyrics to more than 15 musicals, the lyrics to another few, and collaborating on countless other theatrical, film, and cultural projects. But throughout that long and varied artistic career and life, it seems to me, at least from the testimonies I’ve encountered from fellow AmericanTheaterStudiers, that 1986’s Into the Woods was and remains a particularly important and impressive high-water mark.
One reason for the prominence of that particular musical has to be the way in which it offers a witty, sophisticated, timeless yet modern meta-commentary on its fairy tale characters, settings, and plotlines. And to my mind, that starts with the musical’s title, its recognition (pace Bruno Bettelheim among others) of the central role that deep dark woods play in our collective acts of storytelling (across so many different eras and cultures). Theorists like Bettelheim have often focused on the psychological and pedagogical sides to such settings and stories, the ways for example that the woods both reflect and allow us to explore our unconscious fears and desires (a central thematic thread of Sondheim’s musical as well). But I would add that there’s a pretty strong cultural and historical component to these fairy tale woods as well, and not just in the medieval past or other distant times—I think for example about the “wild beasts and wild men” that William Bradford feared lay just beyond the walls of the very small and very isolated Plimoth Plantation in 1620. That was part genuine uncertainty, part psychological horror, part prejudice—and all one of so many instances of the ubiquitous collective “woods” into which Sondheim’s musical taps.
So in fairy tales, a central presence of a deep dark that needs confronting is pretty familiar stuff. But in musicals, at least throughout the 20th century, that would seem generally not to be the case. Again I’m far from an expert, and I welcome any and all disagreements and other responses in comments (as always!). But it seems to me that even when musicals feature dark or tragic plotlines, they have often if not consistently represented them in relatively cheery ways; I’m thinking for example about the snapping, dancing, choreographed gang fights of West Side Story (for which Sondheim wrote the lyrics), or the spectacular (literally and figuratively) helicopter evacuation at the end of Act 1 of Miss Saigon. I’m not suggesting that Into the Woods is a Tarantino film brought to the stage or anything, and indeed its cleverness and humor are frequently its most celebrated elements. But at the same time, Sondheim’s musical does plumb the deep dark depths of both individual and collective psyches in a way that feels distinct from many musicals—and perhaps offers another factor in what has made these musical woods so enduringly popular and powerful.
Last tree tale tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other tree texts you’d throw in?