David James Poissant on The Ecstatic


With our winter issue starting to make its way across the country, we thought it appropriate to take one last look at our fall theme, The Ecstatic. In this web extra, author David James Poissant gives us his take on the sublime nature of good musical theater and the genius that is Stephen Sondheim’s “Into The Woods.”

“Not Phantom of the Opera,” is what I’m always saying those rare times the topic comes up. Admit you like musical theatre, and your writer-stock plummets faster than saying sci-fi without namedropping Philip K. Dick. Then again, Broadway probably deserves the reputations it has, just as Hollywood deserves the reputation it has, and for the same reason: Both have produced boatloads of unforgivably bad crap. But, the movie business still lets Alexander Payne and Sofia Coppola and the Coen brothers through the door. Likewise, musical theatre boasts a few geniuses who have produced shows that, if I don’t hold them as close to my heart as The Great Gatsby or, say, anything by Lorrie Moore, I at least hold them pretty close.

First, know this: I’m talking out of my ass. I write short stories. I have no formal training in musical theatre save a year in fifth grade honors choir and a stint as lighting assistant for my high school’s production of Pippin (not a bad musical, by the way). This was before American Idol and Glee made it okay for a boy, mid-pubescence, to sing without a guitar, and I took a few fists to the face for it. My interest in musicals extends, I’d thought, not far beyond that of the casual observer. But, when I added up the productions I’ve seen in the last decade, I reached a number near fifty, well more, I’m guessing, than your average American.

Getting at the heart of what’s good and what’s not in any art (whatever art means) means categorizing, and with musicals it’s pretty easy. First, there are the dramas set to music, things like Dreamgirls or Miss Saigon or anything by the guy whose surname starts with W and ends in –ebber. These are the ones I loathe, the ones that give musical theatre a bad name. Then you’ve got your racist/sexist classics (The King and I), your manifestos (Rent), and your comedies (Little Shop of Horrors).

And then there are the ones I really like, the ones that compose a category for which I have no name, save something like: What Donald Barthelme might have done had he written music. (Did Barthelme write music? In point of fact, I don’t know. Just as I don’t know anything about the history of opera or the musical theatre of other countries and cultures, all of which would inform this discussion, said discussion being one for which I have done little (read: no) research. Again, my ass: talking out of it.) But, the kind of musical I like, the kind I’m talking about, I know it when I see it, and I saw it a few years back when I saw Urinetown, then again last year when I saw The Drowsy Chaperone, and now, if I’m forking over money for a show, it’s about the only thing I’m hoping to see. And what I’m hoping to see is a kind of irreverent, postmodern satire, something with teeth, something that recognizes its form, then embraces and skewers that form at once, a French Lieutenant’s Woman of theatre, if you will. Even if you won’t.

Because, let’s face it, when it comes to the American musical, the form is already absurd. I’m not sure that any narrative can adequately portray what we call reality, but I’m damn sure that a staged narrative in which people routinely break into song cannot. Only once, in Nashville, did I see a group of people break into song. It turned out to be a flash mob. (This was before everyone knew what flash mobs were, and I will admit that the first fifteen seconds were maybe the coolest and most bewildering of my life.) And maybe a small part of me wishes that people broke daily into song, but they don’t, and so we’re stuck with the reality we have.

But, enough setup. What you’re waiting for is the big example, and I have one: Into the Woods. Okay, sure, so I’m not exactly the first person to rave about Stephen Sondheim. And, no, Into the Woods isn’t the edgiest, wildest thing out there. But it’s the closest to my heart, and if you’ve don’t know it, then you’re in for a treat.

First, though, if you’re going to give it a listen, do yourself a favor and skip the 2002 recording with Vanessa Williams and go for the original 1987 Broadway cast recording. Listen, and the first thing you’ll notice is that the people sound like real people singing together in the same room with the piano. It’s amazing. Listen close, and you’ll even hear someone go flat or miss a note from time to time. Given today’s slick, super-produced, Auto-Tuned quality of sound recording, it’s easy to forget that this is what music used to sound like. To hear it, I swear, is a breath of fresh air for your ears.

Next, just take in the story. It’s insane, twisted, convoluted, dark. You’ll have to give it a few listens just to figure out what’s going on. And, then, if you’re like me, you’ll wonder how in the hell Sondheim and writer/director James Lapine pulled it off.

Here’s the premise: The baker and his wife want a child. Little Red Riding Hood is trying to get to her grandmother. Jack needs to sell the family cow. Cinderella wants to go to the festival. And all of them have to go into the woods to get what they want. And there’s a witch. And a wolf. And some princes. Also, Rapunzel shows up. Then there are the giants.

“I wish,” Cinderella sings, and the musical begins. For much of the first act, the fairy tales run out their familiar stories until each character sees his or her wish granted. In the closing number, “Ever After,” we’re told that “all that seemed wrong was now right, and those who deserved to were certain to live a long and happy life” along with the claim that “to be happy, and forever, you must see your wish come true.” All, in other words, is well.

That is, until Act Two. Now, it’s been maybe a year, and suddenly no one’s happy. Suddenly, everyone has a new wish. Cinderella, no longer content to go to festivals wants to sponsor a festival of her own. Jack’s mother, now rich, is getting greedy. The baker and his wife have their baby, but they’d like a bigger house. And, suddenly, we see what Sondheim and Lapine are after, a truth no less profound for being familiar, one that has something to do with happiness, one perhaps best summed up in this great line: “Wishes may bring problems, such that you regret them. / Better that, though, than to never get them…” There’s no question mark attached to that second sentence, but I read it as a question. As in: Are we better off not getting what we think we want? Because, getting what we want, won’t we immediately want the next, best thing? Is this what it means to be American, or just what it means to be human?

The musical continues, the characters grow unhappier, and then some serious shit goes down. I don’t want to spoil it for you, except to say that there’s a hysterical song in which the princes who worked so hard in Act One to win the hands of Rapunzel and Cinderella now find themselves bored in their dull marriages and suddenly attracted to Snow White and Sleeping Beauty. “Not forgetting the tasks unachievable, mountains unscalable,” they sing, “if it’s conceivable, but unavailable, ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh-agony!”

What’s so great about Into the Woods is that it never takes itself too seriously, yet it uses its veil of humor to address weighty themes like love and death and disillusionment. And it does so not only by exploding the fairy tale’s form but by pushing the musical itself to its limits. I mean, let’s be honest, Sondheim’s never found a rhyme he couldn’t force. But, when he pushes one, he pushes it so far past the point of snapping, that it somehow grows elastic again, and, as with Lewis Carroll, we can laugh and revel in his language. See, for example, what Sondheim does here in “On the Steps of the Palace.” Cinderella sings: “You’ll just leave him a clue: / For example, a shoe. / And then see what he’ll do. / Now it’s he and not you / who is stuck with a shoe / in a stew / in the goo / and you’ve learned something too, / something you never knew, / on the steps of the palace.” This is not the Sondheim of West Side Story. This is a poet fucking with us. And you have to hear Kim Crosby as Cinderella to appreciate just how lush the rhymes are when piled up on her tongue, then to appreciate the violence of that last word. No closing couplet, just the one word, palace, unrhymed. Palace: a word that almost rhymes with Cinderella’s most sung line, “I wish—” the line that begins and closes the show. And so there, at the end, is the tail, and there the snake’s mouth, eating, eating.

Can we be happy? I don’t know. I’m happy when I hear these songs or when I’m snug in a chair waiting for a musical to begin, the houselights dimming, the orchestra pit tuning and trilling and practicing its scales.

And now I’ll let you in on my little secret: I say it’s my favorite, but Into the Woods is a musical I’ve never seen. I’ve only heard the score. I’ve heard it so many times, and, for now, that’s enough. It leaves me something more for when listening won’t be enough. And it won’t be. One day soon, it won’t be. Nothing ever is.

David James Poissant’s stories have appeared in The Atlantic, Playboy, The Southern Review, Best New American Voices, and elsewhere. You can read his story “Refund” in the latest issue of One Story. His chapbook Lizard Man, winner of the RopeWalk Press Editor’s Fiction Chapbook Prize, will be published later this year. He lives with his wife and daughters in Orlando and teaches in the MFA program at the University of Central Florida.