by Jonathan Scott Chinn
You can decide for yourself whether you think I am lucky to have been born in the great state of Oklahoma, where the wind comes sweepin' down the plain, etc. I am of the opinion that it is God's singular challenge to my will, having placed me here, and that He is always amused at my "Sondheaded" attempts to make the best of it here until I can escape.
Oklahoma, home to urban cowboys, Garth Brooks, and bombing disasters-- they're real proud about that one-- might seem a strange place to find a group of teenage Sondheim devotees, but that proud band is one in which I found myself 6 years ago, at the ripe age of 13. My best friend's parents owned the cast recording of Into the Woods, and we used to rap along with the Witch most every day after junior high. We had both been messing around in community theatre for a few years, and had developed a bond through musicals.
Into the Woods was our favorite, so when the kids' theater studio where we both took production classes decided Into the Woods would be their next project, you can imagine our excitement.
Sounds great, right? A young, interested kid gets a chance to be in a Sondheim show just when his sensibilities are ready, right? I felt the same, but little did I know that I was about to be engulfed in the fifth level of Sondheim hell: The KidSpirit Studios 1992 production of Into the Woods.
Yes, I did say "KidSpirit." Cute, huh? Every snobby, preconceived notion you have about kids' theater studios are absolutely, positively TRUE about this place. They had done Grease about five times in the space of 3 years, once with only two boys and about fifteen girls. They taught three-year-olds how to belt "Hey, Good Lookin'" and "Tomorrow". They had actually produced Starlight Express. But Into the Woods was going to be different-- It was to be mounted by the Advanced Teenage Class! We knew about good theatre! We understood Sondheim! We were thirteen!
Our director's name was Richard. He was a nice man who happened to be predisposed to random acts of violent anger. He was, in a half-assed attempt at hyperrealistic theater, to direct and also play the Narrator/ Mysterious Man. I should have known to stay away then, but, like I said, I was thirteen.
I auditioned with "Sometimes A Day Goes By" from Woman of the Year, which, in retrospect, seems a very unusual choice for a thirteen-year-old boy. But I guess it wasn't too odd, because I was cast as Jack. I was excited and nervous, because I had been only marginally trained as a singer and was afraid I couldn't handle the music. I figured that I would try my best and rely on the rest of the cast's expertise. "Cast's expertise" is now a phrase that brings forth wild, cacophonous laughter from my body when in reference to this show.
One of the many problems was the fact that we only met to rehearse twice a week, with a rehearsal period of four months. Which basically resulted in rendering most rehearsal time completely useless, as the irresponsible cast member returned from each three-day break having forgotten any blocking, music, or choreography we had learned the last time. And memorization. . .HA!
We were scheduled to open May 20, even though a theater had not yet been booked. Where were we to perform was no concern of ours, Richard would say, right before screaming at someone for laughing out loud or slamming his office door to leave us for hours at lonely odds against this daunting masterpiece of musical theatre.
March and April were bleak, as 3 or 4 members of the cast dropped out, leaving us rehearsing the show without a Rapunzel, a Rapunzel's Prince, or a Steward. Massive cuts began to be implemented during this period, also, particularly concerning the roles of Rapunzel, Rapunzel's Prince, and the Steward. Go figure.
We had no funds for a live orchestra, so one of our musically gifted cast members volunteered to orchestrate the score on his synthesizer at home. So, we now had taped accompaniment. Well, we didn't, actually, because he was too lazy to finish any of it before May.
So, there we were, with only about 4 songs from the score orchestrated, three missing actors, an increasingly unstable director who had yet to even attempt any of his scenes, and about 5 weeks to opening. Well, opening and closing, the same night.
The rest of the cast was no support: Cinderella was tone deaf and roughly three feet tall, the Witch was developing an adequate performance, but was manic-depressive and cried most of the time, and Little Red had D-cup breasts and sounded like Marlene Dietrich-- but without any talent.
The next week, realizing that we opened in a month (or 8 rehearsals, in our schedule) we bore down and tried to consolidate our losses: In one desperate nighttime phone marathon, we managed to scrape three of our friends off the bottom of the barrel to fill the still-vacant roles, adding to our motley crew an 8-year-old Steward, an illiterate Rapunzel's Prince, and a chain-smoking, heavy metal Rapunzel.
After another week, things seemed like they could improve. Myself and a few others had actually memorized our parts, and Richard had blocked almost the entire first act. But then our fate was sealed with the decision to perform in the auditorium at Redlands Community College, in fair El Reno, Oklahoma. Now, my hometown of Oklahoma City is no bastion of culture, but it DOES have an upper hand on El Reno, a town down the highway that smells mysteriously of cow patties.
We approached opening day, our only day in the actual venue, with heavy dread. We were to load in all our sets (not bad ones, surprisingly enough) into the space in the morning, have our single tech dress in the afternoon, and perform that evening. Before I could fall to my knees and beg Lord Sondheim not to forsake me so, May 20 had arrived. Act Two was not actually finished, the last orchestration, "Any Moment/Moments in the Woods" had just been finished the day prior, and most of the cast was still on book. No one knew how Richard was, because he still usually skipped over any of his lines or songs. But Opening Night was here!
Upon arriving in El Reno, we realized there was no backstage area to the auditorium in which we were playing. It was pretty much a glorified lecture hall, with a corridor running directly behind the stage area with the public bathrooms/dressing rooms. But, believe me, other things were more pressingly catastrophic at the time.
As the tech dress began, I realized that I was the only cast member who knew all the lyrics to "Into the Woods." I accepted my new solo with muted excitement as the people around me mumbled, "Into the woods, it's where we. . .mmmm. . .to find. . .Into the Woods, we. . .To get the bag. . .to, um. . .find my. . .Into the Woods! Into the Woods!"
After the prologue, my worst fears were confirmed with Richard's first real performance of the Mysterious Man. He had crafted a character that was. . .well, loud, annoying, impossible to understand, and scary. He was kind of a cross between a hard rock singer and Medusa on acid. The rest of the first act flowed like rocks through a pasta drainer and took roughly 3 hours, what with stops to remind people of lines or fix lights. We had every intention of finishing the run-through, but when 6:30 rolled around and we had just finished the Act II prologue, well. . .
So the cast retired to their dressing rooms, er, the men's and ladies' rooms, that is, to prepare for their triumphant premiere without the benefit of having ever run the second act. As curtain time approached, I began to pray. . .
Our small audience of about 75 people were seated, and the show began. Richard read from a script at the edge of the stage. Everyone did fine until the "Into the Woods" section of the prologue, when, at one time, 16 bars went by without one person muttering a lyric. But that was over. I began my first scene, tugging a Milky-White behind me that was as big as I was, soulfully reciting, "Quiet everywhere, Milky- White. . .not to my liking." Ten second pause as I wait in terror for the Mysterious Man to make his entrance. "Yes, certainly quiet, Milky-White. . .I can hear my heart beating in my ears. . ." I'm sure James Lapine would appreciate the subtle imagery in my adlib. Richard never showed up.
The rest of the act continued in much the same manner to the Finale, which, to our credit, matched the opening almost exactly in slaughter of lyrics and confusion of movement. At intermission, we communed with our audience in the restrooms. I couldn't say who was more embarrassed.
Act Two began-- our first run-through-- and was kick-started by our realization that we had only lost HALF of our audience during the break. They really did love us! Things were going well, considering, until Cinderella's Prince began to sing "Any Moment", and there was no music. He and the Baker's Wife stood onstage, pulling muscles trying to cover, until they finally ran off. After three more seconds, Richard stumbled onstage as the Narrator and said, "Excuse me, ladies and gentlemen, but our story is experiencing technical difficulties. We'll resume in ten minutes." Someone had left "Any Moment" out of the master tapes, so Richard had to run out to his car to find a copy while we were again confronted face-to-face with our audience, this time in a hopeless tableau of despair against the urinals.
The show resumed, Little Red manged to save us some energy by skipping over four pages and "Witch's Lament" with a misplaced line, we massacred "Your Fault", moaned as Richard croaked out "No More" and wondered if we were destined to survive this ordeal.
As I was informed of my mother's death on the tree limb during "No One Is Alone", I couldn't stand it anymore. As I began to sing my echo, "Our side. . ." I burst into tears, releasing all the pent up angst that this 4-month luxury cruise to theater hell had caused me, bawling with abandon as I tried to finish singing. It was over. Thank God, it was finally over.
Despite its flaws, I must admit our show made quite a bit of Sondheim history: I'll bet it was the first production ever to have a Baker that was also orchestrator and music director, and write it in your books that there once was an Into the Woods with two intermissions.
But this is really a story about redemption. I have since overcome this past tragedy and developed a vast knowledge of all things Sondheim, a complete collection of books and CDs, and a true understanding of The Master that some who were witness to the aforementioned debacle might not have been able to glean. So, fellow victims of bad Sondheim, do not worry: You, too, can overcome a monstrous production of Sondheim. And someday you might even know all the lyrics to "The Boy From. . ."
And by the way, I'll get out of Oklahoma someday, if it's the last thing I do.
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