By Larissa MacFarquhar
One recent sunny morning on West Forty-fourth Street, upstairs from Sardi’s, a group of drama teachers gathered to sit at the feet of Stephen Sondheim. The teachers had been bravely putting on Sondheim musicals for years, in the face of administrative protests about immoral messages and lascivious or bloodthirsty content. It was true that even they, in private moments, had wondered whether it was wise to encourage teen-agers to enter into the minds of characters such as Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett, who chop people up and bake them into pies and find this activity so exciting that they have sex with each other. But, on the whole, the teachers were smut-and-gore idealists. Now, in this master class, organized by the Academy for Teachers, they would for one day be free of the proprieties that bound them, and could ask Sondheim himself how to think about their difficulties.
Kevin Gallagher, of Dalton, raised his hand.
“In middle school, I try to do pieces that are a little more edgy, rather than the fun, light stuff that everyone wants to see,” he said. A few months earlier, his production of “Thoroughly Modern Millie” had been called to a halt three weeks before opening, because of its stereotyped depictions of Asians, and replaced by an edited version. “This year, we’re thinking about doing ‘Into the Woods’—”
“And what do they object to?” Sondheim interrupted. “Death? Because kids love blood. With ‘Sweeney Todd,’ I used to go up the aisles during the second act when he murders everybody, and the grownups were horrified but the kids were loving it. So what is the objection?”
“Infidelity, a wolf being lascivious, that the whole connection with Red Riding Hood is sexual.”
“Well, you’ll be happy to know that Disney had the same objections,” Sondheim told him.
“Into the Woods,” a concoction of fairy tales even more twisted than the originals, is being made into a Disney movie, and the transition from its louche Broadway version has not been without obstacles.
“You will find in the movie that Rapunzel does not get killed, and the prince does not sleep with the baker’s wife,” he said.
The teachers gasped, but Sondheim shrugged. “You know, if I were a Disney executive I would probably say the same thing,” he said.
A teacher asked what would happen to the song “Any Moment” if the baker’s wife remained chaste. “Don’t say the song is cut.”
“The song is cut.”
The teachers cried out in despair.
“I’m sorry, I should say, it’s probably cut,” Sondheim said.
“Stick up for that song!” a teacher called out.
“I did, I did,” Sondheim said. “But Disney said, we don’t want Rapunzel to die, so we replotted it. I won’t tell you what happens, but we wrote a new song to cover it.”
“I have a question that stems out of that,” Jo Ann Cimato, of the Beacon School, said. She always tells her kids to be daring and original, but she has to put on bowdlerized versions of musicals, and she said she felt like a hypocrite.
“Can you let them read the original and then discuss why, say, Rapunzel is not allowed to die in the adulterated version?” Sondheim asked.
“We do that, but they just get angry. They feel censored—they don’t feel trusted.”
“And they’re right,” Sondheim said. “But you have to explain to them that censorship is part of our puritanical ethics, and it’s something that they’re going to have to deal with. There has to be a point at which you don’t compromise anymore, but that may mean that you won’t get anyone to sell your painting or perform your musical. You have to deal with reality.”
Dealing with reality meant thinking not only about your inner sense of artistic rightness but about whether an audience was going to be bored silly, he explained. “The first act of a play ends with a moment of crisis that’s unresolved, so the audience goes out thinking, What’s going to happen?” he said. “The first act you get a man up a tree—how does it go?”
“It’s a cat,” Alison Merkel, of the Booker T. Washington School, said. “The first act is getting the cat up the tree, the second act is throwing rocks at the cat, the third act is getting the cat down from the tree.”
“That’s it,” he said. “It’s a glib little aphorism, but, if you look at most plays, it’s like the sonata form in music—if you screw around with that, you’re taking your life in your hands. ‘Sunday in the Park with George’ has no plot, and it’s been severely criticized for that. Some people think the second act is a waste of time, though it’s what the play’s about. But it’s a dangerous piece, because it has no inner tension, and if you don’t get the audience into that fantasy of that park, the show becomes boring. So generally you’re better off dealing with the cat. ”