Not many people who only know me as an adult know this about me, but I used to be something of a drama geek.
I acted or did tech work for every production we put on during my time in high school. Even starred in a few. There were lots of kids who were more emotionally and intellectually committed to theatre than me and, without question, many more kids who were more talented than me. I did, however, possess the proper mix of ample free time, general inter-clique popularity and mild-but-annoying ego-serving ambition that I managed to overcome that lack of commitment and talent to get myself elected president of our school’s chapter of the International Thespian Society and the Drama Club.
OK, so maybe I was a bit more than something of a drama geek. Don’t look at me that way. Not everything you did in high school was cool either.
My high school was, on occasion, a challenging environment in which do theater. It was southern West Virginia, after all, and there are a lot of Baptists down there. Our drama teacher and the director of most of our plays was a wonderful woman and a devout Christian. While she seemed to lean toward the liberal end of the religious world, she put her foot down a few times. Most memorably in nixing the idea of us doing “Grease” because it was … questionable. The biggest problem wasn’t the language and innuendo, she said, but that “in the end, rather than turning Danny into a better person, Sandy abandons her morals to be more like him.” Oh well.
That aside, I enjoyed almost every production we mounted back in those days. The best was certainly the last one in which I participated. It was our senior year musical: Steven Sondheim’s “Into the Woods.” I played the narrator who, unlike the narrator in most stories, gets his own song and, in a lovely post-modern twist, gets killed in the second act when the characters turn on him. It’s a pretty spiffy play with a ton of great songs. I highly recommend it to even those who aren’t normally fans of musicals, as it’s absolutely hilarious, deliciously subversive and possesses no small amount of edge.
Or it did. Now it’s being turned into a movie and, as is the case with most movie musicals, the motion picture will, unless it utterly bombs, eventually come to be thought of as the definitive product by virtue of more eyes having seen it. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. “My Fair Lady” holds up really damn well as a film. But in the case of “Into the Woods” I think it might very well be. That’s because Disney is producing it and they appear to be cutting the balls right the hell off of the thing.
According to this New Yorker article, Disney made a few changes. Sondheim himself explains:
"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."
Sondheim added: “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 find this disgusting, but my disgust at this isn’t about my nostalgia for the original or your typical “the play was better than the movie” sort of thing. I realize that compromises often must be made when one adapts one form of art into another. You have to make choices and you have to make cuts. This cut, however, eviscerates the entire message of “Into the Woods.”
The message, as put by my high school music teacher and the musical director of all of our productions when I shared the article with her on Facebook last night:
It is all about consequences and decisions … Making this more appropriate for younger performers takes out the heart of the show and eliminates the idea that actions and consequences matter. We do not do enough to teach consequences for the actions and decisions we choose. This is a perfect story for that.
In essence: in trying to sanitize “Into the Woods,” Disney has actually removed its core moral message. It has decided that it doesn’t have the courage, faith and stomach for risk possessed by a little Baptist lady in Southern West Virginia who clutched her pearls when she thought of Olivia Newton-John in leather pants.
I don’t know what Disney plans on doing with the Baker’s Wife, the Prince and Rapunzel. Maybe the new plot points will be wildly entertaining. But in failing to put them through the very human trials and tribulations the original play does, they are, perversely, likely to render the story into something which is far less morally and ethically instructive than the one Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine originally told.
This week my daughter is taking an introduction-to-acting class put on by the Columbus Children’s Theatre. She’s a lot like me — kind of a ham and kind of a geek — so she’s really enjoying it. Right now this is just something different to pass the time this summer, but I could see her getting into drama as she gets older. She’s also done something else recently: totally abandoned those kid-oriented sitcoms produced by the Disney Channel that she used to watch all of the time. I didn’t tell her to, she just doesn’t care for them anymore.
As a parent, I couldn’t be happier that she’s choosing the godless and libertine culture of the theatre over the wholesome and family-friendly world of Disney. It’s far safer and morally instructive for her that way.
My parents left on Friday. In the big truck pulling the big trailer and heading west. The destination is Colorado. For now. In the fall it’ll probably be the Gulf coast. Or maybe California or New Mexico. It doesn’t matter where. They’re full-timers again. That trailer is their home and it sits wherever they want it to sit. They are tethered to nothing but their whims from now on and maybe (hopefully) forever.
This isn’t the first time they’ve done this. After they retired ten or eleven years ago they got a big RV, sold their house and did the full-timing thing for a couple of years. Colorado. Some San Diego. Some Corpus Christi and around and back again. But in 2008 they got an urge to be near my kids who were just a bit more than babies then. They sold the big RV, got an apartment and set up shop two miles from me.
It was wonderful to have them near me for these past few years. My mom was indispensable as a babysitter and all-around helper as I navigated my way through the end of my legal career, into my writing career and then into life as a single father when my marriage crumbled. My father, who passed the past few years driving school busses in Westerville and New Albany, was indispensable as a co-caretaker of my house, car and yard, re-teaching me the lessons of home, garden and automobile maintenance that didn’t really take 25 years ago while I looked off into my own future and ignored so many of the basic lessons of young male adulthood.
They both also, unequivocally, have been my best and closest friends over the past five or six years. I spent so much time in my teens doing everything I could to separate myself from my family, to become my own person and to make a point of getting out of my childhood home as soon as I could without looking back. I wouldn’t change that if I had it to do all over again because I needed all of that to happen the way it did, but I am so very grateful that I had the opportunity to have my parents near me these past few years. I could have gotten by without them if I had to, but it would’ve been so much harder and so much less fulfilling. Having them around my children and me has been wonderful. Having a close relationship with family by choice, instead of out of some sense of obligation, is one of life’s better things.
But it was time for them to move on. The kids are older now and they don’t need babysitting in the same way they used to. My parents are still young and healthy enough to where they can go out and find new and exciting experiences, but they are old enough to where doing so is no longer best thought of as some future theoretical but, rather, a practical and necessary thing. If they waited to hit the road any longer they may not have done it. They would’ve thought about some doctor’s appointment or some school play or some business trip of mine for which prudence would have told them “maybe we should stick around for a few more months.”
Fuck prudence. There are always reasons to remain in stasis if one looks hard enough. It takes some courage to leave one’s comfort zone and go out to wherever one’s whims may take them. And that’s what my parents have done. I’m glad they have. It’s so very appropriate for them.
My dad left for the Navy when he was 17 and saw the world. My mom left when she was 18 to go off with my dad to who knows where. They both went off to the Upper Peninsula in Michigan and then on to Alaska of all fucking places in the 60s. They set up a home and had kids in Michigan in the 70s. In the 80s, searching for something more, they went to West Virginia. Then on to Tennessee and back to Michigan and on the road and on to Ohio and now back on the road again. Along the way they have lived a life and taught me lessons which embody the notion that family is what you decide it is, not that to which blood obligates you. They have taught me that home is where one hangs one’s hat, not where one ends up, never questioning how one got there.
Through it all — through good times and bad, rough seas and smooth sailing — they have had each other. At times they’ve had my brother and me, but for most of their 47 years together it has just been them. And now it’s just them again. Out on the highway. Or up in the mountains. Or out in the desert. Living a life that, however complicated it ever got, now boils down to just them and whatever basics of life fit into their big ass RV. I’ve never seen them as happy and excited about life as I’ve seen them these past few months preparing to hit the road again. I’ve never known them to be happier than when they have no one else but each other and, maybe some beautiful and inspiring scenery with which to pass the time.
I don’t know if this new phase of their lives will last two years or ten years. If it’ll be just one thing before the next thing or if it’ll prove to be the last thing they ever do. All I know is that, right now, when there is nothing to stop them, they are going off and doing exactly what they want to do. And that’s all anyone should do. Maybe ever, but especially when they’ve reached the part of life where my parents find themselves.
I last spoke with them when they were outside of Kansas City. By now I expect they’re someplace in the Rocky Mountains. Here’s hoping that they remain as rootless and restless as they always have been. For that is what has always sent them on to their next and best adventures.
We were out and about and had 20 minutes to kill before I could drop Anna off at a friend’s birthday party. Carlo was in tow and wanted to go to the comic book shop. That’s not a hard sell for me, so we went.
As I looked through some things I liked and Carlo looked through some things he liked, Anna — not really a big comics fan — idly thumbed through a random Batman. She knows who Batman is at least. After reading for a bit she held up a page with this on it and said “who’s that?”
She asked rather absently, as if she weren’t terribly interested, and I was distracted so I answered rather absently, as if it didn’t really matter.
"Um, that’s Harley Quinn. She’s The Joker’s girlfriend," I said, and got back to what I was reading.
Just then a woman’s voice came from behind us.
"Well, that’s one way to put it, I suppose,” she said. She seemed somewhat amused at our conversation but was clearly trying to make a point about reductionist explanations of complex characters. Specifically, a complex female character who I should damn well know better than to explain as merely some male character’s girlfriend.
"I think there’s a little more to her than being hung up on The Joker,” she added.
As soon as she said it I realized just how careless and dumb my response was. Yes, it’s just a comic book character, but (a) reinforcing stupid-ass gender stereotypes happens in the most banal places; (b) if anything, it’s more stupid and dangerous when it’s done so casually; and (c) I know the world of comic books and related pop culture is worse about that crap than almost anywhere, so I should know better than to default to that mode here, of all places.
I offered a stumbling corrective:
"Well, Anna, she’s one of the villains in ‘Batman,’ and she’s a doctor, well, er, a psychiatrist and, um, while she loves the Joker, he treats her really badly and eventually, um, I think, she takes revenge on him and teams up with some other …" I trailed off, realizing I’d reached the end of my Harley Quinn knowledge. The woman — who I realized works at the store — laughed and told me I made "a good effort." By this point Anna had wandered off, not really caring about any of it, frankly.
The woman and I talked a bit and I think she eventually bought that I’m a pretty enlightened guy who is trying to raise my daughter right and that I was absolutely mortified that I found myself casually spouting off patriarchal garbage.
She also bought as genuine — I think anyway — my question about what sorts of comics she’d recommend for a ten-year-old girl of above average intelligence, the strong conviction that girls kick ass and a father who wants her to be everything a good feminist should be, even if he’s sometimes a doof about it.
She got Anna to follow her over to a shelf and pulled this off:
That’s issue #1. She got me issue #2 as well. Issue #3 comes out soon. It’s about five friends — April, Molly, Mal, Ripley and Jo — who are at a summer camp which teaches survival skills. Something mysterious and supernatural is going on out in the woods and the friends investigate/kick its ass/generally do what comic book characters do when weird stuff is afoot.
It’s written by women and all of the characters are girls or women. But it’s feminist in practice not in some overtly self-conscious “THIS IS BY WOMEN FOR WOMEN” statement-y kind of way. It has a great story and has great characters. As any good comic book should. That story and those characters do things that cool, strong female characters do. They don’t do things in service of some abstract idea that having cool, strong female characters would be a useful thing to present and market and blah, blah, blah, thinkpiece, thinkpiece, thinkpiece.
I’m not sure if Anna will ever truly get into comics. She wants Issue #3, but she’s more into novels, really, so I could see her not keeping up with it. But I am at least glad that, if she does, there’s cool stuff out there for her that is neither sexist nor condescending nor calculating that will both hold her interest and subvert some lame norms along the way.
And most of all I’m glad that she found something that shows her not to pay much attention to dumb old men who try to explain stuff to her. Even when that dumb old man is her dad. Maybe especially when.
Just leaving this here as a bookmark for the girl later.
"Girls’ names typically cycle in and out of fashion more quickly than boys’ names … However, there are some exceptions — most notably Anna, which is a remarkably well-enduring girl’s name. The name Anna steadily declined in popularity from 1900 to 1950; however, many of those older Annas are no longer with us, and the name has remained at reasonably steady levels of popularity since then. Thus, while a quarter of living Annas are younger than 14, another quarter are older than 62.”