Monday, May 09, 2005

Our Daughter, the Witch

One of my fondest memories of childhood was going to see the annual spring musical at the high school. It ranked right up there with Christmas and my birthday. You see, my mom rationed out passive entertainment such as TV and movies very very parsimoniously, but there was never any question that we would go see the musical each year if for no other reason than to support my dad (the band director), who conducted the pit orchestra each year. We always had primo seats near the pit orchestra so we could watch my dad conduct. I imagined that all the people in the rows behind us were envious of our seats and our "celebrity" status.

As an added bonus, we got to stay up hours and hours past our bedtimes and then walk home in the dark. The musicals were always in May, and I remember always being surprised at how balmy the night air was—signaling the rapid approach of a hot, humid Midwestern summer and the end of the tedious school year.

Granted, my impressions of the musicals were surely colored by my extreme youth and inexperience, but I maintain to this day that our high school put on some terrific performances of Brigadoon, Anything Goes, HMS Pinafore, and, my favorite, Wonderful Town.* It has always seemed to me, too, that our high school must have had more than its share of talented singers and actors. Quite a number of them including this guy have gone on to become professional, working actors. Surely that's pretty unusual for a public school in a far-flung, middle-of-the-road suburb of Chicago?

Anyway, I'll never know for sure just how good or bad those performances were, but I still have a soft spot for high school musicals. For the past three years B and I have been attending the spring musical at the high school in our neighborhood.** This year they are doing Into the Woods by Stephen Sondheim or, as B calls him, Stephen Sondrhyme.

So, on Saturday night, we walked over to the high school, purchased our tickets ($10!!!!), and were each issued a square of crumbling Twinkie-like foam padding to place between our aging bums and the wooden auditorium seats. Every time I go to this high school, it is major flashback time for me. The trophy cases in the hall, the multicolored Magic Marker signs congratulating the debate team, the steps worn concave by decades and decades of shuffling teenaged feet. It is exactly like my old high school. Very spooky.

The first time we went to one of the musicals, we felt a bit out of place. Just what were we doing there? Everyone in the audience was related in some way to one of the kids in the musical. We decided that we would pick a kid at random out of the program and pretend that that kid was our son or daughter. Last year they did Les Miserables (School Edition) and we picked the kid who played the good Samaritan who pretends that he gave the candlesticks to Jean Valjean when in fact Jean Valjean stole them. However, despite our son's Tony-caliber performance, we left after the first act because Les Miserables is such a miserable show (I call it Lame Is). We are such bad parents. Not the kids’ fault—they did the best they could. It’s just that the story is impossible to follow and the songs are pointlessly treacherous and unmelodic.

This year, we decided to choose a daughter. As we scanned the program bios of the kids in the show, it became increasingly clear to us how unlikely it would have been that we would have spawned a “‘bombastic’ energetic blonde” or a “hairy Jewish, dancing machine.” Yes. I’m quoting from the self-penned bios. This sort of showboaty theatricality is just not to be found anywhere in our genes, I’m pretty sure. If we really wanted to enter fully into the pretense, we would have selected some meek waif hunkered behind a bassoon in the pit orchestra. But that’s no fun. We finally settled on the girl playing the Witch, a former member of the pit orchestra (cello) and a practitioner of Ashtanga yoga. That’s more like it. It's just possible we could have given birth to such a child.

With someone on whose behalf we could be nervous selected, we sat back to experience the musical. Now I have to say that Into the Woods is not one of Stephen Sondheim’s better efforts. It’s a scrambled-up retelling of a bunch of fairytales (Jack and the Beanstalk, Cinderella, Little Red Ridinghood, Rapunzel), in which characters from the various tales bump into each other in the woods and then burst into song. B’s right about the Sondrhyme moniker. A sample:

“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”

To which I say, “Ew.” Mr. Sondrhyme must have sprained his right frontal lobe coming up with that one.

So. Not a good musical. But the kids did a good job, especially our daughter who, as it turned out, had the role responsible for driving the plot (such as it was) forward. She was also the only person in the cast who got to wear a hideous false chin and hooked putty nose. Like her mother, she's not afraid to look bad. I foresee a brilliant career for her as the star of an American version of Absolutely Fabulous. Or not.

*I’d wish I could say that the reason I liked it so much was that, even as a child, I recognized Leonard Bernstein’s genius, but I suspect that the real reason I enjoyed it was because one of the characters was a disheveled lummox known as “the Wreck.”

**I don’t know why we never went to any high school musicals when we lived in Chicago. Either they weren’t advertised or they’d been axed from the schools’ budgets as a worthless frivolity that does nothing to improve standardized test scores. Hmmm. I wonder which it could be?


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