Friday 24 April 2020

Back to Sondheim

Dedicated readers of this blog--and a spring good evening to you, Aunt Hail and Uncle Rain--will know of my admiration for the composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim. I go back to his work all the time--the filmed stage versions of his plays (well, two of them: Sunday in the Park with George and Into the Woods) and his splendid two volumes of annotated lyrics called Finishing the Hat and Look, I Made a Hat. (I keep going back to everything I like--The Crown, for instance, or Brooklyn, or the core 25 books on my shelf. And Sondheim.) I go back because there's always more to see and learn.
There's always something different I need from them, something new I'm ready for. In the case of Into the Woods, I'm thinking about Act One. It's a mash-up of fairy tales including Rapunzel, Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk and others. Though the pace is occasionally frenetic and the poly-vocal structure complex, the piece stays true to the elemental simplicity of the tales: happy ever after. But that's only Act One.
Anyway, there's a narrator who pops on- and off-stage. I'm back to my Charlotte's Web, wondering if I could use a narrator to simulate that function that appears in E.B.White's prose. In Sondheim's play, the narrator pops out stage left or right, dressed like a contemporary older man, casual business style. Everyone else is in their fairytale costume. How, I wonder, might this work in my Charlotte's Web.
The other note I've made is about the cow. 
Charlotte's Web, of course, is full of animals. The one certainty I have about my adaptation is that the animals CANNOT be mascots. That is, they must be able to move like real animals, live the lifestyle of real animals, submit to the destiny of real animals. But they're played by human actors. So what do they wear, what do they look like? I know I will find a designer to answer these questions, but for now, Into the Woods presents a useful notion via the cow.
The cow, about the size of a real calf, is a rigid creature, milky white in colour. Little attempt at naturalism with this design. When the cow must move, it is pushed forward or backward on its teflon-coated (I'm assuming) feet. If the movement must be quicker, the actor can simply grab the suitcase-like handle fixed to the creature's spine and carry it away. This gets a laugh from the audience. But not enough to take them out of the story. That business-casual narrator is like that too. It's a bit of a cheesy choice, but it's not overdone and it works.
A lot of things can be done. A lot of things work, though the abyss is ever at hand. The thrill, the challenge, is to risk and find solutions.

Friday 10 April 2020

Getting Near the End

Well, here's a puzzle. At the Fair, in a long-ish scene Wilbur is awarded a medal for being so radiant. For his people, it's the greatest moment of their lives. Wilbur himself is proud and happy. This takes place in the judges' booth in front of the grandstand.
Charlotte, meanwhile, is back in Wilbur's pen, being too weak to move. She's created her egg sac and will soon die. But she can hear what's going on at the medal ceremony over the Fair Ground loudspeaker.
When things calm down, Wilbur and Charlotte are alone in the pen. Wilbur is beside himself with agony at the thought of Charlotte not returning to the Zuckerman barn with him. She tells him to settle down. 
With the people soon returning to pack up for him, Wilbur has to act quickly. He gets Templeton, the rat, to climb up and snip the egg sac from its mooring on the ceiling and bring it to Wilbur. Wilbur will carry the sac home in his mouth, having already learned from Charlotte that the sac is waterproof and strong.
Mouth firmly closed, all he can do to say good-bye as he's loaded onto the truck is wink to Charlotte. All she can do is whisper a weak good-bye. Soon the Fair Ground will is deserted. Charlotte dies alone.
The puzzle is how to stage it. If we see Charlotte and only hear the loudspeaker, we don't see much action. If we see the scene in the judges' booth--which is full of important plot elements involving mostly the human characters--how do we sense Charlotte's fading vigil over her last hours. Could we see both at the same time somehow? Maybe it's two scenes--in the novel, White gives them a chapter each. I imagine, however, that the action at the grandstand and silence and stillness of Charlotte will make for a powerful juxtaposition. 
Of course, the matter of designing the egg sac, and showing Templeton climb up to get it, and showing Wilbur put it into his mouth--well, the theatre pros will take care of all that. Somehow.