So tonight, foolishly, instead of going to bed or even finishing my book, I let a quick glance at last night’s Tony awards lead me to YouTube and Sondheim and Bernadette Peters.
What a strange childhood I remember. I never spoke much, as I recall (and my parents say I’ve been making up for it ever since). That meant that very little of what was going on in my head came out to the light of day to be noticed or commented on.
So I find myself wondering: would anyone have thought it odd that at 6, my favourite song was by Sondheim? (Send in the Clowns — the only one popular enough to get past mother’s screening, amidst all the Rogers and Hammerstein)
Next glance at Sondheim came at school: Side by Side by Sondheim — which offered in one evening a taste of a world opening up. My dominant memory? months of tension building between the soprano (who was used to being the star) and the alto (who knew she had more talent and the harder line) that was transformed into the performance of ‘A boy like that’ — hissing and spitting across the stage.
Then, it was time for Into the Woods.
I remember it distinctly. Mother and I went down to New York, as we were wont to do. We had orchestra seats, seven rows back to the right. ‘A sort of fairy tale’ she said — no doubt forgetting how dark fairy tales really are. And the curtain went up. I was nonplussed by the giant, then the witch arrived, and my world my never quite the same again.
I don’t remember liking the show, so much as being transfixed by it.
By her, really.
I had seen Bernadette Peters once before in Song and Dance — a show I hated and a character I disliked, with one wonderful song, and a performer who took my breath away despite the general dislike.
But with Into the Woods, it was different. Song and Dance bored me. Into the Woods bewildered me.
You must understand the context: my parents were undergraduates in the late forties and early fifties. My life was not far from a world that most of my contemporaries know only as farce: set hair and satin skirts, tea parties and layered finger sandwiches. Behind that rustled my grandmother’s memories of an Edwardian childhood, the flapper’s hopes, and the great depression.
Not the world of the Witch.
well, not officially, any way.
And into that world broke a voice of rebellion. Into that world came the permission to turn it all upside down. ‘Honour their mistakes, everybody makes, one another’s terrible mistakes. Witches can be right, giants can be good. You decide what’s right. You decide what’s good.’
Mother hated it. It’s the only time she threatened to walk out at intermission. But I feigned embarrassment, and forced her to stay.
Later that day, when I’d had time to process it and could draw breath again, I decided that she hadn’t understood it. Now, I realise that she probably understood it all too well.
Often in church, there is tension between what I expect of liturgy and what others seem to want. I don’t just mean here, in this congregation, but more generally. I blame it on the ‘Comfortable Words’ — a sense that the liturgy is there to soothe, to lap familiarly as water against the shore.
And I suppose I want that sometimes. But more often, I want the witch to come onto the stage and shatter my world. I want the words, the image, the space to see something that I have always known and never known before. I want catharsis, and healing, and a way to begin again. And always, always the promise: ‘You are not alone, truly not alone. No one is alone.’
And as I say it, I realise that Bernadette Peters is probably not a likely liturgical guide. Yet I suspect that a lot of my friends, a lot of the people who share my sense of church will ‘get it’ immediately — share the space I seek, even if choosing a different catalyst.
Bed time now, but I must give the witch the last word. Another song of formation for me. A sort of creed, that I am still working out. Pain and truth and hope and grace all at once — in the search for redemption.