Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Happily Ever After

If this week's column holds special meaning for me it's because on March 31, 1977 I made my debut as a writer in the Bay Area Reporter. At that time, this paper was little more than a gossip rag for drag queens and a soapbox for a minor political columnist named Harvey Milk. In fact, when my first editor, Paul Lorch, suggested that I use the B.A.R. as a stepping stone, I hadn't the foggiest idea what he meant. Certainly, there was no way of knowing that, ten years after I joined the staff, Harvey Milk would have become a gay martyr, Bob Ross would be on the Golden Gate Bridge District, this newspaper would have developed its impressive political clout or that I would be supporting myself with my writing.

However, once I began to understand what was meant by "freelance," I opted to expand my horizons. What has since happened never fails to amaze me. My writing has enabled me to interview a wealth of fascinating people ranging from porno stars to killer whale trainers; from people who are living legends to those who are merely legends in their own minds. It has also allowed me to travel around the world and savor more freedom than most people dare to imagine.

In addition to allowing me to enjoy the best of both possible worlds (I now lead a self-created lifestyle in which my work is my pleasure and what was once my pleasure has become my work) my writing has taught me that an outlet for one's thoughts can be an invaluable and marvelously cathartic device. Not only have I had the distinct privilege of watching opera become a popular art form in my own nation in my own time (the number of professional opera companies in America has doubled since I began attending performances twenty years ago), I've also had the thrill of commenting on its growth. Learning all about what makes opera tick and how the arts function as a business has given me an education which could hardly be achieved by doing research toward a doctorate degree. And, as the first openly gay person to regularly review opera for the gay press, I like to think that I've helped many important people in the arts acknowledge the importance of their gay audience.

Although the past ten years have included several hair-raising adventures, I've learned that a professional writer's lifestyle is hardly as glamorous as some of my friends would like to think it is (I often wonder if my life consists of an endless search for pay phones, restrooms and delayed flights). Many sacrifices accompany the "artistic" lifestyle. Indeed, some of them are too embarrassing to discuss with close friends. However, since I can't think of too many corporations which would let me work in my bathrobe or do my research in bed, I'll stick with it.
This is a lifestyle, however, which means constantly taking risks and challenging the status quo. Often, as a person finds his goals changing along with his definitions of success and fulfillment, his freedom of choice can cause problems. For those who have achieved more than they ever set out to accomplish, the question most frequently asked is: "What do I do next? What new kinds of challenges can I create so that I won't just keep repeating myself?" It's a sticky situation.


Shortly after the album of Sunday in the Park with George was released, someone at my gym insisted that he wanted at least one more "masterpiece" out of Stephen Sondheim. When I told him that his demand sounded rather self-serving, my friend was a bit taken aback by the way in which I had chastised him for being so quick to ask so much of one of this century's most important composers and librettists.

In January, however, I flew to San Diego to check out two performances of Sondheim's newest work, which was being tested at the Old Globe Theatre. Although I understood that this would by no means be a finished product, Sondheim is one of the few contemporary composers whose output is so fascinating that even "works in progress" deserve serious attention. His new show, Into the Woods, is directed and has its book written by James Lapine (who worked with Sondheim on Sunday in the Park with George). Even at first glimpse, its potential is staggering.

Into the Woods follows the fortunes of several characters from Grimm's fairy tales as they keep running into each other en route to fulfilling their fantasies. Unfortunately, after achieving their goals, Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Jack the Giant Killer, Rapunzel, Snow White, Prince Charming and their cohorts must all struggle with that curious time frame known to all as "happily ever after." For puzzle fans like myself, Into the Woods offers an orgy of cross-referencing delights with plenty of delicious plot twists. Alas, while the first act is easy on the audience, the second half of the show is weighted down in heavy moral conflicts. Just as in Follies, Company and Merrily We Roll Along, its characters run into trouble when they are forced to take responsibility for the all little white lies they told in order to get what they wanted.


The cast, though largely unknown, was exceptionally strong, with special credit going to Chip Zien as the Baker, Joanna Gleason as his ever resourceful wife, Ellen Foley as the Witch who torments them and LuAnn Ponce as a supremely obnoxious Little Red Riding Hood. Kim Crosby's clutzy Cinderella, Ben Wright's dimwitted Jack the Giant Killer and Ken Marshall's philandering Prince Charming helped to complicate matters even further.

Although (as in Pacific Overtures) Jonathan Tunick's orchestrations seem deceptively simple, Sondheim's meticulously detailed puns are so carefully criss-crossed (particularly in the "Agony" duet for two Prince Charmings) that Into the Woods resembles a game of ten-dimensional chess played out on the landscape of children's literature. While there are indeed some book problems which need to be ironed out before the show can be taken to New York, I found the Old Globe's production of Into the Woods to be highly entertaining, deliciously droll and -- even in those moments when the second act buckled under its moral weight -- most fascinating.

It will be interesting to see in what condition Sondheim and Lapine have returned from the woods when this show is finally presented for New York. In the meantime, the raw material -- deceptively cute and clever as it seems -- is awesome in its construction.

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on March 26, 1987.

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