On "Into the Woods" and Amherst

In Stephen Sondheim’s “Into the Woods,” Little Red Riding Hood questions “Isn’t it nice to know a lot / and a little bit not.” This phrase, as a postscript to a number in which she extols the virtues of knowledge and mastery, poses a perennial question for students like us. If we are committed to intellectual inquiry, can we or should we imagine that we know and can do everything? Or, is it perhaps better to know “a little bit not,” and to cope and live with the unexplored mystery beyond our own intellect and power?

In my final op-ed as an Amherst student, these are fitting questions for me to ask. I’ve recently been motivated to ponder these matters more intensely with my approaching graduation and my involvement in Amherst’s production of “Into the Woods.” Let me say from the outset: Departing Amherst after four years is not an occasion to despair, but a moment of possibility, to expand the experiences and projects I’ve and perhaps we’ve been involved in here beyond the borders of the college. And so, let me use the upcoming performance of “Into the Woods”to offer a few final, if a little bit disparate, musings on Amherst, the liberal arts and the show.

First, it should come as no surprise that Sondheim, perhaps the best text-setter of the English language of the 20th century, is an alumnus of Williams. Nor is it surprising that Lin-Manuel Miranda, whose smash-hit musical “Hamilton” just received a record 16 Tony nominations, can name Wesleyan as his alma mater. I do not want to suggest that these two theater composers accurately portray the state of the performing arts at either Williams or Wesleyan. Nor do I want to suggest that Williams and Wesleyan made Sondheim and Miranda respectively who they are. That both attended liberal arts schools points to how the liberal arts and performing arts mirror each other.

Professors and students speaking with and witnessing each other create the sort of space of the live theater that mimics and is mimicked by the liberal arts classroom. The play with lyrics and music ubiquitous in the respective works of Sondheim and Miranda work, much of which is deeply indebted to literary, theatrical historical and musical ideas, coupled with succinct and witty turns of phrase that capture giant moral, ethical and even political questions, exemplify the critical and, to use a cliché, interdisciplinary, nature of the liberal arts. In short, as we think about Amherst’s future, we might want to think about the relationship between academics and the performing arts.

Second, one of the strange qualities of “Into the Woods” — which I notice, as a trumpeter — is that Jonathan Tunick’s orchestrations are minimal. That barrenness stands in contrast to the fairly elaborate set designs and technological apparatuses of recent well-known productions, which seem at times weirdly excessive.

However, fitting with the orchestrations, Amherst’s upcoming production seems scarce: little set, few props, a small acting space. This production, I would posit, is actually incredibly intimate, and this is a good thing. The show about fantastical childhood fairytales, when done intimately, invites its audience to participate in, hear and conjure up thoughts and meaning in its seeming gaps. In its simplicity, this production underscores the raw artistic and creative energies of Amherst students. We see not just the characters they are portraying, but the actor portraying the character. In fact, this production of “Into the Woods” might manifest the reality of who we are at Amherst better than the reality of quotidian life at the college.
Third, in the show, just before the Baker fabricates a plan with Cinderella, Little Red and Jack to kill the Giant, he sings, “No more giants, waging war / Can’t we just pursue our lives, with our children and our wives? / Till that happier day arrives, how do you ignore? / All the witches, all the curses, all the wolves, all the lies, the false hopes, the goodbyes, the reverses / All the wondering what even worse is still in store.” We can read these lines as a despairing resignation toward the vagaries, chaos and unpredictability of the world (the “even worse”).

But I think there is another reading. If we recall that the Mysterious Man informs the Baker just prior to these lines that, there are always “just more questions” of a “different kind,” the Baker’s lyrics are transformed not into a condemnation of relentless quest(ion)ing, but into a grappling with the abundance of questions, thoughts, plans, and possibilities. The Baker opens up a way of acting in concert, which attempts to respond to the limits of each of our own capacities of knowledge and power in relation to a wild and erratic world.

And that orientation toward the world is not one that merely critiques, criticizes or condemns, but generates and engenders new modes of relating. That is, my departure from Amherst, which seems to leave “no more” of Amherst, actually makes me think about what experiences have been performed and infrastructures fabricated during my time here. In different ways, the Disorientation Guide, parts of Amherst Uprising, the protests against sexual assault, the Voices of the Class show, CEOT and the Amherst production of “Into the Woods” are projects of student action. They are, as I have written about before, glimmering elements in the dark civil society of higher education institutions saturated by services and opportunities provided to students. They are student-generated expansions of the questions posed by and communities made possible by the life of the mind into spaces beyond the classroom, into the very cultural and social fabric of the college. And perhaps it is for experiences like “Into the Woods” why I uphold, at the risk of romanticizing, the liberal arts.