No One Is Alone, Not Even the Other Guy

Irish Holiday 017

Ricketts Glen, Northeast Pennsylvania

A Music Monday Post

Late last night, or early this morning, I posted about the song “No More,” from Stephen Sondheim‘s Broadway version of Into the Woods, and how I wished it had been included in the movie. Now a friend tells me that he heard somewhere that the song had been recorded, and could be found on the DVD’s special features. I plan to check that out and get back to you.

I also mentioned, and linked to, the song “No One Is Alone.” And since it is Monday, or still Monday, depending on your time zone, let’s take a look at that one, my other favorite song from the musical. Below I’ll share a video clip, from the movie this time, with the lyrics on the screen, because that’s what I want to focus on today, the lyrics.

My friend Joel could tell you more about the music, the harmonies and how it affects the drama. He’s very observant like that, and I think he was talking about the Broadway soundtrack at the time. My partner, Brian could walk you through a piano tutorial for how to play it on your keyboard, but my choir-boy days were something like 20 years ago. So as a poet, lyrics are really the only thing I’m good at anymore when it comes to music.

We read a headline and think we know what the article is about.

Song and poem titles are a lot like headlines. A good title works well with a poem right up to the ending line, and sometimes provides a surprising or comic twist. Sometimes titles are just there to catalog the piece, as in “Symphony No.5, Op.67,” but generally if someone titles a piece, that title becomes part of the piece itself.

Now, why did I mention headlines? It’s because these days I keep seeing replies in comment sections all over the web, comments that are obviously made by people who did not read the article they are commenting on. They see the headline and think they know the message, so they leap in with their party’s pre-approved talking points, and to hell with the content of the article. It’s so often the case that the objections in the comments are actually discussed, maybe even agreed upon in the article itself. If only people would read before they before they spouted off.

Maybe it’s not just the web, maybe we have always done this. How many times have you been in a discussion where you can tell that the other party is not really listening, but instead perched on the edge of her chair, waiting for your next pausing breath, when she can leap in with her opinion? Or his, of course (more often his). And worse, how often do they assume they know your opinion before you have even had the chance to articulate it?

Frank Sinatra vs. Robert Frost

And what do headlines have to do with song titles and poem titles? I was going to provide a handy link here to a blog post I wrote about the most misquoted poem in American poetry.  But then I realized that while I have written a lot about it, the post is still in my draft folder, waiting for me to make a good recording of Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken.”

I will eventually write that post, but for now you can click here for an old YouTube video I recorded with my phone camera, trying to be experimental at Bloomsburg University. If you scroll down to the description and click “Show More,” you’ll get my whole little explanation.

My Way: The Best of Frank Sinatra

My Way: The Best of Frank Sinatra (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Yes, “The Road Not Taken” is misread and taken out of context almost everywhere it is printed or spoken. I don’t mean that people misinterpret it. I mean they literally do not read what it says! Why? I don’t know, maybe it’s because Americans can be lazy and we were taught somewhere to speed read. We hear the beginning of the poem, breeze right through the middle and maybe pay attention to those cool final lines that sound like they could be in some self-actualized-I-Did-It-MY-Way poem by Frank Sinatra.

But if you read the lines in the middle, you realize that the narrator is not being honest, and he relays how he’ll bend the truth when he’s an old man, rewriting the story to make himself the hero of his own tale.  At first he claims the one road was “grassy and wanted wear. / But as for that, ” He corrects himself, “the passing there / had worn them really about the same.” And isn’t that what we do? Re-write our stories to fit our view of the world and ourselves, creating our own reality? And isn’t Frost’s poem so much more a brilliant commentary on humanity than that old concept that we are really powerful enough to bend fate to our will and do it “my way?”

So let’s get back to our song from Into the Woods.  People refer to Frost’s poem all the time as “The Less Traveled Road,” but the poem’s actual title is “The Road Not Taken.” And isn’t that different from the self-improvement-style piece it’s been turned into? Even the title shows us that the speaker is still thinking about where he did not go, not where he did. Now I have heard today’s song referred to as “You Are Not Alone,” and that is indeed a phrase in the song, but the actual title is a bit more startling when you think about it.

My friend Keith, a theater actor himself, once told me that this is an element of the song that audience members can miss if they are not really listening. Maybe we could call it speed listening, skimming, that same human fault that leads to assuming you know what someone else is saying because you heard them say a buzz word, or you think you know their political affiliation.

Just remember . . .
Someone is on your side . . .
Someone else is not.
While we’re seeing our side . . .
Maybe we forgot:
They are not alone.
No one is alone.

Here’s the thing: You are not alone, but neither is the Giant. That’s where this musical departs from Disney-style fairy tales; life is complicated. It’s not usually so easy as “good triumphs over evil.” Sometimes it’s just people doing their best, or making dumb mistakes.  I like that the song encourages us to “honor one another’s terrible mistakes.” Wow. That’s a perspective I didn’t learn in Sunday School, even though King David was actually (according to the story about him and Bathsheba) an adulterous murderer.

Our song goes on to say that witches can be right, and giants can be good. And the decision is not up to some moral code written on a stone tablet somewhere. The truth resides inside of us. It’s up to you:

You decide what’s right.
You decide what’s good.

Someone is on your side.

I’ll let the song speak for itself now. The lyrics are right on the screen. This time, here is the version from the 2014 movie. The Giant’s wife, coming for her revenge, cuts off the last word.

And that’s another Music Monday. Have a great week!

The Best Song that Was Left Out of the Woods

The Bauman Boys did a very scary version of Into the Woods too.

Our own, very scary version of Into the Woods

If this is a review, it’s not a thorough one, and obviously not a timely one. In fact, I am thinking of a new feature for the blog that fits with my new library personae: Overdue Reviews. But in order to talk about the thing I missed most about this remake, we have to cover a bit of ground first.

Now I’m not going to be one of those fans of  “the original” who trash the movie adaptation, or who is too cool for Game of Thrones because I read the books (I tried, honestly, but how many paragraphs can you really write about cheese and sausage?). I realized ahead of time that to put Sondheim’s Broadway musical Into the Woods onto the screen, there would have to be changes, just as there were changes to The Hobbit, Lord of the Rings, and now Game of Thrones.

I think The Hobbit would have to be the loser when it comes to most needlessly changed from book to movie adaptation, but that’s a discussion for another blog. I remember Josiah, my oldest, telling me at the age of 13 how the LTR movies differed from the books, and why they had to. I was impressed.

Similar justification can be made for Into the Woods, and movie adaptations are just that–adaptations. They need not be over-scrutinized against the original plays or books. And to be frank, it was a wonderful movie. It wasn’t quite the same as the original, but that’s probably for the best. It might not be what some people expected, but it was marvelously done.

Sondheim’s musical Into the Woods is probably my favorite musical since Man of La Mancha, and its conversion to film was no flop to be sure. In short, I enjoyed it thoroughly. I do wish there were a longer version though, but I appreciate that it was not stretched it into two or three movies the way The Hobbit was I’m pretty sure that was a money grab, a capitalization on an already existent legend, but as I said, we’ll not get into that here.

Into the Woods

Into the Woods (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If there was a failure in the movie, it was probably chiefly in the marketing. People who did not know the Broadway musical naturally assumed that if Disney was doing a fairy tale musical it had to be a great experience for the whole family, right?

Well, unfortunately, if you don’t at least have some inkling that this is an adult retelling, a sometimes darkly humorous blending of fairy tales, you are bound to be taken aback a bit. I mean, it’s hilarious as an adult to see what you know must have been true (had it been truth and not a story): that Prince Charming was an arrogant ass. In this case two Charming brothers were arrogant asses. And why did nobody ever imagine that the Giant’s wife wouldn’t try to get revenge? I mean originally these tales were from the brothers Grimm, so they are kind of, well, grim.

Another problem was that some folks I know who went to see the movie were not expecting a musical, let alone one in which most all of the dialogue was sung. In fact, I was surprised to find when I took home the DVD of the original Broadway cast with Bernadette Peters (We have both at the library) that there was actually a lot more spoken dialogue on stage than was saved for the movie.

And perhaps most importantly, when it comes to what to expect, well there is a certain magic about live theater that can’t really be captured on screen. It has to do with the action of the moment, the delivery of a line, the orchestra in the pit, the reaction of the audience. Even though there is a script and a score to go by, what you are seeing is happening live in front of you, and you feel part of it in a way that you just don’t get at the movies.

But then, who knows? Maybe Mel Brooks could have pulled it off.  There were times in the onstage play when you knew for sure (the birds hanging from strings, the cow on wheels) that though these were professional actors, the play itself didn’t take itself too seriously.  (Spoiler Alert!) There was that breaking of the fourth wall with the narrator being sacrificed to the Giant’s wife. Things like that you just don’t expect, and maybe had the movie done just a tad more of it, like they did during the marvelously over-done “Agony” duet of the Charming brothers–well, just maybe that might have made it more of a satisfaction for those who did not know what they were in for.

IntoTheWoods_TheWitch_BernadettePeters_MerylStreep

Bernadette Peters (1991 Broadway)
and Meryl Streep (2014 movie)

Still, as I said, it was wonderfully done overall, and while I have always adored Bernadette Peters’ portrayal of the witch, Meryl Streep certainly made it her own with her masterful interpretation of the role.

There were a few things that I missed, but probably they would have mostly just made the movie too long. Generally films don’t have an intermission these days, so some of those songs at the end of Act I and beginning of Act II were not really needed.  Still it was something of a loss to me to not hear the Narrator say at the beginning of Act II, “Once upon a time! –Later.”

Young Jack was a bit younger in the movie, so that adolescent tension that I sensed between him and Red Riding Hood in the blame scene just couldn’t be there. Nor could you read all the sexual allusions involved in his song about Giants: “She gives you food and she gives you rest / and she holds you close to her giant breast, / and you know things now that you never knew before / Not till the sky.”

But again, I didn’t intend a full review here, and I fear I have meandered quite a bit. I’m kind of baring my soul here. Really. This musical gets to me like only truly great theater can. For a couple of good reviews you can click here for Adam Feldman’s from New York’s Time Out, or here for one by Lee Flailmarch, from whose blog the above comparison photo of Streep and Peters was borrowed.

But I wanted to talk to you about a song. And the only missing song that I could argue for, and some make a good case for its exclusion, is the Baker’s song, “No More.” Of course, had they included it, they would have had to include the meddling old sprite-like Baker’s father, who kept popping up in the stage version, but only appears as something of a dream or memory in the movie. In any case, aside from the exquisite “No One is Alone” and its brilliantly placed harmonies, the song I loved most from the original was quite literally “No More” in the movie.

Running away–we’ll do it.
Why sit around, resigned?

I concede that often a song gets to you because of the time in your life in which you first hear it. I was in the process of coming out to my family. I feared I might lose my children. I was uncertain what lay ahead, fearful. I sat in the audience at a local university while their marvelous theater department put on the musical. And the man I was in love with held my hand there in the dark of that theater (This was a radical thing for a former ministry student in central Pennsylvania in 1997). He told me later that he feared our affair was just my own trip “into the woods,” and that I would go back to my wife and that story. But such a thing was impossible, even if I wanted to.

Trouble is, son,
The farther you run,
The more you feel undefined
For what you’ve left undone
And more, what you’ve left behind.

And I can’t say I had decided what to do yet when I heard this. But I knew I would not ever leave my children. Even if it meant sleeping in my own apartment across town or a few miles away, I couldn’t, wouldn’t be an absent dad. Fatherhood, more specifically, fathering these three boys of mine was the most important thing in the world to me. Always has been.

With that in mind, perhaps you’ll understand why this song gets so deeply into my soul, and perhaps it will speak to you too.

Pigs and Blackberries, Remembering Galway Kinnell

Galway Kinnnell, (c) Richard Brown, GalwayKinnell.com

Galway Kinnnell, © Richard Brown, GalwayKinnell.com

I don’t believe in fate, or any sort of mystical, supernatural predetermination of the universe. Sometimes great poets die just when you were becoming really familiar with their work. However, I do remember, back in October, being startled when in the week after we read “Blackberry Eating” at the Cross Keys Poetry Society, Galway Kinnell, the composer of that lovely piece of linguistic music passed away.

I had chosen “Blackberry Eating” to read at Cross Keys partly in response to our previous reading of “Blackberry Picking” by Irish poet, Seamus Heaney, who had passed on the year before.  Since I did recordings in memory of Heaney, I had decided to similarly experiment with recording a few pieces by Kinnell. It’s a fine, and humbling way to get to know a poet, by working your lips and tongue around the words he wrote, finding one’s own spoken interpretation of the work, while hoping to honor the writer as well.

I am sorry I have not shared them with you until now, though if you follow my SoundCloud stream you have already heard these. I will include my readings below, followed by links to the text of both “Blackberry Eating,” and “Saint Francis and the Sow.” The Saint Francis reading was not one I was happy with, at least not until about halfway through when the flow seemed to really smooth itself out. Considering the difficulty of translating the syntax of that piece into voice, even after listening to the poet’s own reading, I decided to let it be as I recorded it, and perhaps that mirrors somewhat the message of the poem, how beauty is found in things unexpected. In any case, the audio quality of that one is far better than the first, since it was recorded after the mic upgrade.

I will also include below a couple of readings by Kinnell, including one from the archives of the Scranton Public library (almost local for me) from 1979 in which he recites his famous poem, “The Bear,” though he seemed later in life to be less enthusiastic than his fans about that oft requested piece.

You can follow along the text on SoundCloud or on the Poetry Society of America.

Follow along on Poets.org while you listen.

Ray Bradbury and Skunk Bear on Pluto

Photo of Ray Bradbury.

Ray Bradbury. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Now that I think of it, that could be a very misleading headline. As far as I know, skunks and bears, or combinations thereof have not been discovered on Pluto. And certainly Ray Bradbury has never been there himself.

But hey, there’s a lot of ice! Mountains, snow packs, and yeah, it looks to be a planet, so maybe they will redact that old dwarf planet status. In fact, it looks like it may be a double planet, since it seems to be rotating along with its moon Charon around a point in space, rather than the moon rotating around Pluto.

It looks pretty cool and the experts according to NPR and other sources seem to say that it’s more complex a place than they thought it would be, that cold distant, North-America-sized ball out there. New Horizons was launched in 2006, and what we are seeing now is just beautiful.

I am sitting down to do some writing and editing tonight, but since I don’t have a poem for the occasion, I thought I’d share “If Only We Had Been Taller,” by Ray Bradbury, via this production from NPR’s Skunk Bear.

These Are Extraordinary Times

David J. Bauman:

http://www.scmp.com/news/world/article/1827315/amazing-grace-barack-obama-delivers-searing-speech-us-race-relations

US President Barack Obama sings Amazing Grace during the eulogy. Photo: EPA

The small thought, as I re-post this from my friend Jeremy’s excellent blog, The Sand County, is that anyone who watches this full eulogy and comes away still thinking that our President is not a Christian. . . well, frankly, you people baffle me.

Maybe you don’t worship the same way at your church. Maybe you don’t agree with every point of doctrine, but how can you watch and listen, and not know in your soul that this is the gospel of Grace? Might not be the sermon you would have preached, Pastor, but it was there. This is what real Christianity is about.

Some of you, some of my friends and family, have needled me with barbed comments about our president for nearly eight years now. How much of that came from you? How much from the mouths of others, and you just repeated it because it made you feel better? How much came from a pre-prejudice, not necessarily about his skin, but about his faith, about his political party, about his goodness and humanity?

I cannot help but wonder. As a man who went to Bible college myself, so long ago, a former youth president, drama ministry member, Bible quiz champion, youth pastor, choir director, wedding singer, church bus driver–as a man who knows as much about your Christian faith as you do, I say: You spent 8 years spitting back the articles and Limbaugh quips. After 8 years, I’m asking for less than an hour; listen to this man and tell me you’re not proud to have a president like him in troubled times like these.

The larger lesson here for me is not about him though; it’s in the words he says, and the grace he calls for, in the demand for owning up to our prejudice and selfishness, our one-sided-ness. His call for a truly UNITED States.

I’m sick of going back to business as usual. Can’t we shake up this nation and get back on track? He all but said what I’ve been saying for ages: We agree on more than the nightly “news” stars want us to believe we do. I think we’ve made some good starts. You believe in freedom to pursue happiness? You believe that maybe Cain was wrong when he declined to be his brother’ keeper? Let’s do each other and our founders proud. How about some of that love we preach? How about some of that Grace?

Originally posted on The Sand County:

I feel today, having watched President Obama’s eulogy in Charleston, South Carolina coming on the heels of several seasons of anti-black violence and police brutality, spring riots in a city I love (Baltimore) and on the heels of an historic victory for equality yesterday that I am truly living in historic, remarkable times.

I have studied American history for most of my life and I have to admit that I am stunned -stunned and immensely proud- to see the President of the United States stand up in front of a crowd of mourners and speak of love, call out senseless and racist violence, condemn rampant shootings and voter suppression, denounce the legacy of slavery in unequivocal terms and then sing “Amazing Grace.” And to do this not just as the President, but as a black man. This is a unique moment in American history.

I hope -fervently- that the United…

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