I cannot join my friends when they go into the woods.

I’m unable to walk at the pace they like to walk. Also, just imagine if we met ‘a big bad wolf’, I would be easy pickings as I am unable to run! Recently it was with a carefree heart and a nimble ‘Gaynor step’ that I went to see Into The Woods, the musical, by Stephen Sondheim. In this case, it didn’t matter how fast I walked and there was no need to run. Into The Woods was there, waiting for me. 

Stephen Sondheim, the creator of Into The Woods is a magician. What enchantment he opened up before us. I knew about the musical and the characters involved. B, who joined me, had no idea what sort of musical lay in store for us that evening. As she paged through the programme before the show, she was amazed to see the characters of: Rapunzel, Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella and Jack and the Beanstalk.

“Oh,” B said, “you didn’t tell me we were coming to a pantomime.”

“It isn’t. Watch and see.”

She watched. And she saw.

This was certainly no pantomime.

A baker and his wife have been cursed by a witch and as a result are unable to have a child. They can only remove the curse if they bring her four ingredients: “the cow as white as milk, the cape as red as blood, the hair as yellow as corn, and the slipper as pure as gold” in three days’ time. And so the characters of Cinderella, Rapunzel, Jack and the Beanstalk, and Little Red Riding Hood interact in a wood. And thus began our magical evening.

How I envied those performers singing in a Sondheim production. Many years ago, I was told by Gay Lambert in another Sondheim creation, Sweeney Todd, that: “It’s a gift for an actor to sing a Sondheim song because he understands how to create for the actor. It’s all there in the lyrics and music.”

Both B and I are deaf and so there were lyrics that we missed. But that didn’t matter. The characterisation, the set, the moves all enhanced the story telling perfectly.

Steven Stead as Arthur
in Camelot 2018

Into The Woods was directed by Steven Stead. Steven and I worked together in Cinderella in 1987. He had just completed his first year at drama school. I had no idea that this eager young lad with quick, darting eyes that missed nothing, would develop into this wonderful actor and one of the top directors in South Africa. It was his clarity of vision that made this musical production what it was.

“Once upon a time…” Michael Richard’s deep, rich voice as the Narrator began the tale. I was drawn back through the mist of time to his playing of Arthur in Camelot,1989. I smiled to myself as images of a younger Michael possessed the audience with the same astonishing presence as he was doing nearly thirty years later. I am not going to go into the wonderful story that was performed for us that evening. There are reviews and countless articles on Into The Woods. For me it was an evening of wonder, light, sublime music that I could hear once more and performances that were unique and breathtaking. 

Kate Normington’s portrayal of the Witch was stunning. Obviously she saw Meryl Streep’s portrayal in the film of Into The Woods. Yet in no way did she attempt to mimic that. She found her own voice that was both horrifying, tender and heart breaking. Greg King’s set was a wonder. It began with nine upright fairy tale books that duly open into various scenes within the deep, dark wood. We allowed ourselves to be picked up and carried into the ‘Woods’ where we were soon deliciously entangled in the plot.

I was surprised at the end of the first half to be told that we had a twenty minute break before the second half began.

“I thought it had finished. Surely all the characters now live happily ever after?” B commented.

“Yes, I also thought so. But with Sondheim, we should have expected this. With him, nothing is ever as it seems.”

The second half showed us what happened after the “happily ever after”. It is unexpected and…yes, at times, horrifying. Deceit, greed, lies, placing oneself first, all of these traits could only lead to chaos. Suddenly the ‘fairy tale’ took on an alarming turn. Death became very real. You realised that choices have consequences. Sondheim showed the complexity of human relationships. People are connected and they have to work together to overcome evil. At the curtain call, I rose to my feet applauding. I applauded the actors onstage and also that wonderfully wise creator – Stephen Sondheim.

We were standing in the foyer, sipping drinks when I heard the rich tones that had begun the musical. Only this time, I heard Michael Richard’s voice saying: “Gaynor…”

I was enveloped in a Michael-hug. I love being hugged by Michael. He gathers me to him in this real bear like manner! I pulled away and looked up into his gentle yet discerning eyes: “You were great, Michael!”

And then I felt arms enfold me from behind. 

“You made it!” Kate Normington said. Turning I gave her an enormous smile. 

“I couldn’t miss it. You were marvellous!” I said giving her the warmest hug. The three of us stood there smiling together.

“This feels as if…it’s meant to be. The last time we were together like this was in Camelot,” I said.

“Do you know that this is the first time Kate and I have worked together since that production?” Michael pointed out.

Maybe the curse of Camelot had not only been felt by me with my fall, but by others as well.

B felt a tap on her shoulder and turned to see this man with shyly smiling eyes.

“I knew Gaynor at drama school. I am nervous to introduce myself to her because she might not remember me and that might embarrass her.”

“You must say hello! Gaynor’s memory is a strange thing. If she doesn’t remember you, she will be delighted to meet you all over again.”

This man came towards me. “Gaynor, hi! I did Drama with you at Durban University. I’m sure you won’t remember me but I just had to come and say hi.”

I stared at him and my mind swirled, struggling to reach back 38 years. It was his eyes that caused me to smile. 

“Yes…yes…I do remember you! Your name, it begins with a…B or a D?”

“Brinton” he said, delight spread across his face. 

I had this dim memory of Brinton and I dancing together. Was this merely in a dance class or had he too been a member of The Barefoot Dance Company? I asked my old university dance teacher, Margi Larlham, who is now a painter in America and she gave me his full name instantly: Brinton Spies! 

Of course, Brinton Spies. I rediscovered an old friend.

“And me? Do you have any idea who I am?” This dark tousled haired man with a wicked grin asked.

“I’m sorry, I presume you’re an actor because your face is familiar but I’m afraid I’ve forgotten your name?”

“Yes, I am an actor, Roy Hunter. How could you have forgotten my name when we lived together for a month?”

“We did what?” I squeaked. Was I now meeting a previous lover? And I hadn’t even remembered his name! 

He laughed. “We were both acting at The Playhouse in Durban. We were in different shows but we shared accommodation. That is why my face is familiar. You have forgotten but we actually know one another.”

Thinking about it, it could have been Noël Cowards Private Lives that I performed in Durban. How utterly amazing to discover that a vaguely familiar face is actually an old friend!

I was standing chatting to Michael and Kate when this young woman came up to me.

“Hi, Gaynor, Dad hasn’t introduced us yet but I’m his daughter, Sarah. I played…”

“Florinda!” I said in delight. “I saw your name in the programme but I didn’t realise that you were Michael’s daughter. This is incredible! I last saw you when you were a teeny tot. You and Ashleigh were hilarious.”

“Did I hear my name being bandied about?” Ashleigh Harvey put her arms around me and gave me the warmest hug.

And then suddenly the rest of the cast were there.

What completely blew my mind, was that they all knew me. I was hugged by people I didn’t know.

“It’s so good to meet you at last!”

“We heard you were in. Did you enjoy it?”

“Oh, it’s so great to have you here…”

These were all actors that had appeared once I had ‘left the stage.’ 

Yet they all ‘knew’ me.

As we drove home, my heart was full.

I believe that in life everyone ventures Into The Woods. We meet up with friends and enemies along the way and have adventures of every kind. There are so many nooks and crannies, open spaces, leafy glades you tumble through till you reach a cool, relaxing stream. Then you clamber up again, over boulders and bushes into the next adventure.

Bernadette Peters who played the Witch from 1987-1989 says: “It was wonderful to hear Sondheim talk about the song: “No One Is Alone.” 

He said: “People think the song is about being alone, but it’s not. It’s about how we all affect one another…in everything we do it affects someone, and we have to think about that.”

Just remember

Just remember

Someone is on your side (Our side)

Our side

Someone else is not

While we’re seeing our side (Our side)

Our side

Maybe we forgot, they are not alone

No one is alone

Someone is on your side

No one is alone