Sunday, December 16, 2018

Fairy Tale Media Fix: Snow Queen musical.

It’s not often I get to go see live theater.  It’s also rare that the theater I get to watch has subject matter that dovetails perfectly with the subject of this blog.  So, imagine how my interest was piqued when I found out that a local university theater institute was putting on a musical based on Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen”.
Now, I had known about the development of this musical already.  The people who first staged it even followed me on Twitter.  However, I had never thought I would actually be able to see a performance of it.  But then, there it was on an ad on the local PBS affiliate.  So, with curiosity poking at me, I purchased one ticket for a performance of The Snow Queen at The Theater Institute at Sage.

Now, I probably don’t have to tell you folks the story of “The Snow Queen”.  It’s about a girl named Gerda who goes on a journey to find her friend Kai after he was both infected by a tiny shard of evil magic mirror and was then taken away by the Snow Queen.  Now, I have gone on the record before as saying I’m not particularly fond of the works of Hans Christian Andersen.  It’s not so much that I dislike sad endings, which Andersen often uses.  It’s that his work can come across as kind of preachy and overly sentimental (“mawkish” is a word I’ve heard someone use to describe it).  However, I’m sure we all have at least one tale collector or writer that we’re just not crazy about.  But anyway, the story of “The Snow Queen” (and to a lesser extent “The Emperor’s New Clothes”) is the exception.
The auditorium at the Theater Institute is a small venue.  The set was rather sparsely decorated and the props and costumes were a bit catch-as-catch-can.  It was the kind of performance that you need to bring a lot of imagination to.  And yet, I liked it.  For a little university show put together on a shoestring, it was pretty good.  The main purpose of the show was probably to get some drama students up and performing in front of an audience, which it did.  Those students also committed to the show and their parts, despite how lacking the production values might have been.

In terms of how well the show adapted the source material . . . Well, it was a mixed bag.  I liked a lot of it.  Gerda was well-played as the determined and caring little girl she always was.  The depiction of Kai’s mirror-spawned curse being depicted as an obsession with “the perfection of numbers” is an interesting choice.  The little Robber Girl steals the show as I pretty much expected her to.  The depiction of the Snow Queen herself is interesting.  I was never able to completely get a bead on her.  I was never quite sure if she wanted to hurt Kai or thought she was helping him.  So, you can’t tell if she’s bad, misguided or something else.  Personally, I think that’s a good take on a character who’s supposed to be a force of nature personified.  My biggest problem was some of the earliest stuff in the show.  The rose that grows between Kai and Gerda’s windows was played by an actress rather than just a prop.  This makes sense in the later scene in the witch’s garden, but turning the rose into a character at this point just seems odd.  Also, the way that they handled the story of the troll’s mirror was a bit awkward.  The story gets told to Gerda and Kai by Gerda’s grandmother pretty much out of nowhere.  And when Kai gets pierced by the mirror shards, they depict his change in personality by having the Troll just show up and sing a song.  Then the troll just disappears for the rest of the show.  The songs were kind of hit-and-miss too.  Some were really good.  Others weren’t.
 My biggest problem was actually with the audience.  There were two people behind me who were cracking up over everything, even the parts that weren’t supposed to be funny.  I can only imagine that they were laughing at the production values, which I found extremely rude to not only the rest of the audience but also the performers.

So, would I recommend it?  Sure.  And I recommend going to see students perform it if you have the chance.  Even if it’s a little rough, you’ll be supporting budding performers and that’s certainly worthwhile.

Saturday, December 8, 2018

Fairy Tale Media Fix: Cinderella Monogatari

 Sometimes, adapting fairy tales into other forms can provide some unique challenges.  There are things like story structure and character to consider.  Also, the question of how to make such old stories resonate with modern audiences.

But here’s a challenge that probably doesn’t come up much: how do you turn a relatively short tale like “Cinderella” into a 26 episode cartoon series.  Interest piqued?  Good.

Cinderella Monogatari aka The Story of Cinderella aka Cinderella is a Japanese-Italian coproduction made by Tatsunoko Productions and Mondo TV.  It originally aired in 1996.
I know you all know the story of Cinderella, but humor me here.  There are a few differences.  The story follows a girl named Cinderella who is the daughter of a wealthy duke.  She also has a stepmother and two stepsisters named Jeanne and Catherine.  When the Duke leaves on a long business trip, the Stepmother immediately moves her own daughters into Cinderella’s room, banishes her to the attic and turns Cinderella into a servant in her own home.  The story generally follows Cinderella as she copes with her new situation.  Though, she does have some help.  Her fairy godmother Paulette works small feats of magic without Cinderella noticing to make her life a little easier.  She also has her animal friends Patch the dog, Pappy the bird and the two mice Bingo and Chuchu, who’ve all been enchanted by Paulette so that Cinderella can understand them when they talk, though no one else can.  She also makes friends with a young page from the castle named Charles, who is (you guessed it) secretly the prince in disguise.

Yeah, it’s a pretty common trope for Cinderella retellings now for her to meet the prince earlier and not know it’s him.  But you have to expect that with a version of Cinderella that goes for 26 half-hour episodes.
Cinderella and Charles the Fibber
 So, pretty much the entire series exists in the space between when Cinderella’s stepmother starts making her life miserable and when the royal ball is announced.  In all honesty, there was probably nowhere else to put it.  However, that space is filled with a lot of material.  There are many schemes by Cinderella’s stepmother to somehow marry either Jeanne or Catherine to the prince.  She meets all sorts of people like actors, circus performers and fortune tellers who become her friends.  She even encounters some magic, like a painter who can trap his subjects’ souls in his paintings and an enchanted forest.  There’s also another villain in the mix who makes things difficult.  Duke Zarel is a scheming courtier who wants to take the throne by either marrying the prince to his own daughter Isabelle or with just a good old fashioned coup.  Cinderella faces all this while getting closer to the boy she calls Charles the Fibber (she catches him in a lie early on).

It’s an entertaining enough show.  Nothing groundbreaking, really.  But some of the details are rather interesting.  For example, the character of Paulette, the Fairy Godmother (who’s depicted as sort of a wandering artist, by the way).  In one episode, we get a flashback to her friendship with Cinderella’s mother.  It’s something most people don’t really think about.  To be her godmother, at one point Cinderella’s parents had to have known her.  We don’t get to see how the two met.  Though, they both liked to paint.  We do get to see Paulette promise to look after Cinderella when Cinderella’s mother knew she was going to die.  In that same episode, we also see what seems like a riff on the Grimm version “Aschenputtel”, involving the spirit of Cinderella’s mother and a favorite tree.  Later, when the show finally gets around to the actual familiar part of the story, we see the glass slippers and are told they’re an heirloom from Cinderella’s mother.  It invests those shoes with even more emotional significance and explains why they don’t disappear with the rest of Paulette’s spell (admittedly, Ever After also did something like this).  Even beyond story elements, it can be interesting to see anime stylistic choices applied to a Western fairy tale.  For example, with lots of sparkles and a more abstract background than we usually see, Cinderella getting magically dressed up for the ball looks kind of like a really subdued magical girl transformation.
The Wicked Stepfamily
Not all of it is good.  Cinderella can seem a bit too passive for a lot of modern audiences.  Even when the show has the ability to remedy that, it doesn’t.  I remember one episode where Cinderella is worried about the safety of her home for various plot-related reasons.  So, she goes and asks Charles to teach her how to use a sword.  They have a little back-and-forth over it as they often do.  Then they change scenes and the next time we see them she’s thanking him for the lesson and him saying she was a very quick study.  That’s it.  They don’t show much of the training and they never even show her picking up a sword.  When Duke Zarel’s thugs do break into the house, she hides under the table and trips them as they go by.  Charles is the only one who engages in any swordplay.  Pretty much the only reason they had that scene that I can think of is as an excuse to put Cinderella in a silly Musketeer costume, which they do.

Now if you’re wondering when the actual “Cinderella” story actually happens, they cover the last three episodes.  Though, they also go a little farther to Cinderella’s wedding and another appearance by Duke Zarel.
Fairy Godmother Paulette posing for a painting class
Overall, this is a decent show.  Not a must see.  It gives the story a tweak rather than a full-on twist, but that’s not necessarily bad.  I’d suggest watching it, but you don’t have to give it undivided attention.  You can put it on while ironing or doing the dishes, etc. (Cinderella-like chores, basically).  It’s available on Amazon Instant Video now and I think it's included if you have a Prime membership.

I should warn you guys now though, this isn’t quite the end.  These people also made a Snow White show.  But that’s for another post.

See you next time.

Sunday, November 25, 2018

Fairy Tale Media Fix: The Muppet Musicians of Bremen.

Well, I said I’d talk about a Muppets adaptation of a classic fairy tale, and by Grimm I will!

Like I’ve said before, there were three distinct adaptations I remember being run on syndicated television when I was younger.  There was The Frog Prince (1971), Hey Cinderella (1969) and The Muppet Musicians of Bremen (1972).  Now, while the first two have their charms, I thought I’d focus on the last one right now.  Mainly because it’s kind of a distinctive work compared to the other two.  While Frog Prince and Hey Cinderella both feature fairly big parts for Kermit the Frog and other fairly well-known Muppets characters, Muppet Musicians of Bremen largely focuses on Muppets that are mainly known through this special.  Kermit does appear, but only to introduce the special and close it out as well as a very brief guest spot.  It’s also the only one that changes the setting of the tale away from a generic European fairy tale kingdom and to rural Louisiana.
First, a little about the fairy tale itself.  “The Bremen Town-Musicians” is a short but rather distinctive tale from the Grimms’ collection.  In terms of popularity, it’s kind of a middle of the road tale.  More well-known than stories like “Simeli Mountain” or “Faithful John”, but not as popular or famous as tales like “Snow White” and “Rumpelstiltskin”.  The story follows four aging farm animals, a donkey, dog, cat and rooster as they run away from their respective owners who are planning to do them in.  They decide to head to the city of Bremen and become musicians.  Along the way, they run across a house full of thieves who the animals scare away.  Rather than go on to Bremen, they decide to live out the rest of their lives together in the house.

The Muppet version starts out, per Kermit’s introduction, somewhere in the countryside of Louisiana a ways from the towns of Bremen and Gogalala.  We open on a short-tempered thief named Mordecai Sledge and his aging donkey Leroy as they return home from a job Mordecai and his gang were pulling in a train yard.  Having rushed out without checking what he was unloading from the boxcars, Mordecai is steamed to find out he had just stolen a load of musical instruments.  Without any means to rationally express his anger, he blames Leroy and goes to get his gun to “retire him proper”.  At this, Leroy decides to hoof it, which results in a comedic sequence that involves Mordecai screaming incoherent obscenities, getting his foot caught in a bass drum and Leroy getting a tuba stuck round his neck as he runs off.  After a short talk with Kermit the Frog (I told you he was in here as a guest star), he decides to head off to Bremen as a travelling musician.  Along the way, he meets three other animals with stories similar to his own.  There’s T.R. the rooster, who’s on the run from the gluttonous farmer Lardpork who’s out to kill and cook T.R. for not crowing to wake him.  Rover Joe the hound dog, cast out by his cowardly and superstitious owner Mean Floyd.  Then there’s Catgut, a lady cat who was almost drowned by her cruel and selfish master Caleb Siles for making friends with the rats.  Together, they set off with a cart full of instruments to become travelling musicians.  Our erstwhile band soon gets lost in swamp country.  They soon come upon a house where all their ex-owners, who just happen to be Mordecai’s gang, are meeting to split up the loot from several robberies.  Both groups experience a case of mistaken identity.  The animals, just looking at silhouettes through a window shade, mistaken the thieves for a loving family.  The robbers, hearing the animals’ noises and prodded on by Mean Floyd’s natural superstitiousness, mistaken the animals for a bunch of assorted swamp demons.  This leads to a conflict in the darkened house wherein the animals try to save the “beautiful family” that they think is in trouble and the robbers get scared off by what they think are swamp demons.  And so the robbers run off to never be seen again and the animals live in the house where they can continue to play music together.
Travelling Musicians
It’s a rather fun special.  The plot matches pretty well with the original fairy tale.  The changes that are made are either inconsequential or actually make the experience of watching the special a little better.  Probably one of the best changes was making the Musicians of Bremen into actual musicians.  In the Grimms’ tale, it just seemed like the old animals were a bit deluded.  In the Muppet version, despite having pretty much no time to learn how to play and practice, they show some impressive chops pretty early on.  So, with Leroy on tuba, T.R. on banjo, Rover Joe on trombone and Catgut on trumpet, the quartet produce some very fun, catchy tunes.  True to the special's new Louisiana setting, there are definite jazz and country flavors to the songs.  One other change, making their four owners into the same robbers they chase off, does have some pros and cons.  On the con side, it removes some of the brutally honest context of the animals’ reason for running away.  It wasn’t uncommon at one time for farm animals to be valued only for the work they could do and the food they could become.  Donkeys pulled wagons.  Cats killed rats and mice.  Dogs hunted or guarded the house.  Roosters crowed and mated to produce more chickens.  If they couldn’t do that work anymore, it was often seen as necessary to put them down rather than let them become a burden.  So, the owners in the written version of the tale weren’t necessarily bad people.  They were just doing their jobs.  By making the owners into a band of thieves, the whole thing is cast in another light.  On the pro side, it provides a sort of economy of storytelling.  It also gives the story some more established villains to root against.  Overall though, I like it.  I’d give the Muppet performers lots of credit.  They always do a good job bringing characters to life.  Each of the animals has their own personality that comes across well.  Leroy is an optimistic dreamer, T.R. is a charmer to the hens and has a bit of a dry sense of humor, Rover Joe is soft-hearted but slow on the uptake and Catgut is a bit dramatic.  All the animal puppets are designed to look old and worn out like the aging farm animals they’re supposed to be.  As for the human-sized puppets that play the villains, they can be a little surprising at first.  Over time, it would become a common practice to have the Muppets interact with actual human actors if they needed human characters.  But not here.  The puppets/costumes here have a sort of caricatured ugliness to them that is comical once you get used to it.
Our nasty robbers.
If you’d like to see it, don’t go looking for this special on DVD.  It was never released on one.  However, someone has uploaded the whole thing onto YouTube.  Apparently, whoever owns the copyright now (probably Disney, because they own the Muppets) doesn’t seem to care about people watching it there because it’s been there forever and is easy to find.

But I think I’ll end with a song from the band itself.  Play us out, Leroy!

Until next time.

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Folk Tale Secret Stash: Moshup the Giant.

I know I said that I would post more Muppet stuff this week, but I think it’s best to let that one sit for a while and we can come back to it.  You see, I wasn’t really planning too far ahead and didn’t realize that Thanksgiving was coming so soon.

Thanksgiving is a complicated holiday in the grand scheme of things.  And I don’t just mean because not everyone gets along with their relatives.  The holiday as we know it today actually stems from the 1860s when a prominent writer and magazine editor Sarah Josepha Hale (the woman who wrote the children’s poem “Mary Had a Little Lamb”, I kid you not) lobbied the U.S. government to create a national Thanksgiving holiday.  Thanksgiving holidays were nothing unusual in the early U.S., but they varied from state to state.  President Abraham Lincoln, though, saw the potential in having such a day after some major Union victories in the concurrently happening Civil War and turned Hale’s idea into a national holiday.  However, that’s not the story we attach to Thanksgiving.  Instead, we tell a story about Puritans and native Wampanoag people sitting down at this great big feast in Plymouth which became known as the “first Thanksgiving”.  There was a feast like that, too.  Granted, it happened two months earlier in September and the main course was venison rather than turkey.   
However, looking back at that feast it’s hard not to just look at it and see it as, well . . . a precursor to genocide.

The native people of this continent have not been treated well.  Heck, they’re still not treated all that well.  Things like “paper genocide” deny people their heritage.  The U.S. government continues to break treaties made with native peoples.  Not to mention the poverty often found on reservations.
What can we do to make things better?  Well, a good place to start might be to embrace their stories.  After all, nothing brings people closer together than sharing stories.

Which brings us to the character of Moshup the Giant.
Moshup is a culture hero of the Wampanoag and Mohegan peoples, the same tribes that lived in the area of Plymouth before the Puritans showed up.  Stories vary on the exact details regarding Moshup.  However, most of the versions I’ve read say he lived on the island of Martha’s Vineyard near a town now called Gay Head.  There is even a crater there, where it’s said that Moshup sat.
Like many culture heroes, Moshup’s actions shaped the very landscape.  Moshup liked to eat whales.  He would catch the whales with his bare hands and then roast them over a fire made from the trees that he would rip right out of the ground.  In order to get out into the water where the whales are, he threw stones out into the water to stand on.  These stones still exist, spanning the between Cuttyhunk and the mainland.  Today, they’re called the Devil’s Bridge.

He was a great friend to the local people.  He would share his food with them and they would share their tobacco with him.  One year, the Wampanoag people gathered up all the tobacco they had harvested in a year and gave it to Moshup in appreciation of all he had done for them.  Moshup smoked the tobacco, which was barely enough for someone of his size, and then emptied the ashes into the ocean.  The ashes became the island of Nantucket.

Another story tells of how Moshup once fought and killed a great man-eating bird monster.  He waited until the bird seemed to get close enough to rip out his heart with its talons and then grabbed the killer bird and wrung it’s neck.  It was shortly after that Moshup met Squant, the sea-woman who would become his wife (well, second wife.  He had some trouble with the first one).

Though there are bound to be variations, pretty much every version of the story I’ve found ends with Moshup leaving.  He slips into the bay or leaves for some cave somewhere.  But before he goes, he warns the Wampanoag and Mohegan peoples that a strange breed of man with pale skin would come to their shore.  He warned that they should not let the pale people come ashore, for if they did then their people would be no more.
And you know, he was pretty much right.  Though Wampanoag and Mohegan people still exist, their way of life was never really the same after those pale people came ashore.

It still isn’t and the U.S. government still tries to screw over these people.  Just this year, the Department of the Interior issued a decision in which it refused to reaffirm its own authority to confirm the status of the Mashpee Wampanoag  Reservation.  This could pave the way for the reservation to be taken out of trust, which is bad news.  Millions of dollars in funding are being lost or delayed that are needed for education, clean water programs, emergency services, housing and substance abuse programs.

If you want to read more about the Mashpee Wampanoag Reservation and their legal troubles, you can go to their web page or look for the hashtag #standwithmashpee on Twitter.  There’s even a link to the law they want to get passed.  I’ll also give you a link to where I got some of the Moshup stories if you want to see more.

This Thanksgiving, enjoy your food and enjoy your family, but remember there are still people out there who are a huge part of the American story that still need help.

Until next time.