March 12, 2019

What’s in a Name: Pacifica’s Production of Into the Woods, from Hammerstein to Sondheim to Gremillion

Oscar Hammerstein is credited with changing the face of American Theatre. Hammerstein, a native New Yorker, was bequeathed – at birth, by his very name – the heritage of a true world changer. Hammerstein’s full name was Oscar Greeley Clendenning Hammerstein.

Hammerstein was named after the famous anti-slavery orator and writer, Horace Greeley, who was an intimate friend of Frederick Douglas (advisor to Abraham Lincoln, freed slave, and lover of Shakespeare and the theatre, considering them essentials in the experience of a free humanity). Hammerstein’s first name came from his grandfather, Oscar I, a highly successful Opera impresario who richly cultivated mass popularity of the genre in the United States.

Worthy of his moniker, Hammerstein won two Pulitzer Prizes for his work, and his musicals remain beloved classics. His poetry is timeless and comforting:

Walk on through the wind,
Walk on through the rain,
Though your dreams be tossed and blown.
Walk on, walk on with hope in your heart
And you’ll never walk alone.
You’ll never walk alone.

Hammerstein’s legacy is evident in the word of famed composer Stephen Sondheim. Stephen Sondheim, composer, and lyricist of Into the Woods, was Hammerstein’s devoted protege. They met through Hammerstein’s son, who was Sondheim’s best friend during his teen years. Sondheim would later say, “Oscar Hammerstein was a surrogate father during all those many days, and weeks and months when I didn’t see my own father.”

Hammerstein’s influence can be seen in much of Sondheim’s work, but it is in Into The Woods that Sondheim felt he had accomplished something akin to Hammerstein’s unique quality. This simple Sondheim verse from Into The Woods resounds with Hammerstein pathos:

Do Things, Fight Things
Feel You’ve Lost Your Way
You decide,
But You are not alone
You are not alone
No One is alone

Both Hammerstein and Sondheim had connections to opera, and opera is evident in their work, though Sondheim declares he is not an opera fan – but believes in “building bridges and mixing genres “to create his unique blend of music, and acknowledging opera as an important component of that. With its complex blend of opera, musical theatre, postmodernism, and classical philosophy, Into the Woods is an ambitious musical for any theatre department.

Pacifica Christian High School has been fortunate to procure the perfect combination of operatic expertise and musical theatre talent in its music director and composer team for our production. Kate and Randy Gremillion are working opera singers, and both are trained and professional conductors. They sing with the Pacific Chorale and work closely with the Pacific Symphony Orchestra, and both have a musical theatre background Understanding the complexity of Sondheim’s work and unpacking it for students is a passion and gift, and the Gremillion duo possesses both. Kate often quotes Alfred Mercier in sharing her instructional philosophy: “What we learn with pleasure, we never forget”.

Audiences will surely never forget the evening in store for them at The Ebell Theatre on April 5 and April 6, when a cast and crew of 68 proudly present Into the Woods. A delightful and lovely “Woodland Feast” is available in conjunction with the evening, which will set the stage for the performance, and give access to early seating for the production. Please contact Angela Ward at [email protected] for more information.

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