Just a Moment in the Woods

March 9, 2022

When I was 15, I fell in love with a boy and a man. The first introduced me to the second;
Ben, more confident in my talents than I was, dragged me along to audition for a school
production of Merrily We Roll Along. While he got a main role and I got into the chorus, we
both got our first taste of Stephen Sondheim. When artists die, perhaps it’s not the person
themselves that we mourn – who we haven’t met, didn’t know – but the meaning of their
work in the context of our lives. “Every day a little death” wrote the composer. When the
artist dies, a small part of our history dies too.

Or does it? Perhaps it’s reborn. When I heard that Sondheim had died I was immediately 15
again, lying next to Ben on his bed in Albert Park, shoes off, shirt untucked, staring at the
ceiling as the Merrily CD spun. We listened to Old Friends and The Hills of Tomorrow so
many times that the music entered the valves of our hearts and pumped along our arteries.
“I don’t care what all those aloof people say,” Ben scribbled in one of the many letters we
exchanged during those years. “I love getting obsessed with things. Merrily, Les Mis, Rent,
Pirates, it’s all so great and like life-changing and I love it so much and I just HAVE to
immerse myself totally and be obsessed.”

I was in love with Ben then. There was something about feeling truly seen by a boy that
naturally morphed into wanting to jump his bones. We spent hours picking out Send in the
Clowns on piano together, whole afternoons wrapping our teeth and tongues around the
Witch’s rap in Into the Woods (“Greens, greens and nothing but greens! Parsley, peppers,
cabbages and celery, asparagus and watercress and fiddle fern and lettuce…”). Looking
back, I’m astonished at my teenage self-absorption: how could I be so blind to the signs –
the Sondheim obsession for a start – that Ben wasn’t into girls? But in those pubescent
years, so desperate to see myself reflected in another, maybe confusing emotional and
sexual intimacy was understandable. When Ben came out to me, though, the love didn’t
end. It deepened, if anything, and we swapped notes on guys like we swapped notes on
Renaissance history, antidifferentiation and – always and forever – Sondheim.

Into the Woods became our fixation (“It feels so great knowing just how into ‘Into’ you are!”
Ben wrote after I’d listened to the CD and raved). Our school had a tradition of an annual
student-led musical, and Ben and I, now 17, were champing at the bit for the challenge. We
worked it all out – he’d play the Baker, I’d be Cinderella (“My God, I have wet dreams about
you singing On the Steps” he wrote), and we’d cast our fellow students as the rest. The
power of auditioning our peers electrified our brains but alas, Into was not to be. The drama
staff decided that they wanted to stage it themselves the year after we’d left and so, though
still privately calling each other ‘Baker’ and ‘Cinders’, we went back to the catalogue and
plucked out one of Sondheim’s lesser-known works to take on.

The 1964 flop that only true fans have heard of, Anyone Can Whistle tells the story of an
economically depressed town whose corrupt mayor creates a fake miracle to attract
tourists. Its opening number could be about Melbourne in during the pandemic:

Me and my town, battered about
Everyone in it would like to get out
Me and my town
We just wanna be loved!

We gave ourselves the main roles and rehearsed over the summer holidays: character
workshops, orchestra practice, set painting, all under our command. Theoretically co-
directors, in reality I was AD to Ben’s D – as with Merrily, my own charisma and confidence
couldn’t quite compete with his. But then, at crunch time, he went overseas for three weeks
– some United Nations scholarship I resented – and left me to captain the ship alone.
Terrified and unsure if I could do it, Ben wrote to me on the night before he left: “I have not
only the utmost of love for you, but also respect, faith and, inevitably, admiration – taking
on what you’re about to is perhaps the bravest thing I’ve ever heard of.”

Directing a musical at a private school: at 17, I was so ensconced in our little world that I believed this to be true. Ben’s absence left space for me to take the wheel, and I did, and our Whistle was
spectacular, complete with a “miracle rock” made by my dad from chicken wire and a
Bunnings water pump. Ben and I emerged from the experience bound closer than ever by
the music of our idol. If we could direct Sondheim together, we could do anything.

Why did Sondheim move our teenage hearts so deeply? As we lay there on the bed we
could feel it, looming ahead of us, the adult life upon whose threshold we trembled.
Teachers talked of tertiary rankings and course selection; Sondheim pointed, with wit and
beauty, melody and wordplay, at the grey-coloured paths that twisted and turned through
the woods, the intersections, the choices to make. Whistle was fun but Into remained our
guidebook. The Baker’s Wife, willing to do anything, hurt anyone to get the child she longs
for, spoke of the moral ambiguity of being a grown-up (“If the thing you do is pure in intent
and it’s meant and it’s just a little bent does it matter?”). Deeply unsure of what career to
pursue, I found recognition in Cinderella, glued to the palace steps in a state of indecision
(“How can you know who you are till you know what you want which you don’t so then
which do you pick?”). Sondheim’s characters, getting their wishes yet remaining dissatisfied,
opened my eyes to the unpredictability of the human heart. However dark and confusing
the woods got, though, one thing was certain; Ben and I, Baker and Cinders, would navigate
them together.

School did, eventually, end, and Ben and I enrolled in the same course at the same uni.
While he swam out confidently into that great pool, I clung desperately to the edge. Missing
the structure of school and our easy daily intimacy, all I wanted was to lie on his bed forever
listening to Sondheim on repeat. I watched jealously as Ben revelled in new experiences and
friendships, wanting to cry out like the Witch as she sees her beloved Rapunzel move into
the world:

Stay at home! I am home!
Who out there could love you more than I?
What out there that I cannot supply?

The most natural thing in the world was happening – an adolescent friendship was
stretching, awkwardly, uncomfortably, into an adult one. Twenty years have passed, and
though our paths through the woods did run parallel for a time, they have since diverged.
Ben now lives on the other side of the world, and we don’t talk often, but that’s OK.

Because once upon a time I was 15 and obsessed with Sondheim and my friend Ben, and we
threw our hats on to the beanbag and loosened our ties and lay back on the pillows and let
the music of our favourite teacher course through our veins:

This was just a moment in the woods
Our moment
Shimmering and lovely and sad
Leave the moment, just be glad
For the moment that we had
Every moment is of moment
When you’re in the woods

This piece was first published in The Victorian Writer magazine in March 2022

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Isabel Robinson is a writer and community development worker based in Melbourne. She is writing a middle grade novel with her husband Stephen Sholl. She has two children and lives in St Kilda.