Today was a marathon.
I wrenched myself from coziness into the cold, bundling up as best I could with but a single cup of the good coffee and the rest in a Mason jar for later. Snagged a ride to Cranston before loading up for the haul down to New Jersey. Gradually waking up as the sun climbed through the sky and the coffee dwindled in the jar, I realized that Christmas carols were happening. I was about to surrender to madness – again – when the station mercifully changed to NPR. The six of us in the van, the lion’s share of the show behind us, and the two other cars in our little convoy were heading out for this season’s debut of Kaleidoscope Theatre’s rendition of Heidi, and I was going to play little Heidi’s grandfather. Simple, right?
Yes and no.
Yes because the show is a great family musical of the type that has been the lifeblood of Kaleidoscope Theatre for the past three decades. Our cast is brilliant, with the two most charming child actors I’ve had the privilege to work with since I was myself a child actor, and strong voices and memorable stage presence all around. The songs are fun and catchy – even Heidi’s plaintive “My Little Mountain Home,” a bittersweet, evocative waltz capturing her wish to be home with her grandfather. I love playing the old codger, and it was so good to get back on the boards I can hardly even express it. From the reactions we got in New Jersey, the show is a big hit with young kids, and it warms the cockles of my heart to entertain the young ‘uns.
No because I had hours and hours to think today, and when I get to thinking about anything – especially a little particle of culture – I start to ask questions, and this time I think I stumbled upon something pretty interesting.
Heidi, for those of you who are not aware, is the story of a little orphaned girl in Switzerland who goes to live with her grizzly old grandfather in the mountains before being sent off to live with a rich family as a live-in playmate to their wheelchair-bound daughter. First published in 1880, the work has been adapted more than 20 times to stage and screen, and has enduring global popularity. Here in the states, the best-known version may be Shirley Temple’s film, but Kaleidoscope Theatre has written perhaps the most heartfelt rendition of the story.
Hmmmmm…. a little orphan girl who goes from rags to riches while charming everyone she meets with her positive attitude? In a musical?
Actually, Annie and Heidi have more in common than their story arcs, backstories, and two-syllable names that nearly rhyme. Both girls have troubles from the people who are supposed to care for them; Heidi is shackled with first her aunt Diete and then the tyrannical governess Miss Rottenmeyer, and Annie has the infamous Miss Hannigan and her relations to deal with. Both have attitudes of boundless hope and optimism that brings to mind another famous female lead – Pollyanna. Indeed, through the course of their respective musicals, Heidi and Annie’s optimism is confirmed – things generally go their way. The good guys win and the bad guys lose, but without much in the way of direct intervention from our charming protagonists. It is as if their sheer adorableness, or kawaii, to use a Japanese term meaning the kind of cuteness that inspires caring and caretaking, bends the world to their will as if by magick. They each have their willful moments – in fact, both girls run away from their captor/caretakers during Act 1, but for the rest of the musicals, the action really takes place around them rather than as a result of their direct actions. They encourage others, and this is their defining action as characters. Events coalesce around them, and through a combination of influencing the more active characters around them and sheer dumb luck, they not only get by but achieve their goals.
Contrast this with a story like Harry Potter, or any story aimed at young boys. The hero beats the odds and wins through after trials, tribulations, and near misses, taking risks and at last reaping the reward. He may not have a support network he can beguile into doing what he wants. Granted, we are seeing more and more adventure stories aimed at girls these days, but looking at the time when the book was written, things become more clear. The late Victorian period was not a great time for empowered female protagonists. That’s not to say there were no courageous women then – indeed, there were plenty of badass women of that period, from saloon smashers to fierce advocates for suffrage and even more radical politics – but these were not the types that storybook authors of yore wanted to mold their young female readers into. And in a world where children ought to be seen and not heard, an unassuming heroine who charms and beguiles the world was doubtless a role model that parents and nannies alike could respect.
Even getting away from the gender- and age-related problems of the character of Heidi, I see a still more sinister shape in the saccharine shadows. Positive attitudes are wonderful things, but coupled with inaction, they are fragile indeed. The idea that Heidi could do little else but hope and encourage others and still get what she wanted mirrors the idea found in such dubious classics as Think And Grow Rich, The Power of Positive Thinking, and of course, Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret. The secret to anything you want, according to these and many other such books, is more or less visualizing what you want, and keeping a positive attitude in order to magickally attract the desired result. It seems to work just this way for little Heidi (and Annie, too), and while I am all about promoting positivity, the idea that a positive attitude is all you need in life is naive to the point of inanity (though it thrives even in corporate America). Let us consider as a point of comparison…
My Little Pony. Yes, the cavalry’s here! In the world of My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic, the mane six as well as the Cutie Mark Crusaders and other ponies are all generally positive about Life, The Universe, and Everything. They have good reason to be – the crops are good, their town is friendly, and their kingdom secure…. mostly. That said, they also work toward their various goals in life. In my opinion, some of the funniest and most engaging episodes come from somepony going off the rails trying to achieve something, hitting a wall, and finally getting the help of their friends. The positive attitude is there in the beginning and at the end, but in that disastrous muddle of a middle we may see some very very not-positive feelings happening onscreen. And that’s okay. Children can handle that. And in that respect, children may see more of themselves in the ponies than in the aforesaid human heroines.
Now, as I put it in the title, I’m way overthinking Heidi. Of course kids understand that you need to do things in order for your dreams to come true, and this one story is not going to dissuade them of that. What is more, Kaleidoscope Theatre production of Heidi does a lot with what the source material gives us. The co-directors and star make the titular part much more dynamic, highlighting Heidi’s tragic backstory, her hard work helping Peter with the goats, the difficulty she had learning her schoolwork, and her sadness at being far from her beloved home during Act 2. If you have a family with young kids, I highly recommend the show, along with the other great offerings from Kaleidoscope – you can see our schedule here! I hope to see you out there in the audience!