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Terry Gilliam’s Disputed Sondheim Show Finds a Home

LONDON — For weeks, a question hung over London theater: What would happen to Stephen Sondheim’s “Into the Woods”?

On Nov. 1, the Old Vic theater canceled a revival of the musical, co-directed by Terry Gilliam, after a dispute in which the renowned director was accused of endorsing transphobic views and playing down the MeToo movement. That left the production in limbo and London’s theater world wondering if anyone would dare to take it on.

Now, there is an answer. On Aug. 19, 2022, Gilliam’s “Into the Woods” will debut at the Theater Royal in Bath, 115 miles from London. The show will run through Sep. 10, 2022, the theater said in a statement.

The fuss around the revival — which had received Sondheim’s blessing before his death — began in May, when the Old Vic announced the production as the centerpiece of its new season. That news caused a stir on British social media, because of comments Gilliam had made, in a newspaper interview, about the MeToo movement and so-called cancel culture.

In January 2020, Gilliam told The Independent that MeToo “was a witch hunt” and that he was tired of white men “being blamed for everything that is wrong with the world.” Anyway, he added, he now identified as “a Black lesbian in transition.”

According to a report in The Stage, a British theater newspaper, “some within the Old Vic team” felt Gilliam’s comments were “at odds with the theater’s culture and values.”

On May 12, Kate Varah, the Old Vic’s executive director, addressed staff concerns at an internal meeting. She said that she had spoken with Gilliam and that the conversation had reassured her that he shared the theater’s values.

But the dispute escalated after Gilliam wrote a post on Facebook about “The Closer,” the Dave Chappelle comedy special on Netflix. In the show, the comedian comments mockingly on transgender issues and aligns himself with some feminists who say a transgender woman’s biological sex determines her gender and can’t be changed. Dozens of Netflix employees in Los Angeles staged a walkout over the special, accusing Netflix of endorsing bigotry.

“There is a storm brewing over Netflix’s support for the show,” Gilliam wrote on Oct. 14. “I’d love to hear your opinions.”

On Nov. 1, the Old Vic and Scenario Two, the musical’s co-producers, announced that they had “mutually agreed to cancel the production,” leading British newspapers to speculate that the Facebook post was the reason behind the decision. The theater and the director both declined to comment for this article. But on Monday, Gilliam said on Facebook that a group of up-and-coming playwrights, directors, costume designers and others at the theater was responsible for the cancellation.

The Theater Royal in Bath, England. “Into the Woods” is set to open at the playhouse on Aug. 19, 2022.Credit…Nigel Jarvis/Shutterstock

Gilliam said that members of a short-term artistic development program at the theater, called the Old Vic 12, had “intimidated” the playhouse into canceling the musical after he recommended Chappelle’s special to his Facebook followers.

Members of the program were “closed-minded, humor-averse ideologues,” Gilliam said, adding, “Freedom of Speech is often attacked, but I never imagined that Freedom of Recommendation would be under threat as well.”

Three members of the Old Vic 12 declined to comment, but one did note thatthe program had ended several months before the Old Vic reached its decision on “Into the Woods.”

In a phone interview, John Berry, a co-founder of Scenario Two, declined to comment on the Old Vic’s decision.

His focus was on making an entertaining show, he added. “For me, nothing else matters.”

The controversy around “Into the Woods” is not the only recent scandal involving accusations of bigotry in London’s theaters. In November, several prominent Jewish celebrities and journalists accused the Royal Court Theater of perpetuating antisemitic tropes after it staged a new play by the British playwright Al Smith, called “Rare Earth Mettle.” Early performances in the show’s run featured a character called Hershel Fink, a big-nosed, greedy billionaire who seemed to embody negative stereotypes about Jewish people.

After a barrage of criticism on social media and in British newspapers, the character’s name was changed. The theater said in a statement that a Jewish theater director had raised concerns about the character in a September workshop: “We acknowledge our wrongdoing and will include antisemitism in future anti-oppression practices and training,” the statement said.

Berry declined to comment on whether the two controversies had implications for theater makers, but added, “I have my own views.”

He was certain of one thing, though: “There’s certainly not going to be anything controversial” in his production of “Into the Woods.”

“It’s going to be vintage Terry Gilliam,” he said.

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