Last summer, actor Alexandra Silber added the title author to her resumé when she published her novel After Anatevka. An imagining of what happens to Fiddler on the Roof’s Hodel, the second daughter of Tevye the dairyman, and her betrothed Perchik after Hodel hugs her Papa on that train platform to Siberia. (The audiobook, recorded by Silber, will be released September 25; a special event presented by Audible featuring selections from the book and original songs inspired by After Anatevka takes place at the Minetta Lane Theatre August 13.)
Having expanded the universe of Fiddler on the Roof, a mythology that has become intertwined with her own after playing Hodel in the West End and Tzeitl on Broadway, Silber dug even closer to home for her second book White Hot Grief Parade, now available.
When she was 18 years old, Silber lost her father (not coincidentally the man who inspired her backstory for Perchik in After Anatevka) to a years-long war with lung cancer. In 2011, on the tenth anniversary of his death and while starring in Master Class, Silber wrote a blog most to mark the moment. “There was something about the milestone, combined with my Broadway debut just weeks before, that made me awaken to the fact that I had indeed ‘turned out okay,’” she tells Playbill. That blog post was the beginnigs of this memoir.
“Why share it now, seven years later?” she continues. “I realize now that ‘turning out okay’ is a bare minimum. I needed to more than survive, I need to become myself.”
In writing her journey with sensitivity, vulnerability, and a dash of hilarity, Silber combined forms—prose, haikus, a cryptogram, scenes from a play—for a true page-turner. “Oddly, the overall effect is very much like grief itself,” she says. ”Every minute is a new rush of experience, information and feeling rushing t oward you like a freight train. One has no control over it, one must simply endure and surrender to the ‘parade.’”
In the excerpt below, Silber compares her evolution through grief to two beloved characters in Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods—a comparison to help any theatre-lover understand her pain and her new hope.
CHAPTER: “I Wish” / “I Know”
In sixth grade, when asked by our middle school music teacher to bring in a recording of our favorite music, everyone else brought in Ace of Base, Boyz II Men, and Mariah Carey. I? I brought in the 1989 Original Cast Recording of Into the Woods. That’s right. I brought in Stephen Sondheim. Even at eleven, I could appreciate a 6/9 time signature, internal rhyming, all things Robert Westenberg, and poignant social parallels.
Into the Woods—with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and a book by James Lapine—is a masterpiece of the musical theater about the inner lives and backstories of the world’s most famous (and infamous) fairy-tale characters. We are fortunate as a culture to have the original production preserved not only on audio recording, but in a beautifully filmed live video of the stage performance. I grew up devouring both.
A narrator guides us through the first act of familiar stories: Cinderella and her Prince, Jack and his beanstalk, Rapunzel, Little Red Riding Hood, and some new characters such as a Witch, a childless Baker and his Wife, all crisscrossing and influencing one another in ways our children’s stories were never privy to.
The curtain rises, and the audience is welcomed by the Narrator, who cheerfully opens with, “Once upon a time” followed by a now-celebrated and utterly identifiable series of chords, and then it’s lights up on the characters! The first is Cinderella. She sings a phrase that is to become the haunting theme of the evening: “I wish . . . ”
Every one of our characters has a wish—to go to the festival, to have a child, for fortune, wealth, security, beauty. These are the things that they want. And so they wish.
By the end of the first act, every character has achieved their well-known conclusions, actualized their wishes, and we celebrate with them in a rollicking act one finale celebrating happily “Ever After!”
Things get more complicated in the second act.
After intermission we learn Cinderella’s prince is unfaithful, and life in the luxurious palace is unfulfilling. The Baker and His Wife have their child, and they are ill content. With the wolf dead, Little Red feigns confidence in the shadow of her attack. The Witch has lost not only her daughter Rapunzel, but her magic powers in exchange for physical beauty. And above all, Jack has murdered the giant in the sky, and angered his wife, who now threatens to destroy their kingdom if she cannot take her revenge on her husband’s killer.
Slowly, over the course of the incredibly difficult second act, it is not an exaggeration to say that nearly everyone suffers in the wake of the Giant.
This musical opened on Broadway in 1989, at the very height of the AIDS epidemic, and, as a child born in the middle of the crisis, I suppose I only now realize that the actors in the original production were suffering losses every day—of their friends, family, and members of their communities. Mind-obliterating, countless losses and daily fear—all of it lacking in any kind of reason. A different kind of Giant had ravaged their kingdom.
When I was a child, I suppose I was too young to understand the story with this level of intensity, but, as Little Red Riding Hood so simply explains in act one: “I know things now.”
Into the Woods is a piece I have never truly seen myself inside of—somewhat unusual for an actor, as we tend to see where we would, or would like to, fit inside a story. But with Into the Woods, I’ve always been in the audience, seeing the whole picture, never precisely identifying with any individual story arc.
In the final few moments of the play, the too-old-to-be-babied and too-young-to-be-ready Little Red Riding Hood sits in shock. She is already vulnerable, traumatized from her experience with the wolf in act one; yet, in this moment she cannot move in the wake of losing her entire family. Her face is strained, but no tears come. She realizes slowly that she is alone in the world—a child with nothing but a wolf-skin coat on her back.
Beside her is Cinderella. She is dressed in rags once more, and, having left the Prince, she is on her own again to face the world as a stronger and smarter woman than before.
Dreams shattered, lives forever altered, the two women sit there. And from the depths of Little Red’s soul, comes the musical phrase we know from what seems like forever ago, a cry from her soul so straightforward, so true, yet so painful she can barely utter it: “I wish . . . ”
Cinderella looks at her. Not with pity. Cinderella cannot grant her wish. No one can. The kingdom is annihilated. People are dead. Life will never be the same. Her childhood is ended. Cinderella responds simply, “I know.”
Four words. Just four. Yet this brief exchange is the summation of my entire life.
Little Red, my eighteen-year-old self, and Cinderella, the self of today. Would that I could look that eighteen-year-old girl straight in the eye, as Cinderella does for Little Red. I wish I could tell her that she is absolutely right—this is the bottom of the well of human pain. That her innocence is shattered, her childhood at its end. Loss like this will never be “OK,” darling girl, I would say. It will only grow familiar and thus less harrowing. There may never be anything deeper or more painful to wish away, ever again.
But now? Now Little Red has earned her passage to the human race. She may now arrive upon humanity’s shores as the inextinguishable woman she is destined to become—that this exact tragedy, in time, if she allows it, will make her soul the richer and escort her to her highest self.
Those four words capture the essence of both versions of myself, of where I sit today as perpetual eighteen-year-old and ever-evolving adult. As I write these words upon the page, looking back to my own “once upon a time,” exactly half my life ago. Before the Giant ravaged my kingdom, taking all but my heartbeat.
Excerpted from “‘I Wish’/‘I Know’” from White Hot Grief Parade by Alexandra Silber, published by Pegasus Books. Reprinted with permission. All other rights reserved.