A lot like life
Into the Woods is an adult drama
in make-believe clothing
BY FRANK GREENE
News & Notes
On the Cover: Into the Woods
Following the beans through Into the Woods
Into the Woods is an adult drama in make-believe clothing
A college theatre major has grown up with a Sondheim soundtrack
Into the Woods has two endings to make a point
Rob Marshall and film cast comment on Into the Woods
Sondheim and Lapine share insights about Into the Woods
Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Allegro affected the young Sondheim
William Parry has a lot of Sondheim shows under his belt
Ladies Who Lunch: Bernadette Peters’ career is linked to Sondheim
Kurt Peterson toured in Side by Side by Sondheim
Ellie Mednick has promoted Sondheim to Bay Area residents
Productions and Reviews
San Francisco Playhouse used a boy’s perspective for Into the Woods
Into the Woods in Boston fused old and new
Oregon Shakespeare’s natural setting enhanced Into the Woods
An infographic puts productions of Into the Woods side by side
Sondheim REMIX put a new spin on familiar numbers
Marry Me a Little adapts to the Silicon Valley
Leslie Uggams played Rose in Gypsy at Connecticut Rep
Mu Performing Arts’ Night Music was multicultural in Minnesota
Kokandy’s Chicago staging of Assassins was well acted and sung
Hal Leonard has published songbooks for various voices
German recording of Passion is a moving experience
San Francisco Symphony’s recording of West Side Story is a winner
Academic essays and insights in Oxford University Press’s Handbook of Sondheim Studies
Take Me to the World: International Coverage
A new Hungarian translation of Into the Woods in Budapest
Pacific Overtures in London
Cryptic Crossword: On the Steps of the Palace
In the Next Issue
Solution to last issue’s Cryptic Crossword: There’s Always a Woman
Upcoming Sondheim shows in the U.S., Canada
A lot like life
Into the Woods is an adult drama in make-believe clothing
BY FRANK GREENE
Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s Into the Woods has often provoked divergent responses. Does Act II digress too far in tone and content from Act I? Is the first act itself a complete story? Who is the main character: the Baker, the Baker’s Wife, Cinderella, the Witch — or none of the above? Who is the villain? Is there a villain at all? And what about this children’s fairly tale that is replete with adult dilemmas that are nearly unsolvable?
Ambivalence and the lack of neatly tied story strands seem to plague this musical until one realizes that those strands are the point of the matter and that ambivalence and uncertainty provide an adult context grittier than any Brothers Grimm story ever offered. The original Into the Woods is an adult drama dressed up in fairy-tale fancies.
A look at several key characters and the show’s production history sheds some light on this ambivalence . In the original 1987 Broadway production, Joanna Gleason earned a Tony Award for best actress as the Baker’s Wife while Bernadette Peters’ Witch was passed over. In the 2002 revival, Vanessa Williams got the nomination as the Witch while Kerry O’Malley’s Wife went unrecognized. Robert Westenberg and Gregg Edelman earned nominations for featured actor as Cinderella’s Prince/Wolf in their respective productions, while cinema headliner Johnny Depp will play the lupine role in the forthcoming Disney film. No actor appearing as the Baker in any major production has received significant recognition from awards committees. The wide divergence in prominence that these roles have received appears to be based as much on the notoriety of each performer as on the roles themselves. What does that indicate?
To start with, Into the Woods has always been an ensemble piece. Depending on the production, some actors earn greater attention than others, but no character grabs the spotlight without relinquishing it to another in due time. Each character serves a purpose but only exists within the context of the group.
This is not to say that the group always makes the right decision. Throwing the Narrator into the clutches of the Giant leaves them more lost and confused than ever. The search for the white cow, the red cape, the yellow hair and the golden slipper splinters the members of this group as often as it brings them together. In the end, sudden loss, abrupt reversals and new regroupings propel the survivors into new realities.
This is not exactly the typical stuff of fairy tales, but Into the Woods has always been an adult drama in make-believe clothing. Husbands and wives fight ferociously and then rediscover one another, overbearing mothers control and then lose control of their daughters, happily married couples un-marry unhappily and children — the most vulnerable of all — lose their parents and try to find ways to survive. A grim fairy tale, indeed. And that’s where the art of this show exists.
There are four key characters in Into the Woods who crystallize the dichotomy of adult dilemmas in childhood fantasies: the Baker, the Baker’s Wife, Cinderella and the Witch. Simply by their titles, one might assume these are fantasy types, built on sugary bromides and melodramatic plotlines. That is not the case in this tale. The Baker is a sometimes weak-willed man who tries to do his best to care for a wife who is more assertive than she realizes and who wants more than she has. Cinderella seems like the quintessential fantasy princess who gets precisely what she wishes for, but then she discovers that it wasn’t what she wanted after all. The Witch, on the other hand, is a determined woman who often misjudges situations and mishandles the outcomes. This is no children’s story. By taking children’s stories and imposing adult situations, emotions and perceptions upon them, Lapine and Sondheim produced a wryly contemplative and completely original work that respects the stories yet presents something much more profound.
The Baker is often perceived as the main character, quite possibly because his interactions with other significant characters are so potent. Still, he often functions as the observer, watching other characters discover their internal fortitude while he remains stuck. Three strong women who assert themselves or discover their inherent possibilities surround this rather timid man. However, he is the character who shifts, strains and grows in his journey through the woods. His wife’s newfound assertiveness challenges him, the Witch provokes him into action and Cinderella, still looking for her own happy ending, inadvertently provides him with an approximation of his own. It’s quite telling that it takes the spirits of his father in the lovely “No More” and his dead wife in “Children Will Listen” to finally push him through to the next part of a journey that began with so little clarity.
The Baker’s Wife seems to be a basic, fairy-tale type until she gets herself into the woods. Suddenly, a seemingly benign character becomes a specific, chatty and forceful presence. Loving and supportive of her husband, she still tries to do whatever she has to do to get what she wants. In the delightful “It Takes Two,” the pair realizes how much they rely on each other as they rediscover their need for — and underestimation of — their relationship. It’s a marvelous moment that provides a cushion for the tragedies to come, since this couple is not destined to grow old together; life intervenes. Still, the connection they form through their struggles in the woods deepens the more superficial bonds of fantasy . That they declaim this to each other is quite moving, and it neatly underscores the fact that, though the Wife doesn’t survive her journey in the woods, her spirit and life force will remain present.
Cinderella, on the other hand, is flailing about. A wicked stepmother, evil stepsisters and an empty -headed prince — this woman is being spun in so many different directions by characters who care not one bit about her welfare that she simply starts going along for the ride. She attends the ball, finds her prince and it’s happily ever after. Or is it? What she gets is not what she thought it was. Marriage to a fatuous, unfaithful man isn’t exactly the stuff of dreams, and she knows it, so she returns to her roots and unwittingly discovers an opportunity to provide the Baker, Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and even herself with a new kind of blended family based on love and respect.
Into the Woods’ most direct, honest and blunt character, however, ostensibly shouldn’t be that way. Traditionally witches are evil, wicked, heartless and cold. The Witch is none of these. Yes, she casts spells and curses here and there, but her spells don’t last and her curses malfunction. Still, she can’t help but directly speak her mind, whatever it costs her. “Stay with Me” is a lovely ballad expressed by an overbearing parent to an isolated child. It’s meant to be loving, but the feelings she articulates in the song cause Rapunzel to run from her clutches and fall victim to the Giant. In “Last Midnight,” she tries to get hold of Jack by letting the other characters know exactly the parts they’ve played in creating their own dilemmas. And she doesn’t get the boy.
The Witch is her own worst enemy. She controls her daughter to the point of losing her. She intimidates others with blunt observations to the point that no one will listen. She cajoles and threatens with the diminishing returns of her fading magic powers and has nothing to fall back on. In the end, she sings “Children Will Listen” as a cautionary tale to parents whose children will, indeed, hear everything they say, not simply what’s told to them. Still, she sings these sentiments without ever having practiced them, as hapless as ever. Bluntly honest to a fault, she can’t get out of her own way. Yes, children will listen … until, one day, they won’t. Then it’s too late, and the price will be paid. This fanciful tale is a modern allegory that scorches when it wants to.
Into the Woods is a seminal work in Sondheim’s career. Statistically, it is the most frequently performed of all his shows. On the one hand, that makes perfect sense. It’s a musical about fairy-tale characters in a fantasy setting that seems perfect for children of all ages. On the other hand, it pushes the boundaries of that fantasy setting into adult realms that resonate with honesty, confusion and, at times, qualified resolution. In other words, it’s a lot like life. |TSR|
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