Monday, November 05, 2007


Once upon a time...

By Edward Copeland
...20 years ago today in fact, one of Stephen Sondheim's greatest musicals opened on Broadway. Into the Woods presented great twists on classic fairy tales: In fact, you could probably perform Act I alone and it'd be a great show for kids. However, it's the turn the show takes in Act II that really makes this a masterpiece, nearly approaching the level of his Sweeney Todd.

Sondheim's music and James Lapine's book weave together most of the classic fairy tales: Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel and Jack and the Beanstalk and then create one of their own about a baker and his wife to tie the stories together. I wasn't fortunate enough to see the original staging live on Broadway, but thankfully they filmed it for television with all the main original players and it's available on DVD. The Broadway production earned nine Tony nominations and won three: for Sondheim's score, Lapine's book and the irreplaceable Joanna Gleason as lead actress for her role as the baker's wife. It lost the best musical prize to The Phantom of the Opera (yawn!) The quest of the baker (Chip Zien) and his wife envelops all the stories as they are sent on a quest into the woods for four items for the wicked witch next door (Bernadette Peters), who placed a curse on the baker and his family so he would be the end of their family tree. In the opening, Peters delivers the tale in one of Sondheim's most amazing tongue-twisting lyrics:
WITCH: In the past, when your mother was with child, she developed
an unusual appetite. She took one look at my beautiful garden
and told your father that what she wanted more than
anything in the world was

Greens, greens and nothing but greens:
Parsley, peppers, cabbages and celery,
Asparagus and watercress and
Fiddleferns and lettuce—!
He said, "All right,"
But it wasn't, quite,
'Cause I caught him in the autumn
In my garden one night!
He was robbing me,
Raping me,
Rooting through my rutabaga,
Raiding my arugula and
Ripping up my rampion
(My champion! My favorite!)—
I should have laid a spell on him
Right there

As the title would suggest, the woods draw in everyone: Little Red Riding Hood (the great Danielle Ferland) is headed off to her grandmother's house after buying some goodies from the baker; the dimwitted Jack (Ben Wright) is taking his "best friend," a cow named Milky White, to market to get money so he and his mom can eat; Cinderella (Kim Crosby) pays a visit to her mother's grave there and flees back there each night after the ball where the Prince (Robert Westerberg) pursues this mystery woman. That follows the original tale: where the ball took place over three nights and her slippers were made of gold, not glass. In fact, the musical adheres more closely to the darkness of the original tales instead of the Disneyfied versions better known by most. Keeping some sense of order to these multiple narratives falls to the narrator (Tom Aldredge), who stands to the side of the stage, dressed in a sharp suit and commenting upon the action and filling in the exposition. Aldredge, an actor who I've seen in more Broadway shows than any other, also has a second role as a mysterious old man who will pop up in the woods occasionally. Aldredge hardly is a household name, but his face will be familiar to any fan of The Sopranos, since he played Carmela's father.

Even though it's almost a sidenote to the main stories, one of the biggest delights in Into the Woods comes from its take on Little Red Riding Hood. Ferland's cynical, cranky and often deadpan Red is hysterical and her encounter with the wolf (also played by Robert Westerberg) turns into the joyous seduction production number of "Hello, Little Girl." (In the original version, the wolf's costume was even anatomically correct.) After Red has survived her encounter with the wolf, she sings of the downside of losing one's naivete:

And I know things now,
Many valuable things,
That I hadn't known before:
Do not put your faith
In a cape and a hood,
They will not protect you
The way that they should.
And take extra care with strangers,
Even flowers have their dangers.
And though scary is exciting,
Nice is different than good.
Now I know:
Don't be scared.
Granny is right,
Just be prepared.
Isn't it nice to know a lot!
And a little bit not...

Sondheim's music repeats and folds in upon itself so that the score feels as if it's one, unbreakable piece. There is another great song (done twice) for the two princes (Cinderella's and Rapunzel's, played by Chuck Wagner) called "Agony," lamenting their loves for women they can't have, who are just out of reach, and debating whose problem is more severe.

Am I not sensitive,
As kind as I'm handsome
And heir to a throne?

You are everything maidens could wish for!
Then why no-?
Do I know?
The girl must be mad!

You know nothing of madness
Till you're climbing her hair
And you see her up there
AS you're nearing her,
All the while hearing her:


Still, it's the second act that really transforms Into the Woods from a clever melting pot of classic stories and into something greater, as Sondheim and Lapine explore what happens after "happily ever after." Needless to say, it's no longer a fairy tale after the curtain falls on Act I. As the narrator notes about the characters, these are not people accustomed to making choices: There is usually a single path they must follow, but that's not how life works.

Cinderella finds herself restless as a princess, suspecting her prince has eyes for another. Rapunzel, having been freed from her tower only to wander aimlessly in the desert and bear twins before being rescued by her prince, found the whole episode a little scarring. The witch got her wish to be beautiful again, but her powers went away with it. The baker and his wife have their child. Little Red Riding Hood is newly empowered, swapping her cape as red as blood for the slain wolf's skin. Jack and his mom are rich thanks to what he stole from the giant in the sky, but one errant magic bean has produced a complication for everyone: A giant wife, who has climbed another beanstalk to seek revenge on those who killed her husband. As the witch notes, the giant is a different kind of monster: she's human, she has a brain just like them: She's just bigger. Thus, the fairy tale's inhabitants must band together to save their kingdom and their lives, and not all of them manage to do that. Along the way, they turn on each other, trying to place the fault for the chaos that has ensued. While the entire cast of the original production is good or great, Gleason truly shines the most and earned her Tony. Her comic brilliance as the headstrong baker's wife who encounters all sorts of different things in the woods is a joy to behold. The casting truly makes the show.

Unlike Sweeney Todd, which I've seen productions of on all levels, the show is surprisingly strong. Weak links can undermine Into the Woods, such as in a community theater production I saw once that had far too weak an actress playing the witch. Its 2002 Broadway revival, which I did get to see, did win the Tony for best revival and actually got 10 nominations, though it only won two Tonys, the other being for lighting. While the revival of Into the Woods with Vanessa Williams taking on the role of the witch was good, it still doesn't hold a candle to the original. Most of the actors in the revival were either equal or not quite as good as the role's originators with the exception of Laura Benanti, whose revival Cinderella bests Kim Crosby's in the original in my opinion. The other changes in the revival ranged from the good (a more high-tech Milky White) to the puzzling (There really seemed to be no good reason to make both princes double as wolves) to the just plain bad idea (making Little Red Riding Hood an actual young girl). Still, Into the Woods may well be Sondheim's second best show as both lyricist and composer (with A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum a distant third). In most of his other shows which I've seen staged (Company, Follies, Sunday in the Park with George, Passion, Assassins), the scores are always much stronger than the books. Into the Woods and Sweeney Todd truly give you the entire package.

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Although I like Into the Woods a lot, I wouldn't go so far as to call it one of Sondheim's best. The music - which is lush without being particularly melodic (listen to Follies, ALNM or Sweeney for contrast) - doesn't match the standard of the lyrics (which are brilliant), and Lapine's dialogue is, for the most part, flat, flat, flat (plotwise, the book is strong, but the words are incredibly wooden). I'm among those who find the second act too solemnly preachy for its own good -it's as if the audience is being taken to task for having enjoyed what came before. Still, the show has more than its share of pleasures, and the original cast is remarkably strong; Joanna Gleason probably owns the role of The Baker's Wife just as surely as Mrs. Lovett will forever belong to Angela Lansbury (sorry, Helena). Certainly, it is by far the best of the shows the composer collaborated on with James Lapine, and when given a top-notch production, it can fire on all cylinders.

Personally - and I know I'm not alone in this assertion - I think that most of Sondheim's scores, post-Merrilly We Roll Along, haven't been as interesting musically as they are in terms of their lyrics. Beginning with Sunday in the Park with George, Sondheim became more and more preoccupied discordant harmonies and repetition - consequently, you get shows like Passion where every song sounds exactly like every other song, and none are particularly melodic. Into the Woods is guilty of this as well, although there's a bit more variation than you'd find in Passion or Sunday (probably because there are some lighter, more up-tempo songs in Woods which function in a comic vein). In terms of musical vocabulary, Assassins is his only post-Merilly show which encompasses a real range of styles, and makes full use of over a century's worth American musical traditions - consequently, there's less discordant harmony (sometimes you wonder if Sondheim spends too much time listening to Phillip Glass), more melody, and it's one of his best scores.
Of course, I admit I'm a lyric man, but I felt that the similar music strains worked for ITW. The occasionally clunky dialogue doesn't bother me, simply because of its storybook world setting, so by praising the book I'm more praising it because it doesn't get in the way and actually survives from beginning to end (for me at least) as opposed to something like Follies, which has a much better score but a very problematic book.
Yeah, there's definitely preachiness in the second act, and it's not helped by some clunky dialogue on Lapine's part. But the big issue I have with Act II is all the ballads in a row. Individually they're lovely, but together they're repetitive and a bit disconnected to the story. "No More" is a lovely song, but the one-two punch of "No One is Alone" and "Children Will Listen" dilutes everything. For the first time, I feel as if Sondheim was consciously trying to write standards rather than the songs the narrative needed at that point. "Send in the Clowns" became that kind of song somewhat in spite of itself, but here Sondheim seems to be pandering and making the songs "universal" much too much.

(I don't mean to be too hard on the show, which I do like a lot, but I recently finished a production of it and the Act II issues are fresh in my mind.)
There is a children's version called "Into the Woods, Jr.". It's most of Act I (they took out Red Riding Hood's song in the version I saw) and "Children Will Listen" added in at the end. It works well as children's theatre.

I couldn't agree more about how fabulous Joanna Gleason was in this. I want to see her in more shows! And this is definitely one of my favorite Sondheim shows, both for the lyrics and the music.
Josh R. I'm among those who find the second act too solemnly preachy for its own good -it's as if the audience is being taken to task for having enjoyed what came before.

I remember going to see Into the Woods during its Broadway run, and I felt exactly the way you do. I disliked the second act enough that it ruined the musical for me.

When they ran it on TV, my sister wanted to watch it. I taped it for her, and I warned her "don't watch this, you'll feel like shit afterward." But like her hardheaded eldest brother, she didn't listen. I think she liked it a tad more than I did, but she had a luxury I didn't have: she could turn it off and come back to it later. And she saw it for free.

At least there was no Send in the Clowns.

Uh-oh, here come Josh and Ed, the Sondheim lovers, with pitchforks and torches! I liked Sweeney Todd and I love Gypsy! That should count for one less pitchfork stab!
I won't come after you, Odie - although I may have been forced to take out a contract on your life had you bad-mouthed my beloved Sweeney.

There's no denying that the second act is problematic, for several different reasons - too much heavy-handed moralizing, too many similar-sounding songs covering more or less the same ground, a shortage of humor, and the fact that the characters are a little too one-dimensional to make sense as figures in a Drama with a capital D. I didn't realize The Baker's Wife was, as written, is just as one-dimensional as the others until I'd see someone besides Joanna Gleason play it - she's a great example of someone bringing more to a part that what's on the page.

It's become so automatic for people to beat up on the second act of ITW - it seems as though everyone always has, as far back as the original - but really, when you get right down to it, I don't think it fits that well with the first act...sometimes it feels like two very different shows shoehorned into one. But it didn't ruin the entire experience for me to the extent that it did for you and others I've talked to - I just let my mind wander when Sondheim and Lapine start in on the Sunday School lessons and try to focus the good stuff.

And even though I find the music repetetive and unmelodic in patches, I do like that first act an awful lot.
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