As a certain Witch sings, “Don’t you know what’s out there in the world?”
Sure! There’s a new production of INTO THE WOODS at Broadway’s St. James Theatre.
Can it really be 35 years since composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim and bookwriter James Lapine debuted their new musical (and eventually won Tonys for it)?
That question came to mind as I saw the splendid revival last week. It’s spurred me to play the original cast album repeatedly.
Joanna Gleason still shines in her Tony-winning role as the Baker’s Wife. Rocco Landesman, a previous President of Jujamcyn Theatres (one of which, the Al Hirschfeld [when it was the Martin Beck]), housed INTO THE WOODS), has gone on record to state that Gleason’s performance is the finest he’s ever seen an actress give in a musical.
(And Landesman has been seeing musicals since the late ‘50s, when his aunt and uncle created THE NERVOUS SET.)
Having the chance to hear and re-hear Bernadette Peters deliver Witch’s rap in the Prologue is a blessing. Although Patina Miller is now doing splendidly by it, the song’s rapid wordplay can make a theatergoer struggle to glean what’s being quickly said. Peters’ recording and repeated hearings make matters clearer, as she plays the only mother in a Sondheim musical who’s worse than Madame Rose Hovick.
After Sondheim and Lapine had written the commercially risky SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE in 1984 (which got them no less than a Pulitzer Prize) Lapine then had the idea of bringing fairy tale characters together.
A childless couple can only lift Witch’s curse and give birth to a boy by getting four objects that Jack of Beanstalk fame, Little Red Ridinghood, Rapunzel and Cinderella possess – namely, a cow as white as milk, a cape as red as blood, the hair as yellow as corn, and the slipper as pure as gold.
Although the Baker wants to be The Big Man who solely solves his family’s problems, he soon realizes that he’ll need to accept his Wife’s wisdom and guile. “Perhaps it will take two of us to get this child,” he decides, unaware that he’s said something inadvertently funny. That leads to “It Takes Two,” one of Sondheim’s most charming songs.
“Hello, Little Girl” has Mr. Wolf, as Little Red Ridinghood calls him, note that “There’s no possible way to describe what you feel when you’re talking to your meal.” On the original cast album, Robert Westenberg plays the Wolf who sings in the style of a lounge lizard.
When two self-important Princes tell us their first-world problems in “Agony,” what can we do but laugh? This and many other songs all fit into Lapine’s plans “to write a farce,” as he said, “something that was fun and non-intellectual.” In truth, that only describes the first act. He and Sondheim, along their way into the theatrical woods, saw opportunities to provide some messages.
Hence, the serious second act. “So Happy,” Act Two’s opener, reveals the truth of the oft-said advice “Be careful what you wish for.” A baby has brought on responsibilities and sleepless nights; the Princes’ marriages haven’t yielded the non-stop happiness they expected when they met the women they truly believed they could not live without.
But how to handle Cinderella’s stepsisters who were blinded by birds as retribution for the terrible way they’d treated the lass? Just have them rationalize “We’re so happy you’re so happy.” Odd as that may seem, some people under adverse circumstances do put their real feelings aside, make the best of a bad situation, give a former adversary some hero-worship and live vicariously.
There are worse casualties in Act Two. You’d expect that when someone is killed by a powerful hit on the head, he or she would drop to the floor. So why didn’t Barbara Bryne as Jack’s mother do just that after she’d been bopped?
Bryne, on her way to a Friday rehearsal before the La Jolla premiere on Sunday, slipped and severely injured her right knee. The doctor insisted that she walk with a crutch. Sondheim and Lapine each shrugged and said that would be all right for the character.
That didn’t solve the problem of Jack’s Mother falling and dying. Bryne knew that she couldn’t risk any additional injury to her knee, so Lapine said, ‘Well, let’s just have her die and stay standing up.”
Has there ever been a faster onstage rigor mortis?
All in the cause of significance, near show’s end comes a line that few parents of grown sons and daughters would dispute: “Children go from something you love to something you lose.”
Nevertheless, Lapine, in the midst of creating dramatic chaos, wrote a humorous stage direction: “The Baker’s house caves in. We should be momentarily uncertain as to whether there has truly been an accident on-stage.”
You wouldn’t get that uncertainly if you were watching a movie – which INTO THE WOODS became in 2014. Alas, it omitted Jack’s “I Guess This Is Goodbye,” The Wife’s “Maybe They’re Magic,” “First Midnight,” “Ever After,” “Act Two Prologue,” “So Happy,” the “Agony” reprise and “No More.”
The loss of the second “Agony” was particularly agonizing. A listen to the original cast album’s reprise reveals an even more amusing set of lyrics, partly because we enjoy figuring out about whom the Princes are speaking.
All these cuts in the film suggest that the powers-that-be were worried that the public wouldn’t support a musical movie. The trailers even obfuscated the fact that INTO THE WOODS was a musical by offering only 46 seconds of sung lyrics in the preview’s 2:41 running length.
Well, as Sondheim flatly admitted in this show, “People make mistakes.” So let us be “So Happy” that there were “No More” cuts and that we have the original cast album to display all those missing songs and more.
At least Rob Marshall’s film and Lapine’s screenplay became a reality. Twenty years earlier, there had been talk that – believe it or not – Barbra Streisand would co-star in a movie version with The Muppets. It didn’t get much further than a reading in the autumn of 1994; at Penny Marshall’s manse, Robin Williams was the Baker; Goldie Hawn, the Baker’s Wife; Cher, Witch; Roseanne Barr, Jack’s Mother and Danny DeVito, the Giant.
But wait! The Giant doesn’t have any lines! Ah, we can infer that he did in this screenplay. Whether or not the diminutive DeVito was accurately cast as a Giant is another story, but this was, after all, a reading.
Some will cavil that the musical won’t mark 35 years until September 29, the date when Broadway previews began in 1987. Actually, more than 35 years have passed, for INTO THE WOODS had its world premiere in December 1986 at The Old Globe Theatre in San Diego.
Joy Franz, who played Cinderella’s Stepmother there, recalls many walkouts at the end of Act One. Some had simply assumed that the show had concluded. After all, the entire company had just sung how everyone was going to live happily “Ever After,” so the audience decided to leave the theater and do the same.
(Really? Didn’t these attendees notice that there were no curtain calls? Didn’t the absence of those tell them that the show must go on?)
Nevertheless, a solution wasn’t found until a New York preview or two saw some walkouts, too. Soon, Narrator Tom Aldredge was proclaiming “To be continued!” just before the blackout.
(Aldredge told me that during INTO THE WOODS’ creation, for a while the Narrator was the baby to whom the Baker and his Wife had given birth, and now he was telling his life story.)
Word filtered back early from San Diego that Jack’s “Giants in the Sky” was one of Sondheim’s most beautiful songs. That’s easily substantiated – on the original cast album. Alas, for the 1990 London production, director Richard Jones had Richard Radcliffe sing it much too quickly, as that cast album reveals.
Didn’t either or both notice that Sondheim’s notation on the sheet music declared “andante moderato, non rubato?” All right, perhaps their Italian wasn’t so good, but only a tiny bit of research would have revealed that the expressions mean “not to be speeded up and then slowed down.” On Broadway, Ben Wright was moderato and not rubato.
I’m not above mentioning that in a 1993 edition of the now-defunct SHOW MUSIC magazine, an anonymous reviewer questioned my advice in my then-new book LET’S PUT ON A MUSICAL. I had endorsed INTO THE WOODS for all groups, causing the critic to write, “Does Filichia really think high school students could master the intricacies of Sondheim’s score?”
Tell that to Music Theatre International, whose website states that in the next 18 months, 15 high schools, 14 youth programs and even one middle school will do INTO THE WOODS. In fact, of all the musicals for which Sondheim wrote music and lyrics, it’s his most-produced show.
For some time to come, children and adults will listen.
Peter Filichia can be heard most weeks of the year on www.broadwayradio.com. His new book The Book of Broadway Musical Debates, Disputes and Disagreements can now be pre-ordered at Amazon.