Arts Review

Into the Woods in Revival

Watching the recent Broadway revival of Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods, it’s almost impossible to remember how niche Sondheim’s work was for most of his career. No one denied his technical skill as a lyricist, but many felt he was clever for the sake of cleverness, uninterested in the simple emotions that had always been at the core of musical theater writing: passion, warmth, exuberance, uplift. As for his music, the party line was that he was incapable of melody, stylistically cramped and hermetic, and (in composer Jule Styne’s estimation) too focused on “chords.” We now look back at Sondheim’s miraculous run in the 1970s as perhaps the greatest Broadway achieve­ment of the century. In partnership with director Hal Prince, he created five masterpieces in one decade: Company, Follies, A Little Night Music, Pacific Overtures, and Sweeney Todd. Each astonishingly different from the others, all five now regularly appearing on lists of the greatest musicals ever written. And yet, for another decade or so, it was popular to say that Sondheim was all talent and no heart, clever and ingenious, but cold and averse to letting his audience experience pleasure.

Cut to the two recent Broadway revivals of Sondheim’s work—Company in the previous season and now Into the Woods—and we see an astonishing transformation. Reviews unanimously accept Sondheim as a—perhaps the—supreme composer/lyricist in the history of the form. Audiences respond as if they’re at a rock concert, whooping and hollering as the lights go down and greeting every song with ecstatic ovations. What happened? Time, mainly. An older guard, resistant to the revolution that Sondheim and his collaborators wrought, died out. Even audience members now in their 60s have lived with Sondheim scores since their early childhoods. And, of course, the great man himself died late last year, which is perhaps why every recent perfor­mance of his work has felt like a celebratory memorial, a chance to pay homage. I would also argue that the trajectory of Sondheim’s career after the pivotal shows with Prince allowed audiences to reframe his body of work through a more directly personal lens.

Indeed, a major break in Sondheim’s style occurred in the early 1980s, once he began working with the writer and director James Lapine. In 1981, Sondheim and Prince experienced the humiliating failure of their sixth collaboration, Merrily We Roll Along, a show that has subsequently been successfully revived on multiple occasions but which, at the time, was considered a catastrophic flop, one gleefully pounced on by the Sondheim/Prince detractors. A break in their collaboration was inevitable, and Sondheim, admirably open to wholesale career reinvention in his 50s, approached Lapine, who had several Downtown successes to his credit. Prince, however adventurous, was a product of the commercial theater, weaned in its golden age and highly cognizant of its traditions. He never neglected the “showbiz” aspects of his work, even if his approach might deconstruct those aspects, or at least treat them with irony. Lapine, on the other hand, came from the visual art world. As outlined in his recent book, Putting It Together, a fascinating oral history of his first collaboration with Sondheim on Sunday in the Park with George (1984), he was a naif, fumbling his way through rehearsals and previews, confident in his vision but unwise to the needs of a Broadway-level cast and crew and to the expectations of a Broadway audience.

The result, which came together fitfully over the course of a long workshop process and fraught previews, was unlike any previous Sondheim work. Sondheim’s librettists in his great 1970s shows—George Furth, James Goldman, Hugh Wheeler, John Weidman—were all inventive writers, eager to play with structure and the boundaries of realism, but they were working within the existing frameworks of their era as laid out by Albee, Pinter, and their contemporaries. Lapine’s work on Sunday in the Park with George was altogether different: elliptical, anti-theatrical, prizing an almost poetic diction which avoided contractions and suggested characters making statements to each other, rather than engaging in dialogue. And as a director, Lapine eschewed anything that felt remotely showy. Gone were applause-begging “buttons” at the ends of songs, or any sort of razzle-dazzle (he was the anti-Fosse). The theatrical coups all came via the set and its manipulations, which were indeed impressive, but in subtler, cleverer ways than the typical knock-out designs of previous Broadway extravaganzas.

Sunday in the Park was not just different in its libretto and staging, both of which owed more to avant-garde theater than to traditional musical comedy. Sondheim’s score was of a whole different order than his earlier works, all of which derived, however angularly, from the classic Broadway tradition. The Sunday score owed more to Debussy and Ravel (Sondheim’s favorite piece of classical music was the Ravel Piano Trio in A minor), and to contemporary trends in art music, particularly the minimalism of Philip Glass and Steve Reich. His composition felt freer and less structured than in any of his previous works. Working with a new orchestrator, Michael Starobin, after years of work with Jonathan Tunick, also revealed a new sound palette, one more transparent and elegant, less reliant on traditional Broadway brass. And most importantly: Sondheim evinced a much more delicately personal tone in this work, a sense of crushing vulnerability, an openhearted admission of uncertainty.

Despite the rough development process, the result was somehow a work that some consider his best, certainly his most moving. Sunday in the Park with George was initially highly divisive; many audience members fled at intermission, but just as many found themselves overwhelmed with tears. (I place myself in the latter category; I’ve never been able to get through the last 20 minutes of the show without decorous sobs.) And so began a reevaluation of Sondheim as not just a brilliant technician, but also a highly personal, emotional artist. It wasn’t just Sondheim’s style that changed in the 1980s, it was also the audience’s perception of his work as a whole. After Sunday in the Park, it was impossible to say that Sondheim did not write from the heart. And audiences, looking back on shows that might have seemed chilly or overly intellectualized in their day, began to acknowledge the aching heart that lay underneath all that brilliant wordplay and thorny musicality.

Into the Woods (1987), Sondheim and Lapine’s second collaboration, was more immediately successful and accessible than Sunday and had a much smoother development process, but was still not initially a blockbuster. Premiering in the middle of the great British Invasion (it shamefully lost the Best Musical Tony Award to The Phantom of the Opera), it received decent reviews and ran 765 performances, respectable but not indicative of what was to come. Still, the new compositional style and the new openness to sincere emotion carried over to this work, an elaborate mélange of various fairy tales. Sondheim and Lapine had been reading Bruno Bettelheim’s seminal book, The Uses of Enchantment, which analyzed classic fables, like those of the Brothers Grimm and Charles Perrault, through an academic and psychoanalytic lens. Into the Woods sets up an elaborate interweaving of the Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk, Rapunzel, and Little Red Riding Hood stories, anchoring them to an original story of a baker and his wife who bargain with a neighboring witch, who has placed upon them a curse of infertility. The first act farcically mashes the various stories as the central characters seek their hearts’ desires via a series of negotiations and sometimes shady deals, culminating in a seemingly happy ending for all. In the second act, the various bargains fall apart amidst recriminations, and the characters must confront the consequences of their compromised actions.

Cover of the original Broadway production’s program, 1987

The central metaphor of Into the Woods is that titular forest: a locus for growth and change. In many classic fairy tales, a protagonist enters a forbidding woodland and emerges with newfound wisdom and confidence. In many Shakespeare comedies, for that matter, the characters enter Arden Forest or the Athenian Woods or some non-urban environment in order to learn something about themselves and to emerge as matured beings, equipped to face life’s challenges. The first act of Into the Woods feels busy and complicated, but Lapine and Sondheim eventually boil the filigrees of the story down to five central characters who engage our emotional investment: the kindly Baker and his wry Wife; the compassionate Cinderella; the simple-minded but well-meaning Jack; and the hilariously pugnacious Little Red. These five characters all enter the woods in the show’s first ten minutes, exiting triumphantly at the end of the first act, only to re-enter in the second act when they realize that their initial victories were transitory. In the second act, only four of them survive the woods. Spoiler alerts shouldn’t be necessary in such a canonical work but—just in case—neophytes should hide their eyes for the next few sentences. Sondheim and Lapine’s willingness to kill off the Baker’s Wife, by far the most sympathetic of their leading characters, is still shocking. I’ve seen the show a dozen times, and her death is still a doozy. And her return as a benevolent ghost in the show’s final moments is an emotional coup de théâtre, one that hits me with more force every time I see the show. Like all great art, Into the Woods gains meaning and power as you age with it.

An entire generation of theatergoers has now aged alongside Into the Woods. And because of that, they’ve learned how to listen to Sondheim’s score and to comprehend it in a way that its original audience never could. During the process of composing the show, Sondheim said, “What I’m trying to do with the score is to sprinkle it with ditties . . . , almost cartoonish except in a sort of contemporary style. Morals, and traveling songs. And these little tunes start to go strange in the second act.” The score is indeed remarkable in its discursiveness. Little melodies pop up and disappear; songs begin and then segue in surprising directions; reprises appear before their origin and fracture before completion. An earlier generation might have found it a difficult score to follow, but decades of exposure to Sondheim and his acolytes have cultivated in audiences the ability to grasp this compositional approach. And Sondheim’s melodies, once characterized as “cramped” and “restricted,” now sound lush and tuneful to our ears. In truth, his melodies were always tuneful—a notoriously hard characteristic to define, in any case. Tunefulness is culturally conditioned, a function of what our ears have heard in the past and how a given melody fits or doesn’t fit into the resulting grooves. What happened with Sondheim is what has always happened in the history of music reception: familiarity has bred not contempt but love. Music that was seen as hopelessly radical (whether by Wagner or Bernstein, whether Tristan und Isolde or West Side Story) becomes the next generation’s greatest hits. Audiences today walk into Sondheim shows whistling the tunes.

Today’s audiences have also grown up alongside the five central characters and have internalized their various journeys. Familiarity with the show has allowed audiences of disparate age groups to find themselves within the narrative. The metaphorical woods are crucibles for every kind of growth and change, whether sexual maturation, the evolution of romantic relationships, or the inevitabilities of aging and loss. The two youngest protagonists, Jack and Little Red, each have epiphanies in the first act that Sondheim musicalizes in marvelous solos: “Giants in the Sky” for Jack and “I Know Things Now” for Red. The exuberant melody of the former, as well as its suggestive lyrics (“A big, tall, terrible, lady giant . . . / And she gives you food, and she gives you rest / And she draws you close to her giant breast / And you know things now that you never knew before”) speak to Jack’s sentimental education. The lyrics to Little Red’s song about her encounter with the Big Bad Wolf are even more sexually explicit: “And he showed me things, many beautiful things / That I hadn’t thought to explore. / They were off my path, so I never had dared . . . / But he drew me close, and he swallowed me down. / Down a dark slimy path where lie secrets that I never want to know.” Little Red’s song ends in a typically Sondheimian aphorism which demands a bit of a think before the penny drops: “Though scary is exciting, nice is different than good.” Both Red and Jack are exposed to adult notions of ambivalence and sexuality, and both enter the second act still children but now more prepared for the world’s dangers.

The three older protagonists have their woods-generated epiphanies in the second act. Cinderella learns that she is satisfied neither in her horrible childhood home, nor with her charming but shallow Prince. “My father’s house was a nightmare,” she says to the Prince, whom she has discovered philandering. “Your house was a dream. Now I want something in between.” (I have always thought a better line here would be, “Now I want to wake up.”) The Baker’s epiphany comes when he realizes that he can no longer replicate his father’s destructively evasive behavior and must instead embrace his own fatherhood, no matter how much it scares him—a realization that comes in the shattering song “No More” (unforgivably deleted from the 2014 film). And the Baker’s Wife’s epiphany is the most telling of all. After a brief, meaningless woodland fling with the Prince, she realizes that her heart lies with the Baker and that, at some level, the possibilities opened up by the fling (the ability to see the world in terms of “and” instead of “or”) have helped her recommit to her marriage. “Just remembering that you’ve had an ‘and’ when it’s back to ‘or’ / Makes the ‘or’ mean more than it did before. / Now I understand! And it’s time to leave the woods,” she says in my favorite Sondheim lyric.

Few would have guessed when it premiered 35 years ago that Into the Woods would become far and away Sondheim’s most popular work. One reason is that its ensemble structure and fairy tale milieu make it perfect for high schools and community theaters; seemingly every theater kid of the last quarter century has been in a production at one point or another. The characters are relatively easy for kids and nonprofessionals to portray (unlike, say, the middle-aged urban sophisticates in Follies and Company). There’s even an Into the Woods Jr. that is licensed to middle and elementary schools. And while the all-star film that came out in 2014 was relatively popular, the American Playhouse telecast of the original Broadway production, first aired on PBS in 1991, has been even more pervasive, especially in its home video and subsequent streaming and YouTube releases. All to say, a work from a partnership that was once seen as highly eclectic has, improbably but wonderfully, become full-time, mainstream Broadway. In some ways, it’s as central to the repertory as Rodgers and Hammerstein shows were to an earlier era.

Into the Woods was revived on Broadway in 2002, at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park in 2012 and has been seen in countless regional productions. Earlier this year, it closed the 2022 Encores! season at New York City Center in a brief run of performances that electrified the city. For a certain type of musical theater fan, there has been no more wondrous institution over the last quarter century than Encores! Launched in 1994, the series of musicals in concert, three per year and each receiving a week of performances, has brought to life over 80 works with worthy scores that would otherwise never get Broadway-level revivals due to dated or inadequate libretti. Utilizing top-notch performers, a full orchestra, and expert staging and choreography, Encores! has acted as theatrical archeology, digging up and revivifying shows that, for most musical fans, existed only in lore and in vivid photos and descriptions in books by theater historians like Ethan Mordden and Ken Mandelbaum. Sure, there were duds over the years, shows that manifested precisely why they were unrevivable in a commercial context, but even those evenings were instructive. True musical fans relished the chance to collect shows like House of Flowers, St. Louis Woman, Tenderloin, Bloomer Girl—and to understand how they played onstage and not just on inevitably limited cast albums. Those who complained that, say, Babes in Arms, “is not a very good show” were missing the point. The chance to hear Babes in Arms’ immortal Rodgers & Hart score, with full, original orchestrations, sung by A+ talent, and within the context of the original (however inadequate) libretto, was a precious and miraculous gift to New York musical fans.

Into the Woods probably did not belong at Encores! The series has occasionally gone off mission in the past, resurrecting shows that were already alive and well like Bye Bye Birdie and The Pajama Game, perhaps attempting to replicate the massively successful Broadway transfer of the 1996 Encores! Chicago (a revival which is still running as of this writing). Into the Woods was not in need of resuscitation, but if the show’s popularity seemed inimical to the purported Encores! mission of shining a light on lesser-known musical theater gems, few were complaining given the excellence of the production (not to mention the dire quality of the two previous productions in the season). In the usual Encores! fashion, the orchestra, conducted by the superb Rob Berman in his last outing as the series’ music director, was onstage, highlighting its importance in the nexus of storytelling. And the cast was gala: Neil Patrick Harris as the Baker (nicely downplaying his customary snark), composer/performer Sara Bareilles as the Baker’s Wife, Denée Benton as Cinderella, Gavin Creel as the Wolf/Cinderella’s Prince, and Heather Headley in a long-awaited return to the New York stage as the Witch.

Response was ecstatic enough to warrant a Broadway transfer, which opened in July at the St. James Theater with an only slightly modified staging (the orchestra is still onstage), and a somewhat altered cast: Brian D’Arcy James was now the Baker, Phillipa Soo (who created the role of Eliza in Hamilton) took over as Cinderella, and Patina Miller (a Tony winner for the 2013 revival of Pippin) was the Witch. The director of both the Encores! staging and the subsequent Broadway transfer is Lear deBessonet, who made her name as the founder of the Public Theater’s Public Works initiative, which brings community groups together with professionals to create theatrical events. This Into the Woods has the sense of joyous improvisation which has characterized deBessonet’s works for the Public, foregrounding a sense of rough play as opposed to slick production values. If a few moments in her conception are a bit cartoonish, and if she gives some of her performers a bit too much rope, much can be forgiven thanks to her generous embrace of both high spirits and emotional verity.

The cast for the Broadway revival is, on balance, as good as that of the Encores! production, and here again we note the increasingly acknowledged classic status—and resilience—of Sondheim’s work. Rather than being reliant on their original brilliant casts and stagings, as might have been predicted in the 1970s and ’80s, his works happily welcome new and varied interpreters. D’Arcy James has a much more earnest, adult presence than Harris, and a stronger voice; indeed, his lush baritone is probably the best ever heard in this role, verging on over-qualification. But he channels his rich sound into a profoundly sensitive performance, ripping open his heart in the emotional moments deep in the second act. Miller is a major talent, if perhaps one tiny step less glamorous than Headley. Both veered a bit too broadly into camp for my taste, particularly in the moments when the Witch revels in her new-found beauty at the end of the first act. Both actresses unnecessarily played up to the audience, ignoring the lessons of Bernadette Peters, in the original Broadway production, who always smartly held something back. Soo is lovely and sincere, bringing real emotional gravitas to the least well-rounded of the central characters.

Of the holdover cast members, Creel is a standout, glib and funny as a Prince who, by his own admission, was “raised to be charming, not sincere.” Julia Lester is a scream as Little Red, ravenous, blunt, needy and, ultimately, a good egg. Cole Thompson is a charming Jack, and Kennedy Kanagawa steals scenes as the expressive puppeteer enacting Jack’s doleful cow, Milky White. In the most sympathetic role in the show, Bareilles is a small miracle. No one will ever match the original cast’s Joanna Gleason, who embodied the seemingly contradictory qualities of dryness and warmth. The role was created on Gleason, and no one I’ve seen since has come close. But Bareilles comes closest. She’s more plainly game and eager than Gleason, who always seemed to have one foot tantalizingly on its way out of the theater. And she’s marvelously heartfelt, with a mellow vocal approach that reinvents the Baker’s Wife’s music in her own folk-inflected manner. In smaller roles, the venerable Annie Golden is a feisty Grandmother, David Patrick Kelly a solid Narrator/Mysterious Man, Nancy Opel a sardonic evil Stepmother, and Joshua Henry, usually a Broadway headliner, slums entertainingly in the small role of Rapunzel’s Prince.

In this glorified concert performance, designer David Rockwell doesn’t provide much in terms of sets, so the visual burden falls more on Andrea Hood’s fine costumes and Tyler Micoleau’s lighting. The strongest technical contribution is made, however, by Scott Lehrer and Alex Neumann, the outstanding sound designers. More than any writer, Sondheim demands utter precision when it comes to comprehending his lyrics, and this Into the Woods allows you to hear every word with clarity. There was a time when wags made fun of Sondheim’s verbosity: the Forbidden Broadway parody of this show was dubbed “Into the Words” (with Little Red singing, “I sort of hate to ask it, but what’s a rhyme for basket?”). That time has disappeared, along with the rap that Sondheim was a heartless pedant.

In her sensational new memoir, Shy, composer Mary Rodgers recalls seeing a 15-year-old Sondheim in helpless tears after the opening night of Carousel in 1945. The show had struck a profound chord in the young man, one that he perhaps chased throughout his artistic life as he strove to reconcile his radical ambitions and his intellectual distrust of sentimentality with his desire to engage and move his audiences. It took several decades for audiences to catch up with this project, and a wholesale reevaluation of his work, wrought through shifts in his creative profile, and increased familiarity and shifting cultural contexts. Now, the consensus opinion is that Sondheim speaks directly to the heart. As I cried through the second act of this Into the Woods revival, brought powerfully close to its depictions of imperfect fathers and absent loved ones, makeshift families and unexpected kindnesses, I found myself thinking that Sondheim had succeeded in striking that chord struck at Carousel’s opening beyond even his own imagining.