THE SONDHEIM REVIEW Presents - Sondheim 101: Into the Woods at 25
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Once upon a time ...
Sondheim 101: Into the Woods at 25
BY RUSSELL M. DEMBIN
After Sunday in the Park with George, it would have been difficult to predict that the next show to come from the pen of composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim would be based on fairy tales - Sondheim and James Lapine's Into the Woods, which on Nov. 5, 2012, celebrates the 25th anniversary of its Broadway debut. Following the substantial artistic achievement of Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler's Sweeney Todd in 1979, the 1980s began with Sondhem and George Furth's surprisingly unsuccessful Merrily We Roll Along in 1981. Sondheim dissolved his longstanding partnership with producer/director Harold Prince and began what he considers the more creatively fulfilling half of his career.
Sondheim notes in Look, I Made a Hat that he was devastated "after the joyful public slaughter of Merrily We Roll Along. Then I met James Lapine ..." That first show with director/librettist Lapine, Sunday, changed Sondheim's professional life: After he began collaborating with Lapine, he observes, "I found myself writing with more formal looseness than I had before. ... Even more noticeable was the effect of my new partnership on the tone of the work." Sondheim points out that "a current of vulnerability, of longing, informs" this portion of his career more than his earlier work. To go from Merrily to the Pulitzer Prize-winning Sunday was indeed a dramatic transition, and there was a similarly profound contrast between Sunday and Sondheim's next new musical.
Sondheim and Lapine wanted to write a show that would be, in Lapine's words, "fun and nonintellectual, yet packed a punch." After creating a play that was based on the high art of Georges Seurat, Lapine and Sondheim found inspiration in an art form that is more universal and less cerebral than 19th-century pointillism: fairy tales. Whereas the average person might have only a passing familiarity with "A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte - 1884," nearly everyone in the Western world, regardless of age, has encountered the stories on which Sondheim and Lapine based Into the Woods: "Cinderella," "Jack and the Beanstalk," "Little Red Riding Hood" and "Rapunzel."
The idea of contrast, exhibited in the difference in subject matter between Sunday and Woods, and that of coming together, displayed in the convention of synthesizing several different stories, are both mirrored stylistically and thematically in the latter musical. Rather than base his retellings on the simplified Disney adaptations, Lapine opted for the more complex versions collected by the Brothers Grimm. For instance, the description of Cinderella's stepmother and stepsisters as "beautiful of face, but vile and black of heart" comes directly from the Grimms.
The distinction between the way people look and who they are internally was a key element of Lapine's interpretation. Bernadette Peters, who played the Witch in the original Broadway cast, recounts the way Lapine viewed her character: "What was interesting and very helpful to me in the way James approached the Witch was that he didn't think of her as being ugly, and then beautiful - what we discovered is that even though she gets her beauty back, she's still the same miserable person she was when she was ugly. James was interested in what was going on with her inside."
The notion of a disparity between one's looks and one's true nature manifests itself in Sondheim's lyrics as well. After the Wolf eats Little Red Riding Hood and her Grandmother, and the Baker sets them free by cutting open the Wolf's stomach, Little Red ruminates in "I Know Things Now" that the Wolf "seemed so nice" and concludes, "Nice is different than good." This quality of juxtaposition also appears in the score: As Martin Gottfried indicates in his book Sondheim, the simple melody in Cinderella's "On the Steps of the Palace," for example, complements the song's intricate wordplay.
Woods even contrasts the sense of antithesis itself, since the theme of creating unity is equally prevalent. The most apparent way that Sondheim and Lapine established the concept of bringing together unrelated entities was by intertwining the various tales, which the writers achieved through the fabrication of a new story, "The Baker and His Wife," the origin of which was the need for a device that would cause the characters continually to cross paths. The result is that the Baker and his Wife's quest, born out of an ambition that might be viewed as a desire to realize the American dream, connects the other stories. This original tale also enabled the show to marry seemingly opposite styles. Lapine infused the 19th-century Grimm fairy tales with a contemporary sensibility, and he accomplished the conflation of time primarily with the Baker and his Wife, whose uniquely modern and American qualities set them apart from the traditional European stories that comprise the majority of the play. In Lapine's words, "I think of the Baker and his Wife as an ordinary rooted couple from Brooklyn who get drawn into a magic world and get stuck there."
Joanna Gleason, the Baker's Wife in the 1987 Broadway staging, adds, "What I had in mind, and what I was encouraged to do, was to take a rhythmically contemporary attack on the material, combined with a stylized approach to what is in effect a classical setting." The musical's air of contemporaneity might be responsible for the claim that the Giant, who seeks revenge for her husband's murder by killing other characters in the show, is a metaphor for the 1980s AIDS epidemic and the criticism that Woods treats women unfavorably. Gleason's reaction to such arguments is that they aren't necessarily helpful:
There's no denying that what you are thinking about is going to affect what you see onstage, but I choose not to underscore these issues because I do not think it was the intent of the writers, nor is it useful to me as a performer. I prefer to use the literary and historical sources the writers worked with to develop the piece, the patterns of behavior that occur over and over again in the fairy tales themselves: fathers are historically weak or absent, mothers die and fathers abandon you.
Sondheim responds to the AIDS assertion by stating that "if the Giant represented anything, it wouldn't be AIDS. The Giant is not a natural phenomenon but a force roused to vengeance by greed, prevarication and irresponsibility." The ideas that Sondheim lists point to the two main impetuses for the simultaneous presence of contrast and synthesis in Woods. The first force behind the use of the two techniques is the type of modern psychology that Lapine and Sondheim chose as the foundation for the musical. After Sondheim and Lapine discussed folktales with a Jungian psychotherapist and read analyses like Bruno Bettelheim's The Uses of Enchantment, the authors felt that the best frame would be, as Sondheim recalls, "Carl Jung's theory that fairy tales are an indication of the collective unconscious."
As opposed to Bettelheim's view of fairy stories as individual fulfillment, Lapine remarks, "It seems to me that the real world is about being part of a whole, whereas in the fairy tale world, you are the whole and what makes up the stories are your varied parts," and so he wrote the script using what he terms "an anti-Bettelheim approach." What followed was a show in which the characters act individually, yet they always belong to something greater. The other motivation for including both uniting and dividing techniques grows out of the first, and this second important theme is the notion that, as Sondheim explains, "the show is about community responsibility ... you just can't go and chop down trees and tease princes and pretend that beans are worth more than they are. Everybody has to pay for that. So they all have to get together and get rid of the giantess."
In the truest spirit of adhering to the maxim "Content Dictates Form," Sondheim's score reflects the idea of individuals being part of a larger entity, as many of the numbers are actually snippets of songs that are interwoven or they are musical scenes that fuse singing and dialogue. Jonathan Tunick's orchestrations further highlight the concept of separate pieces belonging to a greater whole. As Tunick comments, "My orchestral score for [Woods] is, strictly speaking, not an orchestra at all, but a chamber ensemble. There are 15 players, and unlike an orchestra in which groups of musicians play the same part in unison, every part is a solo part; the musicians are able to be heard as individual artists on their own." Moreover, Sondheim states that he "intended the score to sound like [Stravinsky's] L'Histoire du Soldat (which is indeed a chamber piece for soloists) as written for Disney."
Keeping in line with the theme of bringing people together, Into the Woods has been constantly attracting audiences since it opened on Broadway at the Martin Beck Theatre (now the Al Hirschfeld) on Nov. 5, 1987. The original staging ran for 765 performances; it was nominated for 10 Tony Awards, receiving the prizes for best book of a musical, best original score and best actress in a musical (Gleason). Other notable productions include the musical's London debut (1990), London's Donmar Warehouse (1998), Lapine's Broadway revival (2002), the Regent's Park Open Air Theatre in London (2010) and the Public Theater's New York Shakespeare Festival in Central Park (2012). There was a PBS American Playhouse television adaptation that was broadcast in 1991; a Jim Henson film was planned, but never executed; and Lapine is currently writing the screenplay for a Disney movie version to be directed by Rob Marshall.
The numerous celebrated incarnations of Sondheim and Lapine's musical serve as a testament to its ongoing popularity. Perhaps it is because the score is, as Sondheim calls it, "very simple in the sense of diatonic and 'up' - bouncy, bubbly," in addition to the show's familiar material and linear structure, that Woods is frequently considered his most "accessible" play. Counting stagings of the full musical and Music Theatre International's "Junior" abridgment, there are sometimes more productions of Woods at any given moment than the rest of Sondheim's shows put together, and, according to MTI, Woods ranks among the company's most produced titles. Sondheim says that, while writing Woods, he boldly prophesied that the musical would be successful for years to come. He couldn't have known how right he was. |TSR|
RUSSELL M. DEMBIN is a theater educator and freelance dramaturg. Formerly based in New York City, he is pursuing his Ph.D. in theater at the University of Texas at Austin.
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