Throwing Out My CDs by Ben Rimalower: INTO THE WOODS
Well, my little piggies and wolves, the next CDs I'm eliminating from my apartment are all the recordings of all the versions of Into The Woods. I'm talking London cast, movie version, Broadway revival and ouch, the one that's gonna leave a gaping hole in my heart, that beautiful Original Broadway Cast Recording starring Joanna Gleason, Chip Zien, Tom Aldredge, Robert Westenberg and above them all as the Witch (receiving the deal-breaking top billing the producers previously refused Patti LuPone when they offered her the role) Bernadette Peters.
As the sands of time pile on and that Sondheim train gets closer and closer to leaving the station for good, Into The Woods is increasingly cemented as one of his major works. When it opened, Frank Rich judged it harshly in The New York Times, drawing negative comparisons to dramaturgically superior Sondheim shows like Gypsy, Sweeney Todd and A Little Night Music. But then, a couple generations of theater lovers grew up on American Playhouse's excellent video of the Broadway production of Into The Woods and perhaps found the high def Danielle Ferland and Chip Zien more relatable than scratchy Tony Awards clips of Dorothy Collins and Len Cariou in the master's earlier works.
And call it shifting cultural tastes or the dumbing down of America, but the platitudes and proselytizing of Into The Woods don't seem to rub people so wrong if they were born after 1967. If you forgive Into The Woods those trespasses, then the familiar fairy tale characters offer an easier entree into Sondheim's thicket of rhymes and subtext than say, for example, Joanne in Company. Into The Woods is really Sondheim's most populist work and I think ultimately will prove to be his most popular.
Revisiting the score now, I'm struck by how strangely foreign the original cast recording feels to me. If you'd asked me a week ago, I would've proudly boasted I know that album backwards and forwards. But what's becoming obvious to me now is that whatever initial relationship I had with this CD (one of those strange psych out single discs in a double disc box... #1988problems), it was ultimately video that I memorized. Of course, for all intents and purposes, that's the same thing. They feature the exact same casts (except for the replacement of the actress in the bit part of Snow White).
It's an incredible gift to have this complete, permanent video record, this beautifully shot television production (notably directed for the screen by James Lapine, as opposed to the previous Sondheim/Lapine collaboration also captured for PBS, Sunday in the Park with George, which broadcast was helmed by frequent television director Terry Hughes).
But it does make for a strange experience returning to the cast album. The American Playhouse video is forever emblazoned in my memory and I have to readjust to even minute differences in nuance on the cast album. As Bernadette lists the things she "could've turned him into," my nostalgic reverie is interrupted by a tiny giggle she adds to the end of the word "stone." More significantly I'm reminded of the sections of the score that were cut after the cast album had been recorded. For example, this lovely longer version of the Baker's Wife and Cinderella's duet, "A Very Nice Prince," in which the Baker's Wife fantasizes about the Prince using the very music and lyrics he will soon use to describe himself in "Agony."
Is he sensitive,
As kind as he's handsome,
As wise as he's rich,
Is he everything you've ever wanted?
Another bit on the cast album that was cut before the videotaping is the longer version of the "Witch's Lament," which originally included a fuller reprise of "Stay With Me."
Now you know what's out there in the world.
No one can prepare you for the world,
How could I, who loved you as you were?
How could I have shielded you from her
Holy crap! Now you're getting crazy, cutting Bernadette's solos. That "how could I" part is some primo Broadway diva belting and emoting. Did anyone really think the show simply had enough of the Witch singing? Sorry, guys, but if you're putting on Into The Woods and you've had enough of the Witch singing, then you need to recast the Witch. Or like fire yourself as producer because you have no taste. I'm all for making shows shorter. Hell, my own solo plays are a tight 55 minutes each. You want to tighten up Into The Woods? How about cutting one of the three inspirational power ballads in a row in that slow down the last 20 minutes of the show when we're all ready to go home. Pro tip: don't cut the one Bernadette sings.
Anyway, the one drawback to having this fantastic original cast video is the deep, dark shadow it casts on any and all future productions. Cast albums are bad enough. The history of musical theater is littered with tales of revival and replacement casts not living up to the song performances fans "stan" on the recordings. (Did I use stan correctly, children?)
In the case of Into The Woods, however, you've got anyone who's ever seen the video (and at this point, that's pretty much anyone who cares about Broadway even a little bit) comparing new renditions of the libretto, the dialogue, the mother loving book. You know what I mean. You thought Kerry O'Malley was really good as the Baker's Wife in the Broadway revival, but you didn't like the way she said, "I pulled it from a maiden in a tower." Or Amy Adams's lovely singing surprised you in the Shakespeare in the Park production, but you found her too cloying on the line, "You forgot your slippers." What was your problem with them? Don't know? Just missing something?
What you're missing is Joanna Gleason. Joanna Gleason became Broadway royalty with her indelible performance as the Baker's Wife and we all know every one of her delicious line readings by heart. It doesn't even matter that she could barely sing. Her vocals were fine, they were adequate, they were nice enough. You want vocals, listen to Bernadette's tracks, or Cinderella's or any one of the other excellent Broadway actor-singers employed in this large, talented ensemble cast. Joanna delivered. And what she delivered that was so special was a level of specificity and authenticity in each moment beyond the range of acting usually found in musical theater. And then we all memorized her performance.
What can any woman cast in the role nowadays do? Joanna offered the best choice for each moment. If they do it the same as her--and even if they somehow manage magically to be just as good, they'll still only seem like a copy. And as we've seen, going in a different direction doesn't work as well. Even having a better voice winds up hurting these poor journeyman actresses. Kerry O'Malley belted the end of "Maybe They're Magic" in a full throttle chest voice mix worthy of Patti and Bernadette and the rest of the best. Doesn't matter. I find myself missing the charactery way Joanna went into her falsetto "Glenn Close style" to hit the notes.
My dream cast for a new production would be Audra McDonald. She's a terrific actor, obviously, and more importantly, a totally unique one who makes every moment her own. Yes, she has a glorious voice (obviously), but she's not a belter, so when she goes up into her soprano range at the end "Maybe They're Magic," it won't be like some coloratura showoff Kristin Chenoweth thing. It'll just be "Oh, what? This old E??? I'm sorry it's not belted... I'm not fancy like Idina." Audra will simply sing the role beautifully and effortlessly---come on, guys, don't you want Sondheim sung beautifully and effortlessly? I could also see someone fun like Mary Louise Parker or Kristen Wiig working well--if they could sing it. Which I doubt they can. So, let's go with Audra. But tick tock.
Strangely, I'm a big fan of Emily Blunt as the Baker's Wife in the movie and on the movie soundtrack. Now she's a far cry from Joanna Gleason. The sort of New York anachronistic Sondheim style that Joanna Gleason and Chip Zien so exemplified in the original is vital in connecting the live theater audience to the world of these familiar fairytale characters. The Baker's Wife and her husband (see what I did?) are people like us who have been thrust in the midst of all this insanity. The movie is a totally different animal and for me, it works to have the central couple played more realistically, more confined to the world of their reality and not expansively presenting the story to the audience full of schtick. Emily Blunt doesn't get any laughs as the Baker's Wife, but she gets my heart and that is what sustains me through to the end of the story. And she sings great too. Not for nothing, I also love her in Mary Poppins and now I can't help but wish we'd seen a Poppins-era Julie Andrews take on the Baker's Wife.
Circling back to the Witch, I relistened to the entire 2002 revival cast recording waiting to hate Vanessa Williams. Don't get me wrong, I'm actually a big Vanessa Williams fan. Her performances on "Ugly Betty" and "Desperate Housewives" are the best TV villainess work since Joan Collins on "Dynasty." And Vanessa is more than that because she's seriously likable and funny. And I loved her in Sondheim on Sondheim and Hey, Look Me Over! And she's clearly a world class vocalist. But I remember hating her in Into The Woods. So revisiting the album now, I tried to hate her in the opening rap, but I couldn't do it; she makes it her own and is genuinely fun. I tried to hate her in "Stay With Me" and "Lament," but she's really moving and she sounds gorgeous. I was all set and ready to harsh on her for transposing Julia McKenzie's high soprano notes in "Our Little World," but I still loved it. The only time Vanessa fell short for me was in "The Last Midnight."
She's not a threatening presence in that heavyweight classical theatrical manner you really want from a Witch (i.e. Donna Murphy or Julia McKenzie). In Vanessa's defense, she had to sing the inferior Last Midnight rewrite (addressed to the Baker's baby), which I was then sooo relieved to see not used in the movie.
Speaking of the movie, it's odd what translates to an audio recording divorced from the film. I'm not just talking about the strange ambient sound effects of doors closing and feet shuffling. I lived for every moment of Meryl Streep's performance as the Witch on screen, but on the album, at the beginning, she's just meh. Listen to her Greens rap in the opening, it's like she's whispering the damn thing. Of course, Bernadette's Borscht Belt comedy routine ("you should see my nectarines") wouldn't play on film for this moment. It's just interesting that Meryl's wholly appropriate choice flops without the visual. One you get to Meryl's later tracks, however, she soars.
Anna Kendrick as Cinderella does too. As the quirky, nerdy, but also beautiful Cinderella, she's dream casting. Still, she can't touch Shakespeare in the Park's Jessie Mueller, I think she was might have been my favorite. Is anyone a better singer and actor than Jessie Mueller? No, no, wait. In the 2002 revival and everywhere else, Laura Benanti is a star and every line she speaks sparkles with charisma, uniqueness, nerve and talent. Plus, Laura's voice is like the Hope Diamond, or what's the crystal that's better than Waterford? Fun fact: For the 2002 Drama Desk Awards, Laura Benanti was nominated for Leading Actress in a Musical as Cinderella while Kerry O'Malley got the Featured nod as the Baker's Wife. STARRRRRR, HONEY!
Oh, I'm sorry did you say you wanted a star? How about Jacqi Dankworth in London? She's Cleo Laine's daughter for crying out loud. (Cute story: Cleo, fresh on the heels of her triumph in The Mystery of Edwin Drood, headlined as the Witch on the first US national tour.) But hold on, hold on, has anyone really done anything with Cinderella that Kim Crosby didn't already do perfectly in the original production? Why haven't we heard more from her? There was a smart, funny, actress with a pretty face and a pretty voice and she could have played all the parts all these years. But I digress. Anna Kendrick was the right choice at the right time for the film.
I must say I'm a big fan of the movie in general. Except for the handling of the Wolf. I don't know what Rob Marshall should've done. A man in a realistic wolf costume would've been weird and a CGI wolf would've been out of place. Yeah, I got nothing. But this bizarre Johnny Depp in a zoot suit with a tail thing is horrendous. Is he supposed to be a creepy human man with a wolf fetish? IS HE A FURRY???
Whatever the hell they were going for, the movie only barely recovers from it, despite otherwise pretty impressive work across the board. Nonetheless, on the album, Johnny is fine, good even. It's not Robert Westenberg's reedy baritenor operetta option ups, but it works. It's actually closer to the way Sondheim has said he envisions a guy casually leaning on a tree, "Hullo, little girl." Go figure. Anyway, I like the movie and I think it will probably be the most enduring piece of Sondheim's legacy.
If Into The Woods is Sondheim's most popularly appealing show, then "Giants in the Sky" is probably the heart of the reason why. It's so melodic and searing at its most soaring (soaring at its most searing??). The message is remarkably simple, necessarily so because Jack is far from intellectual. What we get then is the most direct and open-hearted expression of a statement that could apply to any of the characters in the show. "Giants in the Sky" serves as an emotional centerpiece for the audience's investment in the whole show. Some beautiful voices have sung the role. (I was particularly partial to Gideon Glick's glorious rendition in the Shakespeare in the Park production.) Nonetheless, the best version was Daniel Huttlestone in the movie. A real little boy going up what looked like a real beanstalk--the real beanstalk--drove the point home the hardest. When he sang, "The roof, the house and your mother at the door. The roof, the house and the world you never thought to explore," the parts of Into The Woods that are fantasy suddenly seemed far less significant than the parts that are real.
Ugh, now I'm crying. All these Into The Woodses are going out in the bin. I've got it all uploaded now, but to be honest, I'll probably still just watch the video.