From Bernadette to Meryl – We Compare 4 Major Recordings of Into the Woods

On the Record   From Bernadette to Meryl – We Compare 4 Major Recordings of Into the Woods We go back Into the Woods to compare and contrast four major recordings of the Stephen Sondheim-James Lapine fairytale musical. Which one should you own?
Film soundtrack cover art
Film soundtrack cover art

Into the Woods was something of a nervous hit when it opened in 1987 at the Martin Beck (now Hirschfeld). The fairy-tale setting made it sound like something of a kid's show; but the presence of Sondheim (who was not known for child-friendly fare) and reports of the story's dark side (and the killing off of main characters) made it clear that this wasn't another Annie. As for adult audiences, Sondheim fans were naturally attracted. A considerable segment of the Broadway audience, though, still felt that Sondheim was writing over their head. (It will be recalled that the Tony voters bypassed the 1984 Sunday in the Park with George by giving the Best Musical award to La Cage aux Folles and the Best Score prize to Jerry Herman. Misguided, to me, but understandable; La Cage was a smash hit, Sunday was not, and most of the voters clearly preferred what in retrospect is the lesser show and lesser score.)

Sondheim and Lapine did better at the Tonys on their second outing: they won individual awards for score and book, although the Best Musical prize was again taken by the year's smash hit musical — a show so popular that it has run almost 15 times as long as Into the Woods, and counting. It is foolhardy to compare The Phantom of the Opera with Into the Woods — or Phantom with anything, really; but the Sondheim show struggled through a run of 764 performances, averaging around $300,000 a week in a house scaled to about $400,000. (A look at the grosses shows that they topped $375,000 in only five of 101 weeks.)

The show's worth has become more apparent over time. Into the Woods attracted audiences on its 1988 National Tour, and gained many fans from a mostly-original cast filming of the New York production which was belatedly telecast as part of the American Playhouse series on PBS in 1991. The videotape release of this version seems to have pushed Into the Woods, by the late 1990s, from the edgily esoteric to the family friendly. (Part of this might have to do with television habits of increasingly less-sheltered youth.) The other major factor seems to have been the schools; Into the Woods is said to be one of the most popular titles in the amateur licensing field. (When I was growing up, every school was doing Bye Bye Birdie and Oliver!) This can be ascribed not only to the excellence and intelligence of Into the Woods; my guess is that the drama and music teachers of the last decades are of the generation that discovered the show — and musical theatre in general, and Sondheim specifically — through the video.

When Into the Woods opened in 1987, there had only been one Broadway revival of a Sondheim-composed musical: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, the original 1962 production of which remains the only Sondheim production or revival to hit the two-year mark (including all those West Side Storys and Gypsys). Since Into the Woods closed, there have been 17 — along with multiple non-Broadway revivals, including a new Into the Woods now in previews at the Laura Pels. (This compares, as an example, with only eight Rodgers and Hammerstein revivals in the same period.) So Sondheim has indeed achieved a deserved popularity on Broadway, which was not yet the case when his last new Broadway musical thus far — Passion — opened in 1994.

Original Cast Album cover art
Original Cast Album cover art

All of this takes us to the three English-language cast recordings. (There is also a 2008 recording of the Barcelona production Boscos Endins, in Catalan.) Try as I might, I remain a traditionalist; the original original cast album is for me, in almost all cases, the prime document of what the show is supposed to sound like. There are several main reasons for this, beginning with the presence (in most cases) of the composer and lyricist in the rehearsal room, at the tryouts and previews, and in the recording studio itself. The songwriters, the original conductor, and the orchestrator know what the performances should be; when you have a perfectionist composer with the clout to keep things going until they are right, i.e. Mr. Sondheim, the recording is going to be right. But that's only part of the reason I look to the original Broadway cast album; the other side of it is (usually) the cast. They learned the show in the rehearsal room and refined it during tryouts and previews — with notes and instructions from the authors and director. What's more, the roles are to some extent written on them. That is to say, the script and songs that you go into rehearsal with are constantly revised as the authors themselves "learn" the show; material is occasionally fitted to the actors' capabilities, especially with difficult or not-quite-capable stars; and songs are indeed written late in the process, when the songwriters have the actor's voice and characterization as models. (A well-known example: Sondheim wrote "A Weekend in the Country" in A Little Night Music while deep in rehearsal, with a guiding vision of not only the performers but the scenery and intended staging.)

Cast members of London productions and revivals also have a full rehearsal period, sometimes with the original creators in attendance. They are handed a more or less "finished" script to perform, though, without going through the process of daily rewrites. They often give excellent performances, but they don't "live" with the characters the way that original cast members do. Studio cast performers have even less of a chance of giving definitive performances, as they haven't had the opportunity of playing the role dozens of times before a live audience.

This leaves most secondary cast albums at a disadvantage — especially when dealing with Sondheim, who lavishes personal attention on that first recording. I was unwaveringly devoted to all of them until the release of the original London cast album of A Little Night Music; not better than the Broadway album, but arrestingly different in a constructive way and a viable listening experience. This also turned out to be the case with Into the Woods.

London cast album cover art
London cast album cover art

By 1991, when the cast recording of the 1990 London production was released, all proper Sondheim fans were already happily immersed in the excellent 1988 Broadway album. (Both RCA recordings remain available, now on Masterworks Broadway.) The original takes us through Sondheim's intricate score, allowing us to discover said intricacies. Any number of musical themes are repeated and repurposed to grand effect; but if a first-time viewer is concentrating on this, they are missing the show. The recording also showed the full scope of Jonathan Tunick's commanding orchestrations. (As with virtually all Sondheim shows, the arrangements — i.e. the notes we hear, not only from the orchestra but the singers as well — are meticulously mapped out by the composer. The orchestrator takes the precise musical notes and determines which instruments — or combination of instruments — will most effectively express Sondheim's arrangements to the audience.)

Then came London. The Sondheim musicals which transferred to the West End — West Side Story, A Funny Thing, Company, A Little Night Music, Sweeney Todd — had been close reproductions of the original direction, choreography and physical productions. The London producers of Into the Woods, though, saw fit to devise an all-new show, with direction by British opera director Richard Jones instead of Lapine. I did not see this production, but word was that this new Into the Woods was relevatory. (Michael David, executive producer of the New York production, apparently agreed; he hired Jones to direct the massive Titanic.)

Listening to the London cast album, I was immediately struck by the Narrator who opened the proceedings, Nicholas Parsons. (I must confess to not believing Tom Aldredge, who played the role on Broadway; maybe I was simply too familiar with his work, but I felt like he was "acting" a little old man.) The bravura 12-minute prologue ("Into the Woods") proceeded with surprises; while the actors were different, and sported British accents, I found myself quickly acclimated. Eighteen minutes in, the Witch started singing "Our Little World," which sounded so much part of the fabric of the piece that it took a moment to realize that this was a new song. New, yes, but not an extraneous add-on; it is one of the musical keys to the score, with mother (The Witch) and daughter (Rapunzel) agreeing that their little world is perfect. The Witch, though, suggests that parents keep children locked away, to keep things perfect: "Children need protection just the way they need affection, or they wonder and they wander and they run from your little world." Thus, the London Woods reveals an important new aspect of the show, which plays out through the recording.

The other major asset of the recording is the strong cast, led by Julia McKenzie as the Witch. This role was problematic for me in the New York production; I felt like this was an ensemble character awkwardly shifted into the leading lady when Bernadette Peters signed on after the problematic tryout at the Old Globe in San Diego. As such, the character was glamorized in the second act. "Oh," I remember thinking when the second act rolled around on my first visit at the Beck, "here comes Bernadette." (The Witch was always part of the show, but the "big" songs — "Stay with Me," "The Lament," "The Last Midnight" and "Children Will Listen" — seem to have been added with Peters.) While I did not see McKenzie's performance, there is no such problem on the London CD; this might in part be due to "Our Little World," which gives us a more complex and human Witch.

Members of the original producing team brought the show back to Broadway in 2002. Librettist Lapine directed once more, although with a thoroughly new and different production. The revival won a Tony Award this time around, but it only managed an eight-month run. I found myself in a rather unusual state; I felt that this Woods was not quite as good as the original Broadway production, but at the same time found it considerably more enjoyable. (I dutifully returned for a second performance and had the same reaction.)

Broadway revival cast album cover art
Broadway revival cast album cover art

The cast album, too (from Nonesuch) is in many places as pleasurable as the others. So it takes three — a sly reference to one of the most charming songs, "It Takes Two" — to get the best Into the Woods listening experience. The music department and Tunick's orchestrations sound equally good on all three, with music direction from Paul Gemignani on the first and last and Peter Stanger on the second. Part of what makes this tri-part preference is the preferred performers, who are spread among the three casts.

The highlight of the original Broadway production, for me, was the performance of Joanna Gleason as The Baker's Wife. Her singing, her acting, and especially her warmth triumphed over any flaws in the show, and I don't foresee anyone approximating that magic. Chip Zien, as the original Baker, didn't stand out as much — again, due to the way the role was written — but he was key to the success of the show. Danielle Ferland, as Little Red (with the Riding Hood), gave one of the tastiest performances you'd want to see, while Ben Wright brought youthful freshness and believability to the role of Jack (with the Beanstalk).

London gives us the preferred Witch, in Ms. McKenzie. As previously mentioned, Parsons is an improvement as the Narrator; Imelda Staunton — soon to begin previews at the Savoy in London as Rose in Gypsy, in a transfer from the Chichester Festival Theatre — makes a fine Baker's Wife, and Jacqueline Dankworth is an admirable Cinderella. The Broadway revival cast is marked by the best of the Cinderellas, a delightful Laura Benanti. Also standing out are Marylouise Burke as Jack's Mother, and John McMartin as the most successful of the Narrators. The recording is (and the revival was) marred for me by the weakest Witch, Vanessa Williams, whom I didn't believe for a second. One asset of the revival, though not on the recording, was the cow Milky-White — which in the other productions was a prop. Here it was a young actor named Chad Kimball, who made a lot out of nothing — it was a non-written part, after all — and who broke through to leading man status seven years later in Memphis.

Bernadette Peters in <i>Into the Woods</i>
Bernadette Peters in Into the Woods

For those who don't own the cast album and are only going to buy one, I guess I would revert to my standard recommendation of the original Broadway cast album. Although the new film will no doubt be seen and heard by a far vaster audience, who'll just want the soundtrack album. In ordinary circumstances, you might expect this to be a considerably diluted affair; listen to the soundtracks of Sweeney Todd or A Funny Thing, for example, and you don't quite get the score as Sondheim wrote it.

The original soundtrack album of "Into the Woods" (from Disney), though, proves to be the exception. Director Rob Marshall decided to keep "Into the Woods" relatively intact. There are several songs missing — "No More," "Ever After," the reprise of "Agony" — but that is beside the point; a film has different needs, and a shorter running time, and I daresay that audience members who are not steeped in Sondheim will not likely feel that anything is missing.

More importantly, audience members who are not steeped in Sondheim might be likely to be think, "this songwriter is good." Which, in the course of things, is something. Because the songs are good, and sound good. The folks at Disney appear to have decided to give us instead of a standard Disney-ized musical — the full Into the Woods experience, rather than just borrowing the story and occasional songs.

Most crucially, they have started with the aforementioned music men — Jonathan Tunick and Paul Gemignani — and appear to have given them everything they've asked for. Thus, we get a greatly expanded orchestration with far, far more players than you could ever have for a stage production. Tunick retains much of what was there before, but the added strings and winds allow it to soar symphonically. Gemignani has take a diverse cast — most without musical theatre experience — and gotten fine singing performances from just about all.

Working alongside them is David Krane, one of Broadway's veteran dance arrangers whose long list of credits include working with Marshall on Kiss of the Spider Woman and the Roundabout Cabaret — not to mention the 1977 Broadway revival of Kurt Weill's Happy End, starring newcomer Meryl Streep. The soundtrack album is loaded with numerous swaths of incidental music, all glorious and sounding like pure Sondheim. The composer, of course, deserves full credit for his score and everything about it; but he is excellently served by Krane as well as longtime associates Tunick and Gemignani. If non-theatregoers of the world are to know Sondheim only from the movies, this is the way to go.

The aforementioned cast is led by Ms. Streep, and I don't suppose that any of us who have been watching her since her early days on Broadway will be surprised in the least by her performance as the Witch. Of course she can do it as well as anyone you can imagine. The recording features delightful performances from Anna Kendrick (as Cinderella), Emily Blunt (as the Baker's Wife), James Corden (as the Baker), Lilla Crawford (of the recent Broadway Annie, as Red Riding Hood), Daniel Huttlestone (a teenager, finally, playing Jack), and Tracey Ullman (as Jack's Mother). Not to mention Christine Baranski as that evil old stepmother.

So while the three original cast albums of Sondheim's most successful later musical each have their advantages, the new soundtrack album definitely belongs on your Sondheim shelf.

This article was originally published Dec. 28, 2014.

(Steven Suskin is author of "Show Tunes," “The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations,” “Second Act Trouble,” the “Opening Night on Broadway” books, and "The Book of Mormon: The Testament of a Broadway Musical." He also writes the Aisle View blog at The Huffington Post. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com.)

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