I have a confession to make. I have never liked Into the Woods’ original Broadway cast album.
Now, you’re a Playbill reader, so you likely know how dangerous such statements can be. So let me add some context. I love Stephen Sondheim—I can talk about his musicals endlessly, as any of my friends and colleagues can tell you emphatically. And most importantly, Into the Woods—and specifically its original Broadway cast—was seminal to my development as a devout theatre nerd.
Like many theatre kids of my generation, the PBS filmed stage performance of the original Broadway production was life-changing, genuinely. I had been a fan of the big British mega-musicals like Phantom and Les Misérables since I was a kid—those were my entrée into musical theatre. Then they released that stage film of Cats, and the very idea of a stage musical being available for me to watch from my house, on my TV in the suburbs of Dallas, Texas, really blew my mind.
I hopped on the then-somewhat nascent internet to find out if that had ever happened before, and quickly came across Into the Woods. One holiday wishlist later and a VHS copy was my new prized possession. It opened my mind to an entirely different type of musical, one less reliant on soaring melodies and impressive sets and more focused on complex and nuanced storytelling. It’s no surprise that Into the Woods is the Sondheim gateway drug for so many. It’s not just artfully put together; it’s also funny, surprising, edgy, and fabulous (Bernadette Peters! In capes! And sparkly hair pieces!). The plot, a mash-up of Grimms’ fairy tales told with a more modern and introspective lens, is immediately accessible to people of all ages. It’s also why you regularly find the show on the list of most-produced high school musicals, which couldn’t have been what Sondheim and book writer James Lapine could have had in mind when they conceived it.
Into the Woods was, and is, very important to me—but specifically via that stage film. Ever the thoughtful consumer out for the most bang for my buck, I chose to get the original London cast album when it came time to get a cast recording of the show since I’d already heard the Broadway cast in the film. (Sidebar, the London cast album is really worth seeking out. Preeminent U.K. Sondheim interpreter Julia Mackenzie makes a fantastic witch, and later Harry Potter and The Crown star Imelda Staunton is The Baker’s Wife!)
Once I got around to hearing the Broadway album a few years later, I was disappointed. The film is so vital and sharp and funny, but the album sounded echoey and hollow—like it was happening a million miles away and with half the energy of the filmed performance. And thus, my interest was more than piqued last month when we got the surprise announcement from Sony Masterworks Broadway that a new edition of the Into the Woods Broadway album—along with Company, Sweeney Todd, and Assassins—were hitting streaming services.
Remasters are nothing new or novel—by the dictionary definition of that term, labels can advertise any album available in a new format as a remaster. Some remasters are really comprehensive and offer pristine listening experiences that weren’t possible in earlier mediums. Others sound like they transferred the vintage master tape to a new format and put it on sale, warts and all.
These newly released Sondheim masters—co-produced by Didier C. Deutsch and Sondheim Foundation archivist Peter E. Jones, and worked on by mixing engineer Ronald Prent and remastering engineer Darcy Proper—promise a lot. Press notes tease a "360-degree Reality Audio" format from Sony, available on Amazon Music Unlimited and TIDAL HiFi, that creates a surround sound experience. There’s also Dolby Atmos editions on Apple Music, Amazon Music, and TIDAL, that have sound channels designed to go up and make an even more enveloping experience.
And I am happy to report that this is not just a marketing gimmick. I have maybe never been as shocked by a remaster as when I threw on a pair of headphones and started the Into the Woods Broadway album, honestly expecting the same experience but with some new surround sound elements added in. I was scarcely a second or two into the “Prologue” track when I could immediately tell how much of an upgrade had happened here. That echoey, far-away sound? Gone. Tom Aldredge and the rest of the original Broadway cast suddenly sound like they’re right there with me.
And somehow the sound upgrade also massively impacts the energy of the recording. Listening to the new remaster honestly sounds like it’s a completely new album when it’s actually just a re-mix of the original. Suddenly what I used to find low energy and dull is just as bright, vital, and sharp as that filmed stage performance I love so dearly.
Beyond the vocal performances, there’s lots to be said to what this newfound clarity adds to Jonathan Tunick’s orchestration as well. As a former music director who has conducted productions of Into the Woods during my career, I know that orchestration pretty well. But this new remaster adds such clarity that now I’m hearing all kinds of details in the instrumentation that I’ve never heard before. Whether it’s physical things like the scratch of a bow in that iconic fairy tale sextet or woodwind lines formerly relegated to a distant background, it adds a complexity that is really refreshing. Even with more modern recordings of the score available, this 360-degree mix might just make the original the definitive.
And don’t worry—Sondheim was consulted on this project, most of which happened before he died in 2021. He reportedly heard and approved the final mixes for Into the Woods, Sweeney Todd, and Company. And Assassins was executed according to plans made in consultation with the Broadway legend.
My experiences with Sweeney Todd, Assassins, and Company were less mind-blowing, but that’s because I already loved those albums. So much so that I was nervous to listen to them after hearing how dramatically Into the Woods’ had been transformed. But that nervousness was misplaced. There was nothing wrong with the original mixes of the other three albums, but they’ve benefitted from newfound clarity here, too. The difference isn’t quite as dramatic as with Into the Woods, but ultimately, all of the new remasters make these albums sound more vital and present than they’ve ever sounded before.
In the case of Company, we also got some new material (unfortunately it’s just a few extra seconds of drum ticks in “Tick Tock” that were cut from the previous releases).
The remasters are so good, in fact, that it makes me want the same treatment to be given to lots of earlier albums. Let’s get the quadraphonic (an early version of surround sound released on special vinyl LPs) versions of The Wiz and Candide converted to the more modern 360-degree format. Let’s rescue other echoey, distant-sounding albums and give them the same vitality found with these Sondheim albums. In a press quote, Jones says he thinks Sondheim would “be pleased with how splendid this first series has turned out,” which does at least leave open the possibility that more remasters could be in the works.
Even if you’re someone who already loved the old version of Into the Woods’ Broadway album (i.e. you're not a musical theatre monster like me), you still might find the new remaster to be a revelation as I did. And if you’re a musical theatre monster who only listens to the newer revival albums of these shows, now is an especially good time to check in on the originals. Their new editions make them sound like they were recorded yesterday, and all of them capture iconic performances in Broadway history.
As Sondheim taught us, children will listen. And now they can listen to that sentiment in a recording that's better than ever before. Musical theatre nerds, rejoice.