Stephen Sondheim's and James Lapine's Into the Woods opened on Broadway in 1987 and had a solid run of 765 performances, winning Tony Awards for Best Score, Best Book, and Best Actress (Joanna Gleason as The Baker's Wife). It was somewhat eclipsed by the enormous success of The Phantom of the Opera that opened in the same season and went on to be the long-running warhorse that it is. What is so intriguing about Into the Woods is the absolute love and devotion theatregoers, performers, directors and producers have for this piece. It is, in many ways, a phenomenon, when you consider that the show has had three, well-publicized and received New York revivals since its arrival there, a highly successful PBS airing of the original production, an Academy Award-nominated feature film made by Disney, several successful reunion concerts of the original cast, and the musical has become a mainstay of regional theatres, summer stock companies, community theatres, and high schools. So what is it about this show that inspires such a devoted following?
A Look Back at 3 Decades of Into the Woods
For those who don't know Into the Woods, the musical weaves together four classic fairy tales (Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk, Rapunzel and Cinderella), using an original yarn (The Baker and His Wife) as the means to bring these familiar characters of our childhood together in the same expansive forest. Once they are there, they go about the details of their famous stories, affecting each other's outcomes, and completing the first act of the show with the usual "Happily Ever After" we've come to expect from fairy tales. Along the way, they all have to lie and cheat a little to get what they want, turning the second act into a much darker story involving the accepting of responsibility for their actions in the first act. Throughout, they make introspective discoveries about morality and their evolving maturity, leading the survivors to a better understanding of community and their obligations within it.
A favorite question to ask performers is "What is your dream role?", and Into the Woods is the title that heard more often than any other. The role of The Witch is a coveted one, but almost as many replies indicating that The Baker's Wife, The Baker, Little Red Riding Hood and Cinderella's Prince are high on the bucket list of many actors and actresses. When asked "Why?" performers usually reply with the reverence regularly inspired by the name Stephen Sondheim, citing an interest in performing the beautiful score. Sondheim has provided unforgettable scores for many dozen Broadway musicals, but the same legion of performers don't demonstrate a burning desire to perform A Little Night Music or Assassins like they do Into the Woods. There must be something more about this musical, a magnetism that inspires its devout following.
One thing about Into the Woods that is perhaps appealing is that the property is left open to many interpretations of both the roles, and of the piece as a whole. Joanna Gleason put an indelible stamp on The Baker's Wife in the original production, navigating humor, frustration and heart with a witty edge that took the merest outline of a character and made her palpably real. The Witch has attracted the likes of Bernadette Peters (original Broadway), Vanessa Williams (Broadway revival), Donna Murphy (Central Park production) and Meryl Streep (Oscar-nominated for her film role). Each actress has been given the opportunity to bring her own unique style and personality to this character who is written as an outline to be painted in and textured by the direction the production is taking. Even men have played the role, most-recently, Tituss Burgess of Netflix's "Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt" donned a cloak and worked up some spells in Miami's Carnival Studio Theater inception. In fact, each role in Into the Woods is so broadly drawn that it makes a fascinating theatre experiment to see how, under the guidance of a strong director, performers flesh them out and interact as an ensemble of fairy tale characters on a journey into their own psyches.
Countless productions of Into the Woods are over the years, and each one differs: traditionally, with a lighter first act and a darker second act; as black comedy, with a real emphasis on the violence and gore; and one production handled the show as situation comedy, with nothing but a row of doors as its scenery and performers wending their way in and out as if they were in a slapstick farce. Deeper, more thoughtful productions have set the action during the Vietnam War, in a post-apocalyptic city and in a children's story theatre. The recent Off-Broadway production of the Fiasco Theatre's Into the Woods set the action in what could be taken as an attic, with performers using minimalist props and make-shift costumes to tell the story. There seems to be no end to the possibilities a director can reimagine for the piece, thus opening the doors for the designers to additionally shape that world through their cleverness and artistry. Coming up with your very own, very distinct production of Into the Woods seems to be one of the inspiring challenges and catalysts that makes this show so appealing.
It is true that Into the Woods is one of the more family-friendly and audience-accessible titles in the Sondheim canon, making it appealing to community theatres and school drama clubs. Theatregoers are not likely to see Sweeney Todd or Company performed by a bunch of 16-year-olds, but they will see Into the Woods done. Into the Woods is, however, rife with the violence and gore of the former, and overflowing with the libidinous overtones of the latter, which makes one wonder why it is so popular in high schools. The musical seems to be insulated against these comparisons, and that predominantly has to do with its fairy-tale themes. Is it made more palatable for these murders and debaucheries to happen in a land of make-believe, buffered by the psychological implications of its morality-based story? It's hard to say, but it certainly seems immune to criticism. Let's remember, Disney produced a film version that kept many of these transgressions intact and still succeeded enormously as a family film.
James Lapine wrote a witty book for Into the Woods, and I think many performers find an appeal in delivering the battery of caustic one-liners and navigating through the complexity of the plot, as if they are on their own personal journey. It's its own form of theatrical therapy, allowing everyone involved to delve into their own problems and feelings to find a catharsis through the experience of the show. Nothing in Into the Woods is as black and white as the fairy tales we were read as a child. We get to reimagine those lessons in the shades of grey that we have realized are the realities of life. Perhaps we connect so strongly because we have been aching for someone to tell us that those childhood lessons didn't really prepare us for the people we would become or the world we would face. Above all, the themes of Into the Woods are what truly resonate with audiences, performers and directors. Many children and young adults have been personally moved by "No More"," "No One is Alone" and "Children Will Listen," brought to tears by characters overcoming their mistakes as parents and children learning to break the cycle of those sins. Haven't all of us found ourselves having to come to terms with the responsibilities of our actions and the domino effect that those actions have ignited? James Lapine's book creates the perfect framework for Sondheim to hang his most forgiving, loving, and sometimes cautioning songs. Because it delves into the psychological and treats the journeys into self-discovery and the overcoming of adversity as universal to all people, we all find a piece of who we are somewhere in the midst of Into the Woods.
There is no denying that Into the Woods has found its way into many hearts. Even now, MUNY in St. Louis, Missouri is set to open a starry production featuring Broadway names such as Heather Headley, Erin Dilly, Elena Shaddow, Ken Page, Rob McClure and Andrew Samonsky. Broadway director Gary Griffin (Honeymoon in Vegas, The Color Purple) is helming the production. That is a lot of Broadway talent, no doubt with their own special attachments to the piece. There is just something about this musical that has forged deeply personal connections with people. As long as fairy tales remain a didactic part of our formative years, and as long as we continue to question the legitimacy of their lessons as they apply to our adult lives, Into the Woods will remain an evergreen musical with something that touches most everyone.
Watch highlights from the current production at The Muny.
Mark Robinson is a theatre, television, and film historian who writes the blog "The Music That Makes Me Dance" found at markrobinsonwrites.com. Mark is the author of three books: "The Disney Song Encyclopedia," "The Encyclopedia of Television Theme Songs" and the two-volume "The World of Musicals."