Into the Woods
Out of Sondheim's mind--into our hearts
by James Leonard
With fifty-three separate productions scheduled around the world over the next year, Sweeney Todd is currently the most often performed of Stephen Sondheim's musicals.
The second most often performed isn't West Side Story (twenty-eight scheduled productions), Gypsy (twenty-five) or A Little Night Music (fifteen). It's Into the Woods, with thirty-three productions scheduled from the British School in Abu Dhabi to the Mendelssohn Theater in Ann Arbor where it'll be performed by the U-M Theater Department, Oct. 14-17 & 21-24.
The popularity of Into the Woods is easy to understand. Its story--a pastiche of five of Grimm's fairy tales--is nowhere near as fearsome as Sweeney Todd's--and its blend of music and words--the first act sets lyrics written in iambic pentameter to music exploring the resources of the major second--is almost as tight.
Yet Into the Woods is as twisted in its way as Sweeney Todd. Without giving the plot away, let's just say things don't work out well for Rapunzel, Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and his Beanstalk, or the Baker and his Wife, and that Sondheim's idea of a happy ending owes less to Rogers and Hammerstein than to Brecht and Weill.
Still, people love Into the Woods. They love its big tunes--"Agony," "It Takes Two," and "No One Is Alone"--with their ingenious blend of hope and melancholy, of affirmation and resignation, and its Act Two finale--"Children Will Listen"--with its arching melodies, its aching harmonies, and its hard-won faith in the goodness of life and love. They love its morally ambiguous characters--is the Witch good or bad?--and its thematically ambivalent plot--why do good characters lie and bad characters tell the truth? They love that what really counts in the end is the depth of the love that binds the characters--those that survive going into the woods to come out again on the other side.
[Originally published in October, 2010.]