I’m a huge fan of musical theatre and find one of my callings in life to be the ongoing education of everyone I know on just why musicals are so freaking awesome. So this is going to be the first in an ongoing series of posts on individual musicals in hopes that you will be educated, inspired, and hopefully check out the cast album and see what all the hoopla is about.
Today, we begin with my all-time favorite musical, Into the Woods. With music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and a book by James Lapine, this is one of those musicals that makes a good “first step” for many people because it tells a familiar story in a new and unusual way. Originally presented on Broadway during the 1987-1988 season (which also saw the premieres of The Phantom of the Opera and a fantastic two-person chamber musical called Romance Romance), it was a huge hit and won the Tony Awards for Best Actress, Best Book, and Best Music/Lyrics. It unfortunately lost to Best Musical to the juggernaut that was Phantom, although I take umbrage with that–after all, how can a musical have the best story and best songs and not be the best musical? Hello?
Anyway, the musical is a wonderful pastiche of the stories of Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk, Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel, and two new characters (staples of fairy tales), a childless baker and his wife, who just happen to live next door to a witch. Each character, for a myriad of reasons, is called to go “into the woods,” with the connection to all of them being the quest the witch sends the baker on. If he finds the cow as white as milk (Jack’s cow), the cape as red as blood (Little Red Riding’s Hood), the hair as yellow as corn (Rapunzel’s hair), the slipper as pure as gold (Cinderella’s shoe) before the time of midnight in three days’ time, she will lift the curse she placed on his house years ago.
Although the songs and characters are some of Sondheim’s most accessible, this is still not an easy musical. It’s very funny, and James Lapine’s book probably doesn’t get as much credit as it deserves. But the songs are really what make it stand out. The repeating “I wish” refrain, which is the predominant theme of the musical–as well as the consequences of wishing–in the opening prologue is a wonderful link to the stories that follow, and the “title” song, with the repeating refrain “Into the woods…” is very reminiscent (purposefully so) of Disney songs of the early 1940’s.
One of the highlights of the musical numbers is the lyrically dense song, “On the Steps of the Palace,” which is sung by Cinderella. Unlike the original fairytales and most adaptations, this Cinderella is not really sure if being pursued by a prince is what she wants. Like many of us, she longs for something different than her current situation, but doesn’t really know just what that different thing is.
He’s a very nice prince. He’s a prince who prepares!
Knowing this time I’d run from him, he spread pitch on the stairs.
And I thought, “Well, he cares!
This is more than just malice…
better stop and take stock as you’re standing here
stuck on the steps of the palace.”
You think, “What do you want?”
You think, “Make a decision!”
Why not stay and be caught, you think-
-well, that’s a thought, what would be his response?
But then what if you knew who you are
and you know that you’re not what he thinks that he wants?
Consistently second-guessing herself, Cinderella eventually makes the decision to make no decision–she’ll leave a shoe and let the prince decide. The song is a lilting, lyrically-heavy piece. A standout for any soprano soloist, “On the Steps of the Palace,” is one of the best songs in the show. A lyrical masterpiece, it takes the preconceived notions we have of Cinderella and upends them beautifully.
Other highlight songs include “Giants in the Sky,” sung by Jack (of Beanstalk fame), “It Takes Two,” which has one of Sondheim’s best rhyming couplets as its last line, “Children Will Listen,” which summarizes the deeper theme of the show, and the standout, “No One is Alone.”
I’ve used this song in a musical review, and I put it in the context that you are not alone (which the song says)–meaning someone is always with you, that we are all connected. The bigger idea of the song, however, is that because we are not alone, we can’t act as if we’re the only ones out there. Everything we do happens in context–the actions we take against someone else will affect not only us and them, but multiples of people. In that idea, beyond just being a comforting song, “No One is Alone,” becomes a powerful reminder of the duty we all have to act in good faith with others:
People make mistakes! Fathers! Mothers!
People make mistakes!
Holding to their own.
Thinking their alone.
Honor their mistakes! Fight for their mistakes!
One another’s terrible mistakes!
Witches can be right. Giants can be good.
You decide what’s right. You decide what’s good.
And then, the cautionary:
Just remember: Someone is on your side, someone else is not.
While we’re seeing our side, maybe we forgot: we are not alone.
Ironically, the song is sung as the Baker, Cinderella, Jack, and Red Riding Hood wait to kill the giant’s wife.
Cinderella’s indecision, the Baker’s heart’s desire come true also bringing about bigger issues in his marriage, the Witch getting her wish but losing her powers, the loss of life and love. All of this is summed up in the song “Children Will Listen,” where the cast reminds the audience to be careful what they wish for. “Careful the tale you tell, that is the spell.” After a reprise of the “title” song, after all that has transpired, Cinderella, like all of us, cries out again, “I wish!”
The original Broadway cast recording of this show is far superior to the London cast or the later revival. Bernadette Peters, Joanna Gleason, Chip Zien, and Tom Aldredge are amazing in this show, as are Kim Crosby, in her first Broadway show as the clumsy and befuddled Cinderella, and Robert Westenberg as both Cinderella’s prince and Red Riding Hood’s wolf. (The two later married and have lived, unlike their stage counterparts, happily ever after.)
The original show was filmed for PBS’ Great Performancesboth in front of a live audience and in an empty theatre for close ups. It’s rare to get to see the original cast of a show performing live–and even better, on the original stage. This is Peters at her best, Gleason (who won the Tony that year) just shines in her role as the Baker’s Wife, and Zien can be seen as the underappreciated talent he was that year (he lost Best Actor to the unstoppable Michael Crawford and Phantom). My favorites, however, to see live are Westenberg and Crosby, and they make the darker aspects of this story much easier to handle with their wonderful performances. This recording was released on DVD.