Sometimes people leave you
Halfway through the wood.
Others may deceive you.
You decide what’s good.
NEW YORK — An eight-week limited engagement of Into the Woods, recently extended another eight weeks through Oct. 16, marks Broadway’s first posthumous Stephen Sondheim revival in the form of a concert staging announced when the composer-lyricist was still very much with us (he died in November 2021). Masterminded by Lear deBessonet as the grand finale of her first season as artistic director of Encores! at New York City Center, the production transferred to the St. James Theatre in a matter of weeks. For stars who dropped out, other stars have dropped in (with further changes post Aug. 21 to be announced “shortly”). Everyone’s off book now, even in the Messiah-style coda, where sheet music in hand looks hunky-dory. A mammoth children’s chorus is gone. “Thank God,” said the New York Times.
“Ah, the woods!,” Sondheim once rhapsodized. “The all-purpose symbol of the unconscious, the womb, the past, the dark place where we face our trials and emerge wiser or destroyed…” — and now that he’s gone, the ready-made metaphor for the Sondheim canon, virgin territory no more, yet still rife with mystery.
When Into the Woods was in development, Sondheim had a notion that it would have a rosy future with amateurs and drama clubs, for two reasons. First, it deals with “world myths and fables” and will therefore “never feel dated.” Second, its innocuous facade would prove appealing, “especially in conservative parts of the country which are hesitant to support shows that deal with contemporary themes in contemporary ways and use four-letter words (there are none in the show).”
Put another way, behind the candy-apple shell, Into the Woods is spiked with gall. Let’s not gloss over the fairy-tale Armageddon of Act 2, dominated by that vengeful Giantess who pulverizes people under her shoe. Just a giant, Sondheim insisted, though some back in the day saw her as the personification of the AIDS epidemic. Whistling past the graveyard, Sondheim and James Lapine, who write the book and directed the original production, send us home with not one anthem of hope but two.
“No One Is Alone” follows plausibly from the action we have witnessed. “Children Will Listen,” by contrast, takes a quantum leap and quickly derails into kitsch (“Children will glisten”?) and New-Age hocus-pocus (“Wishes are children”?), but never mind. When the Witch rises from the dead like an angel of mercy, it’s epiphany time. Her first five lines in the finale — maybe even just the first four, clocking in at less than 60 seconds — are worth a long wait.
Even so, the disconnect between window dressing and implications has troubled me for a long time. Since November 1987, to be exact, when the show had its Broadway premiere in the original production, per Sondheim, “the best-constructed farce since [A Funny Thing Happened On the Way To the] Forum.” To me, it looked like a train wreck (for instant migraine, consult any synopsis). Too many nut jobs running around with their wigs on fire, too much key stuff happening offstage, lots of no consequence happening onstage. The cow as white as milk, the cape as red as blood, the hair as yellow as corn, the slipper as pure as gold — so many McGuffins.
Plus, there was the “stilted fairy-tale language” (Sondheim’s description), cynical or sentimental, who could tell? Not to speak of the poison raspberries (“Now it’s he and not you/Who is stuck with a shoe,/In a stew/In the goo…” The intricate web of interlinking leitmotifs may have been lost on me back then, but not the score’s forced jollity, nursery-rhyme staccato, singsong, and self-mocking pathos. Yet stage a revival and I’ll show up, hoping for a change of heart. Maybe next year.
Cheered to the rafters, Julia Lester satirizes Little Red Riding Hood with every arrow in her quiver, blasting through songs and dialogue like a factory whistle as she stuffs her face. At the opposite end of the spectrum, Phillipa Soo (stepping in for City Center’s Denée Benton) humanizes the cardboard archetype of Cinderella with dulcet grace. As the Witch, Patina Miller (replacing Heather Headley) morphs from voodoo gargoyle to Vogue-ready supermodel, soft-pedaling her vocal numbers to classy effect. As Cinderella’s toxic Stepmother, Nancy Opel seizes her moments by the throat. With better moments to seize, Gavin Creel (the Wolf, doubling Cinderella’s Prince) and Joshua Henry (Rapunzel’s Prince) let theirs go. Would that Cole Thompson’s Jack brought more wonder to the wonder-struck “Giants in the Sky.”
For the record, the packed preview matinee on July 6 went down with the crowd like Wicked or Disney’s Beauty and the Beast or SpongeBob SquarePants: The Musical. In tried-and-true Encores! fashion, there’s evocative stage design that makes much of little; this time, it’s the versatile American architect David Rockwell who does the honors, constructing in brushstrokes. By contrast, Andrea Hood’s once-upon-a-time costumes — homespun to lavish, as occasion requires — look built to last. Action unfolds chiefly at the footlights, with a pit band (ahem) of a dozen plus upstage on risers, glued to the metronomic baton of Rob Berman. Fleeting dance breaks by Lorin Latarro give the cast a chance to shake a leg. And for a mascot, the show has mobilized Jack the Giant Killer’s woebegone bovine Milky White. No longer the prop or a dancer in a cow suit of old, she’s a puppet of faux skin and bone, gazing out from a tragic mask straight from Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, her strings pulled by an operator with the gentle gravitas of a Buster Keaton.
Sara Bareilles, the composer-lyricist and intermittent star of the Broadway hit Waitress, plays the Baker’s Wife, partnered by Brian D’Arcy James (stepping in for City Center’s Neil Patrick Harris, the replacement for the originally announced Christian Borle, who had a scheduling conflict; the show must go on). Of these characters, Sondheim once wrote, “[They] are merely trying to earn a living and have a baby. Their concerns are quotidian, their attitudes prototypically urban: impatient, sarcastic, bickering, resigned — prototypical, except that they speak in stilted fairy-tale language” — that phrase! — “and are surrounded by witches and princesses and eventually giants. This contemporaneity makes them people the audience can recognize.”
In other words, they need to be real in a fake setting. Isn’t that every actor’s job? Especially in Mr. and Mrs. Baker’s jaunty aha! moment “It Takes Two,” Bareilles and James give the formula a buzzy intimacy all their own.