Into the Woods
When it comes to Stephen Sondheim, theater queens divide themselves into two warring camps: He is either a demigod who has transformed the Broadway musical from light entertainment into a high art form or there are those who see him as talented, gifted, and certainly very well trained, but hardly the savior of American theater.
One thing everybody can agree on is that his is a fundamentally restless talent, one that takes up projects not so much to please his audiences (not to mention his financial backers). I mean it’s one thing to adapt a Victorian Grand Guignol fable about a misanthropic barber who cuts off his clients’ heads. But a revue in which the central performers are presidential assassins brings audience alienation to a whole other level. His career has been a juxtaposition of the brittle and sincere; of low comedy and drawing room sophistication; of new ways of presenting and tributes to the old ways.
"Into the Woods" premiered on Broadway in 1987 when Sondheim was at a crossroads. (Then again, when has this restless genius not been at a crossroads?) "Sunday in the Park With George" was a critical and audience success and took the Broadway musical into areas it had even thought of venturing before.
How to top it -- or even equal it? That was his challenge.
According to the excerpt from his most revealing book, "Look, I Made a Hat," reprinted helpfully in the program for the current production running in Central Park, Sondheim and book writer James Lapin wanted to tackle something "picaresque," as he calls it: episodic; dealing with characters high and low (but mostly low); and involving an adventure, or more properly a journey, which has been the cornerstone of Western art since Homer’s "Odyssey."
The result could be called, to borrow a title from the old "Rocky & Bullwinkle" TV cartoon show, "fractured fairy tales." "Into the Woods" gives us many of the most believed characters from Grimm’s and other’s tales -- Cinderella, Rapunzel, Jack and the Bean Stalk, Little Red Riding Hood... but with a twist uniquely Sondheim.
His characters would interact in the woods, always the locus of mystery, danger and change of all sorts in fairy tales. But his fairy tale figures would not be colorless or one-dimensional. He imparted to them (or many of them) the rueful worldly-wise temperament taken from urban musicals.
I admit I came to the Public Theater’s late-summer production in the park without any baggage about this particularly musical. I was hoping to experience it with fresh eyes, untrammeled with the near-legendary original Broadway production.
What I came away with was a rather convoluted plot that strived to tie all of the characters together in some way, rather like the films "Crash" or "Traffic." Whether because I was too dense or distracted by all of the passages "telling" the complicated plot points, at the expense of the "showing" so necessary to a singing play, the intersections of everyone with everyone produced a very crowded forest where people were constantly running into each other, and everyone had some kind of relation to, or business transaction with, everyone else.
Nearly everyone who experienced the original Broadway production has told me that the direction and acting held all together beautifully and gave it the same sense of profound (Sondheim might say "Jungian") unity of a true work of it.
If so, that sense of unity was missing here. I don’t see making the narrator, normally an old man, into a moderately rebellious runaway boy takes away from that inner unity. But it’s the first indication that there’s an anachronistic tone being spread over much of the plot and action.
I don’t know how many of the baker’s wife’s incessant questions to Cinderella about the titled nobility and royalty who attended the ball, the elegance of the furnishings and food, were in the original book. But she comes across as celebrity-obsessed; a hausfrau who desperately needs to read the supermarket checkout magazine version. (It didn’t help actress Amy Adams that she was hobbled with a wig that was nearly as large as she was).
As her husband, Denis O’Hare underplayed his role as the unassuming baker sent on a mythical scavenger hunt to appease the Witch (played by Donna Murphy in a role that nicely contrasted against "type," even though her costumes were all over the place -- literally). O’Hara has matured into one of Broadway’s most reliable character actors, an Everyman of patient suffering hiding under nervous ticks.
Underplaying a role probably was a wise choice. This is one of those productions where everyone is constantly running around a multi-tiered set that is meant to evoke the woods. That this set is surrounded by the honest-to-Pete woods of Central Park never seemed to occur to the set designer. Instead of trees, lots of underbrush and pathways, we get a mini-urban landscape, only covered with leaves and vines.
My major problem with "Into the Woods," at least in this production, is voiced by Sondheim himself in his book "Look, I Made a Hat": "Fairy tales are short; the plots turn on a dime, there are few characters and fewer complications." He then cites Walt Disney’s "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs," which, he says, pads out the lean stories with sidekicks and songs and subplots.
Actually if you do a careful reading of that first full-length animated film, you’ll notice that the simple plot isn’t tampered with, only filled with bits of business, or shtick. The songs are integral to the plot, not filler. Walt Disney’s genius was to borrow into the essence of a fairy tale and present it as straightforwardly as possible.
Sondheim (and Lapine) can’t help convoluting these simple stories by intersecting the plots and other sidetracks. Rather than tapping into any Jungian archetypes, he has made these characters just folks. Sondheim has many wonderful gifts. But the ability to see the simplicity in things and render them as same is not one of them.
This being a Sondheim creation, there are some sublime songs, but you have to struggle to hear them. Despite the loud, incessant miking that too-often made it difficult to discern who was speaking or singing (and not the Public’s fault, really; trying to sing wispy melodies and articulate patter lyrics in the open air requires emphatic projection devices, at least these days), you could make out the simple or complicated melodies of songs you’ve heard 100 times if you frequent piano bars on Grove Street.
Even if the directions are overly frenetic, it only goes too far in the Red Riding Hood scene in which the wolf, barely disguised as her grandmother, "devours" the little girl. The girl is, well, a girl: a child of single-digit years. The wolf is played as a wizened rock star, whose glances go way beyond seeing her as a meal and more as an appetizer. The scene, in short, comes uncomfortably to pederastic rape. It doesn’t take a cultural anthropologist to realize that that might underlie the original fairy tale, but some things are best not spelled out on stage.
If you’re an absolute devotee of the original Broadway production (especially Bernadette Peters’ Witch and Joanna Gleason’s Baker’s Wife, you’re probably only going to want to see this production for the cocktail party and online bon mots you will be constructing as you sit in the Delacorte’s comfortably tiered seats. In other words, do yourself a favor and stay home.
If, however, you are one of the many who have experienced in a church rec hall, a high-school auditorium or a little theater, you will love it. "Into the Woods" is Sondheim’s most widely produced show not only because its fairy tale theme is "safe", but also because of its hopefulness. Like all fairy tales, this one has a happy ending, and even if it’s ambiguous, and we’re not sure everyone lived happily ever after, we know they survived, to borrow a line from a work that Sondheim cites as a part-inspiration ("Candide") to till their own garden.
In other words, if can score tickets, or if you have the stamina to camp out in front of the theater in Central Park, even if you’re disappointed, you’ll have had a genuine theatrical experience, thanks to the good folks at the Public Theater who have been putting on free Shakespeare and other classics in the park for 50 years.
These performances have become as ingrained to the summer-in-New-York experience as roasting subway platforms, sidewalk cafes fronting traffic-clogged avenues and hordes of tourists photographing everything in sight.
That was Public Theater founder Joseph Papp’s original plan, and he has succeeded beyond even his wildest dreams. I may be wrong, but I suspect old Joe would rather have seen the occasional production miss the mark than that every one was reduced to a bland safeness.