Sunday, August 9, 2015

Into the Woods (Brandman Productions, 1990)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Our “feature” last night was Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods — not the 2014 movie version, which pretty much sank without a trace at the box office, but the 1990 video version filmed during live performances while the show was still in its initial run at the Martin Beck Theatre on Broadway. Into the Woods actually premiered in our neck of the woods — the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego’s Balboa Park, where it first opened on December 4, 1986 and ran for 50 performances under the direction of James Lapine, who also wrote the book (i.e., the overall story and the non-musical dialogue portions) for the show. This was a typical “tryout” production before the Broadway run — Sondheim wrote and added the song “No One Is Alone” during the Old Globe performances — and while many of the cast members repeated their roles on Broadway, Ellen Foley, the original Witch, was replaced by Bernadette Peters because she’d previously appeared in other Sondheim musicals and the producers wanted a star “name.” The Broadway opening took place on November 5, 1987 and ran for 765 performances until September 3, 1989, though the video was done over three performances in 1990; though Bernadette Peters had given up the role of the Witch after about six months to make the movie Slaves of New York, she returned to play the part for the video — and had an unexpected problem. At the end of Act I, the Witch undergoes an on-stage transformation from an ugly hag with magical powers to a beautiful woman without them, and this had been accomplished by having Peters duck into a hollow tree on the “woods” set and remove the Witch makeup and costume while a double briefly took her place on stage and mimed to a recording of Peters’ voice until Peters herself was ready to go back on. James Lapine and the technical staff producing the video found that Peters’ stage makeup wasn’t heavy enough for the cameras, so they made her up more — and this threw off her timing since she couldn’t get the additional makeup off soon enough and the other actors had to improvise dialogue until the de-Witched Peters was ready to come back on stage. (These bits were edited out of the video as eventually released.)

 Into the Woods is basically a mash-up of four Grimm’s fairy tales — well before the term “mash-up” was coined — including “Little Red Riding Hood,” “Cinderella,” “Rapunzel,” “Jack and the Beanstalk” — along with a linking story more or less invented by Lapine, in which a baker (Chip Zien) and his wife (Joanna Gleason in a heart-rending performance that won a Tony Award and stole the show from the better-known Peters) are unable to conceive a child. The Witch tells them that she’s put a curse on them to remain childless out of revenge because the baker’s father — also a baker — once trampled on the Witch’s garden. The only way they can lift the curse is if they can present the Witch a cow as white as milk, a cloak as red as blood, a lock of blonde hair as yellow as an ear of corn, and a slipper as bright as gold. Fortunately, Jack (Ben Wright) has the cow, Little Red Riding Hood (Danielle Ferland) has the cloak, Rapunzel (Pamela Winslow) has the hair and Cinderella (Kim Crosby) has the slipper. Act I consists basically of the various characters’ journeys “into the woods” to achieve their wishes, and the baker and his wife attempting to get the various objects from them, either by buying them (it’s the baker who buys Jack’s cow for the famous magic beans, created by the Witch in a previous spell), getting them presented as gifts (the baker gets Red Riding Hood’s cloak for cutting open the belly of the wolf that ate her and her grandmother, and freeing both women; Red Riding Hood then skins the wolf and makes a new cloak from his skin), or outright stealing them (the scene in which the baker’s wife pulls a strand of Rapunzel’s super-long hair and she suffers the predictable pain as she pulls it out by the roots is especially delicious). Lapine invents character relationships to link the stories and make it credible that all those people would be in the same tale: Prince Charming (Robert Westenberg, who also ingeniously doubles as the Wolf in the Red Riding Hood plotline), who romances Cinderella at the big palace ball and then searches the kingdom for the woman whose feet will fit the golden slipper, is the brother of the prince (Chuck Wagner) who rescues Rapunzel from the prison-like castle in which the Witch has imprisoned her, and Rapunzel is the Witch’s daughter and has locked her in to protect her from male attentions the way Mrs. Hemogloben (Margaret Dumont) did with her daughter Ouilotta (Susan Miller) in W. C. Fields’ Never Give a Sucker an Even Break. Lapine also includes the original grim(m) conclusion of the Cinderella story, in which the wicked stepsisters are given quickie D.I.Y. amputations by their mom to try to get them to fit into the golden slipper (I remember reading that in a Grimm’s Fairy Tales collection I had as a child and being shocked by that detail, which I hadn’t experienced in earlier, more anodyne versions of the tale I’d encountered.)

While the main intrigue involving the baker, his wife and the Witch is going on, there are other side stories taken from the originals, including Jack’s experience once his mom (Barbara Bryne) throws out the beans, they land on the ground and grow into a giant beanstalk, and he climbs it and discovers the home of, not one giant, but two: a husband-and-wife giant couple. The lady giant holds Jack to her breast and practically smothers him before the man giant comes upon them, reacts violently, and chases Jack down the beanstalk, only to be killed when Jack chops down the beanstalk and it falls with the giant still on it. Act I ends with the characters having got their wishes and seemingly ready for the “happily ever after” ending obligatory in classic fairy tales, only Sondheim and Lapine are ready to throw us a curve-ball, which they do, big-time: it seems there was one magic bean left over and Cinderella threw it to the ground, which grows another giant beanstalk and allows the lady giant (who’s seen only as a huge papier-maché model as she falls at the end of Act II, though her voice is heard and she’s played thusly by Merle Louise, who also played Red Riding Hood’s grandmother and Cinderella’s biological mother, who’s dead but has remained as a ghost haunting a hollow tree in the forest, to which Cinderella frequently repairs so she can have conversations with her dead mom — it’s a fairy tale, remember?) to climb down, menace the kingdom, stomp out the baker’s home and the princes’ castle, and threaten everyone else in the kingdom until Jack and Cinderella team up to figure out a way to kill her. Though the giant is never seen as an animate creature (an effect easy enough to do in a movie but virtually impossible on stage), director Lapine and his technical people do a quite good job of suggesting her presence with breakaway sets (representing where her invisible feet have supposedly trod) and sound effects. Lapine also uses the giant to knock off several of the characters, including the baker’s wife (just after she has a tryst with Cinderella’s Prince in the forest — in their subsequent argument, with Cinderella upholding the virtues of monogamy and the Prince swearing his love for her but also insisting that he be allowed to stray, Cinderella sounded like Charles and the Prince sounded like me) and Cinderella’s ghost mom in the tree. Snow White and Sleeping Beauty make cameo appearances as other damsels in distress those randy young princes briefly have itches for — in this story princes are from Mars and damsels in distress are from Venus — and Sondheim supplies a song called “Agony,” first heard in Act I and reprised in Act II, that (especially in its Act II version) adds him to the long list of Queer songwriters — Cole Porter, Lorenz Hart, Noël Coward, Ivor Novello — with decidedly jaundiced views about the human species’ (and especially its males) capability for sexual exclusivity in relationships.

The second act is considerably grim(m)er than the first, though without the classic fairy tales to fall back on and left to his own imaginative devices Lapine is a considerably less interesting writer than he was in Act I — and the beautiful but de-powered Witch is simply not as compelling a character as she was in the first act. Into the Woods is a fascinating story, showing off Sondheim’s (as well as James Lapine’s) virtues and flaws in almost equal measure — it’s audacious and sporadically moving, but it’s also just a bit too clever for its own good and it alternates between emotionally wrenching drama (particularly the plot line featuring the baker and his wife) and camp. It also shows Sondheim’s strengths and weaknesses as a composer; he writes most of the songs in a mid-tempo staccato rhythm, which seems to be Sondheim’s default style even though his biggest hits (notably “Send In the Clowns” from A Little Night Music) are long-lined melodies. Also, the songs in Into the Woods are so closely tied in with the book and the overall production that few of them could be performed outside the show and still make sense — the song variously known as “Children Won’t Listen” (when the Witch sings it to her daughter Rapunzel in the middle of Act Two) and “Children Will Listen” (in the big finale where it’s reprised) is about the only song from Into the Woods that has had even a modest performance history out of context. It also didn’t help that Into the Woods immediately followed Sunday in the Park with George, the first Sondheim-Lapine collaboration and the show I consider Sondheim’s masterpiece; like Into the Woods it had a second act vastly different in tone from the first, but overall the pair seemed to be operating at a higher level of inspiration and Sunday in the Park with George (despite that silly title) took on more serious theatrical and philosophical issues: the clash between art and commercialism, between art and a “normal” family or sexual life, and the pursuit of one’s own identity via what one creates. The issues of Into the Woods are summed up in the old proverb, “Be careful what you wish for; you just might get it,” and the show appears at times to be a critique of fairy tales as well as an exploitation of them — it’s largely dependent on our knowledge of the original stories so we can appreciate the different “spin” Lapine and Sondheim are putting on them. The 1990 video is impeccably staged — seven cameras were planted in the Martin Beck Theatre to ensure a fluid, cinematic presentation instead of just a film of what the stage audience saw — and Lapine ensured the integrity of the project by directing it himself.

In the interim between Sunday in the Park with George and Into the Woods George Martin — the music critic, not to be confused either with the Beatles’ record producer or the author of the Game of Thrones books — published an article in The Opera Quarterly about Sondheim called “Almost Opera,” which questioned why Sondheim was clinging to the musical form, with its songs interrupted by spoken dialogue, instead of writing a full-fledged through-sung opera, and at the end concluded that Sondheim probably doesn’t like opera and that’s why he was content to expand the horizons of the musical form without breaking them completely. He also noted that Sondheim, like most Broadway composers but unlike opera composers, does not orchestrate his songs himself (when Kurt Weill arrived in New York and insisted on doing his own orchestrations, his producers were aghast — most American musical composers, including George Gershwin, just turned out the songs as voice-and-piano lead sheets and other people orchestrated them, and Weill’s producers feared that his insistence on orchestrating himself would just slow the process down and make the preparation period longer); it’s the difference in perception between the classical world and the Broadway world that caused such grief for Gershwin when it came out that, though he had composed Rhapsody in Blue, Ferde Grofé had orchestrated it, and led Gershwin to give himself a quickie self-study course in orchestration and credit his later “classical” works, “Composed and Orchestrated by George Gershwin.”

Anyway, Into the Woods is probably the closest Sondheim ever got to writing an opera; though there are bits of spoken dialogue they’re no more significant than they are in works like Mozart’s The Magic Flute or the original version of Bizet’s Carmen, both of which are part of the regular operatic repertory even though they contain dialogue, and the singing-to-talking ratio in Into the Woods is far more heavily weighted towards singing than in most musicals (even classics like West Side Story, composed by Leonard Bernstein with lyrics by Sondheim). I admire Stephen Sondheim immensely as the greatest musical composer of the second half of the 20th century, but he also has his flaws — in some ways he’s another example of the Gay artist who responds to the world in general and emotional and romantic commitment in particular as if he is observing it from outside instead of directly participating in it (as opposed to a Gay composer like Tchaikovsky whose great weakness was the enormous degree of self-pity that made some of his works too emotional to be listenable), and as too often happens in Into the Woods he and his writing collaborator sometimes resort to cleverness to get them out of a dramatic hole, leading to scenes which are engaging and funny but just get in the way of the drama. Still, Into the Woods is a quite entertaining piece and well worth watching, especially in this blessedly preserved performance by the original Broadway cast — and it makes me more curious than I’d been before to see the recent film version, with Meryl Streep (who else?) as the Witch.