Magazine article The Sondheim Review

Once upon a Time . .

Magazine article The Sondheim Review

Once upon a Time . .

Article excerpt

Sondheim 101: Into the Woods at 25

After Sunday in the Park with George, it would have been difficult to predict that the next show to come from the pen of composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim would be based on fairy tales - Sondheim and James Lapine's Into the Woods, which on Nov. 5, 2012, celebrates the 25th anniversary of its Broadway debut. Following the substantial artistic achievement of Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler's Sweeney Todd in 1979, the 1980s began with Sondhem and George Furth's surprisingly unsuccessful Merrily We Roll Along in 1981. Sondheim dissolved his longstanding partnership with producer/director Harold Prince and began what he considers the more creatively fulfilling half of his career.

Sondheim notes in Look, I Made a Hat that he was devastated "after the joyful public slaughter of Merrily We Roll Along. Then I met James Lapine ..." That first show with director/ librettist Lapine, Sunday, changed Sondheim's professional life: After he began collaborating with Lapine, he observes, "I found myself writing with more formal looseness than I had before. ... Even more noticeable was the effect of my new partnership on the tone of the work." Sondheim points out that "a current of vulnerability, of longing, informs" this portion of his career more than his earlier work. To go from Merrily to the Pulitzer Prize-winning Sunday was indeed a dramatic transition, and there was a similarly profound contrast between Sunday and Sondheim's next new musical.

Sondheim and Lapine wanted to write a show that would be, in Lapine's words, "fun and non-intellectual, yet packed a punch." After creating a play that was based on the high art of Georges Seurat, Lapine and Sondheim found inspiration in an art form that is more universal and less cerebral than 19th-century pointillism: fairy tales. Whereas the average person might have only a passing familiarity with "A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte - 1884," nearly everyone in the Western world, regardless of age, has encountered the stories on which Sondheim and Lapine based Into the Woods: "Cinderella," "Jack and the Beanstalk," "Little Red Riding Hood" and "Rapunzel."

The idea of contrast, exhibited in the difference in subject matter between Sunday and Woods, and that of coming together, displayed in the convention of synthesizing several different stories, are both mirrored stylistically and thematically in the latter musical. Rather than base his retellings on the simplified Disney adaptations, Lapine opted for the more complex versions collected by the Brothers Grimm. For instance, the description of Cinderella's stepmother and stepsisters as "beautiful of face, but vile and black of heart" comes directly from the Grimms.

The distinction between the way people look and who they are internally was a key element of Lapine's interpretation. Bernadette Peters, who played the Witch in the original Broadway cast, recounts the way Lapine viewed her character: "What was interesting and very helpful to me in the way James approached the Witch was that he didn't think of her as being ugly, and then beautiful - what we discovered is that even though she gets her beauty back, she's still the same miserable person she was when she was ugly. James was interested in what was going on with her inside."

The notion of a disparity between one's looks and one's true nature manifests itself in Sondheim's lyrics as well. After the Wolf eats Little Red Riding Hood and her Grandmother, and the Baker sets them free by cutting open the Wolf's stomach, Little Red ruminates in "I Know Things Now" that the Wolf "seemed so nice" and concludes, "Nice is different than good." This quality of juxtaposition also appears in the score: As Martin Gottfried indicates in his book Sondheim, the simple melody in Cinderella's "On the Steps of the Palace," for example, complements the song's intricate wordplay.

Woods even contrasts the sense of antithesis itself, since the theme of creating unity is equally prevalent. …

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