In 1989, the full original Broadway cast of Stephen Sondheim’s and James Lapine’s “Into the Woods” (with the exception of Cindy Robinson as Snow White instead of Jean Kelly) reunited for 3 performances for the taping of the musical in its entirety for the Season 10 premiere episode of PBS’s “American Playhouse”. When it aired on March 15, 1991, I popped a worn tape in the VCR and made a horrible copy. This is the version of “Into the Woods” my daughters grew up with. The professional video has since been released, remastered and re-released. It is considered to be the original Into The Woods. (You can watch it here.)
In 2014, a film version was released, which I’m guessing most of you saw. I mean – Meryl Streep, Anna Kendrick, Johnny Depp, Tracey Ullman and a Christmas Day release date could be the perfect fairy tale. I actually much preferred the original version, but by now my tape is pretty hard to watch. Luckily someone gave me a DVD version of the PBS special!
Then, this fall, the school I work at, known for lavish musical productions, performed “Into the Woods” much like the original version. The sets were gorgeous, the costumes were perfect, the teens gave it their all! This was no school auditorium make-shift production. This was a professional theatre production that happened to have high-school-aged actors.
Now Fiasco Theater has reimagined “Into the Woods.” If you’ve seen the show before, like me, you’ve most likely not seen anything similar to this! It’s completely stripped down. It’s only a 10-person cast, and there is no orchestra. The instruments are strewn around the edges of the stage and the actors occasionally pick them up and play them. The set is also stripped down, using a few tables and boxes and a ladder to get the point across. It’s low-tech and very accessible, and made me think back to making up skits in my grandmother’s basement with my cousins.
It’s hard to not get caught up in the differences every time you see a beloved show reimagined by a new Director, costume artist, stage manager, etc. (No narrator, a cow’s death sequence, actors as musicians?) And this is truly a whole new production – with a focus on pantomime and reacting. But what remains the same are the clever, tongue-twisting, fast-talking lyrics and the highly personal themes.
My favorite of these comes from the simple lyric, “Into the woods to get the thing that makes it worth the journeying.”
So much thought caught up in a seemingly unassuming sentence! What makes it all worth it? What makes you get up every day? What makes you face fear and uncertainty? What makes you put yourself out there around new people and experiences?
And this is the genius of Sondheim, wrapping itself around your brain. You can grab at the surface alone and enjoy the fairy tale, or you can realize that every song is giving you a lesson or a warning.
“He made me feel excited, well, excited and scared. Though scary is exciting, nice is different than good.
Isn’t it nice to know a lot? …and a little bit not.”
If you haven’t seen the show, you may have gathered from the names I’ve mentioned that the show follows fairy tale characters, both familiar and new, as their stories intersect in pursuit of their dreams in the mysterious woods surrounding their kingdom. The show is a fascinating musical tapestry about hopes and dreams, triumphs and failures, as it explores the question, “Is there really a happily ever after?”
As I walked into the Straz Center’s Morsani Hall for their production running through Dec 4, with 2 complementary tickets courtesy of Tampa Bay Bloggers, I was warned that the first act is 90 minutes long. (In other words, visit the ladies’ room and unwrap your candy now.) And Act 1 is almost like 2 acts blended together. Just as the cast sits comfortably and you think the lights will come up, Jack (of giant and beanstalk fame) suddenly proclaims “There are giants in the sky!” and a new storyline unfolds.
When we marketed the performance at work, a school including ages 3-18, we gave parents a warning. “The production is split into two acts, the first of which highlights popular fairy tale personalities like Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella and Prince Charming portrayed as normal, flawed people. There’s a witch, a wolf and a giant, but the scares are mild for young viewers. Intermission may be a good time to leave with little ones, however. As the play progresses into Act 2, plot twists become more mature and at times dark, reminding the audience, ‘be careful what you wish for’. Characters tackle moral dilemmas in ways that will resonate with viewers aged 15 and up.” So that’s my note for you if you are taking little-littles to the show. You can almost get away with ducking out at intermission if they are sleepy enough. The songs even come back around to the popular “Into the Woods” refrain where everything started.
The themes of family relationships, facing your fears, helicopter parenting and creating unity are also very prevalent. The Baker and his Wife may even make you ponder the American Dream. The show is truly timely and relatable for all ages. And we’re lucky that this new production is hitting Tampa very early in it’s US Tour! Grab your tickets here ASAP!