As fate would have it, I saw two different productions of Into the Woods in the span of 15 days. The first was at the Arlington Friends of the Drama, the community theater in my hometown of Arlington, Massachusetts. It's been in existence since the early '20s and is the subject of Leah Hager Cohen's book The Stuff of Dreams, published last year by Viking. (Interestingly enough, the book is nowhere to be found in the theater's lobby. Perhaps "The Friends," as the troupe is chummily called, isn't crazy about the tome, for everything doesn't come up roses in it. But I think it's a very good read and that they should ultimately be proud of it.)
One of the protagonists of that book, Jimmy Grana, was the co-producer of this Into the Woods, which was smartly directed by Suzanne Bixby. Granted, Bixby didn't have much room in which to work; the less-than-Off-Broadway-size stage meant that Cinderella's sisters had a tough time maneuvering around the three houses in their wide ball gowns. But the director turned that disadvantage into an asset when the characters went into the woods for Scene Two: Cinderella's oh-so-drunk father "accidentally" tipped over the flat that represented his house and I thought, "What a novel, time-saving way of striking it!"
Bixby offered two other fine directorial innovations. When the Baker entered Granny's cottage and extricated the old woman and Little Red Ridinghood from Mr. Wolf's belly, Bixby put up a screen and used shadow puppets instead of actors. Later, when the Prince arrived at Cinderella's house to find if any sister could fit the slipper as pure as gold, Bixby brought on a little Punch-and-Judy show stage and again employed puppets in place of people. Red ribbons stood in for the blood (as red as a cape) from the sisters' slashed feet.
The director admitted to me that she'd heard about Lapine's decision to have the Narrator hold the birds on a stick, both to aid Cinderella and to injure her sisters, and she appropriated that idea. But she kept to the old suitcase prop for Milky-White--which brings us to the new production at the Broadhurst, where an oh-so-alive Chad Kimball makes Milky-White as delicious as a Milky Way. Still, I have to say that Hayley Goff in Arlington was a better Little Red Ridinghood than Molly Ephraim is on Broadway, and that Lisa Astbury was superior to Mary Louise Burke as Jack's mother. I won't say that Adam Sechelski was better than Adam Wylie as Jack, but he was equally as splendid, and I look forward to his coming to our shores and entertaining us as winningly. And while Margaret McCarty didn't punch up the word "end" enough to bring home the joke about it justifying the beans, Broadway's Kerry O'Malley didn't, either.
By the way, isn't it wonderful that a community theater can do a show while it's simultaneously running on Broadway? Believe me, this wasn't always possible. In the late '60s, amateur rights were so strictly controlled that you couldn't even do The Fourposter or The Man Who Came to Dinner because their musical counterparts, I Do! I Do! and Sherry, were on Broadway. The theory went that if people could see the source material at their neighborhood playhouse, they'd feel that they already knew the story and wouldn't spend money for the musicalization.
Still, I do wonder at a community theater doing Into the Woods. At intermission in Arlington, one woman muttered, "It's weird." Her companion answered, "It's Sondheim," and when yet another woman overheard her, she rushed over to say, "Don't take his name in vain!" I understand both points of view, for I'm now in my 15th year of having mixed feelings about Into the Woods. It's become the most-produced of Sondheim's shows but I haven't forgotten that, once upon a time, it wasn't a classic--such as at its first preview in 1987 and for many more previews afterwards. Word was pretty poisonous back then.
I was disappointed when I originally saw it (though I like the revival much more) because I was so excited in the mid-'80s when I read in Craig Zadan's Sondheim & Company that a show called Into the Woods was coming. I grinned when I saw that Lapine had "hit upon the idea of bringing fairy tale characters together" and that he was "anxious to write a farce--something that was fun and non-intellectual," for "it's so rare to go to the theater and be delighted by what you're seeing." And when Sondheim said that the story would tell of a childless couple who can lift a witch's curse by getting four objects that Cinderella, Rapunzel, Little Red Ridinghood, and Jack of Beanstalk fame already have, I thought: Terrific! Here's Sondheim once again doing a show like A Funny Thing..., which I've adored since 1962. Into the Woods would obviously build on the wonderful lyric idea that Bob Merrill had for the 1965 TV musical The Dangerous Christmas of Little Red Riding Hood. There, our title character (played by Liza Minnelli!) sang the praises of her new fashion accessory: "And it cost a lot. It wasn't so cheap. I just can't wait to show Bo Peep. Will I get looks, will I get stares, when I pass the corner near Little Jack Horner and the block with the Three Bears!" Dontcha love that all these people know each other?
I like it when two-dimensional characters are upgraded to three-dimensional ones, but must we have such a cerebral Cinderella? ("Although how can you know who you are till you know what you want, which you don't?") More to the point, in Sondheim-Lapine's eyes, laughter apparently leaves you halfway through the woods, for the uncontrollable belly laughs that I anticipated never materialized. Sondheim said in Sondheim and Company that "The first act is fast and funny and light, and the second act is less goofy and a bit darker," but I've found few fast and funny moments in the first act (Little Red Ridinghood's wearing a wolf stole is one) and I'd say the second act is not just "a bit" darker, but considerably so. In one patch of the second act, the Narrator is murdered and, 22 lines later, Jack's mother is wounded. Seven lines after that, Rapunzel is killed; eight lines after that, Jack's mother dies; and, eight pages after that, the Baker's Wife is killed. Hey, come on--fairy tales usually let the good guys live. And, among the survivors, how many of them go blind? I suspect that lots of theatergoers nod their heads in recognition when Little Red Ridinghood snarls at the Narrator, "Some of us don't like the way you've been telling (the story)."
Finally, The Giant's Wife will go blind--not to mention dead--before all is said and sung. That's something else I don't like about Into the Woods. While there's no law that says this musical had to be an unmitigated fun-fest, I really don't like its message that two wrongs make a right. Let's face it: After the Giant hospitably welcomes Jack, the kid steals from him and helps cause his death. True justice would make Jack responsible for his actions and he would have to pay his debt to society. Instead, the characters we're supposed to be rooting for murder a woman who has been legitimately wronged. (Memo to Jack: It's your fault.)
I feel bad for little kids who are brought to Into the Woods--and the parents who bring them, too. They certainly can't be expecting to hear songs full of lickety-split lyrics that show so many internal feelings. And isn't all the carnage in the show heavy going for youngsters? I'm not saying that they can't take it, but don't they assume when their parents tell them they're coming to a show about Little Red Ridinghood, Cinderella, and Rapunzel that they're in for a happy-go-lucky time? Will this show make them want to see more musicals? Perhaps the answer is yes, but I'm not sure.
Am I, to paraphrase that Arlington Sondheim fan, taking his name in vain? Well, deep in the show Sondheim instructs, "You decide what's right. You decide what's good." And I'll take that challenge in evaluating Into the Woods.
[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org]