Today is the first of our five (including last week’s prologue) part panel discussion of INTO THE WOODS, which is about to become a major film release from Disney Studios, but if you’re a regular follower of this blog, you probably don’t need to be told it’s also a seminal Broadway musical by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine that has spawned countless remounts across the world, acres of commentary and discussion, and launched more than one career. While we wouldn’t say it’s the “Great American Musical”, it’s certainly a great American musical, hugely influential, hugely popular, and just a touch controversial. We’ll use today to introduce our panelists and get to know them better, before diving into some deeper exploration of these enchanting, but treacherous, woods.
Okay everybody. Imagine it’s like… AA for INTO THE WOODS addicts. Tell us who you are, and why you’re here.
Corinne: Hi! I am Corinne Proctor. I’m an actor, dialect coach and dramaturge. I’ve performed in Into the Woods twice, most recently as Little Red in San Francisco Playhouse’s production this past summer. I also played the Witch in a community theatre production in Maryland about 10 years ago. I may have just come out of the woods a few months ago, but I am raring to go back in again. This show has so much going on, it’s always a joy to be dissecting it.
Stuart: Howdy! I’m Stuart Bousel. I am a Founding Artistic Director of the San Francisco Theater Pub, which means I run this blog, amongst other things. I’m also the Artistic Director of No Nude Men Productions, the Executive Producer of the San Francisco Olympians Festival, a resident artist/social media manager/hospitality coordinator at the EXIT Theatre, and a freelance playwright, director, and occasional actor. I saw the original Broadway production of Into the Woods twice, including the final performance, and I’ve seen it three times since. It was the second Broadway show I ever saw and I consider it, and Sondheim, a major influence on my life and work as a theater maker.
Brian: Hello, I’m Brian Katz, Artistic Director of Custom Made Theatre Company. I’ve been obsessed with Sondheim since the early 90s, and have directed Assassins (twice), Merrily We Roll Along, and Putting it Together. This could have been about any Sondheim show, and I would have been happy to engage in a discussion. I am also very interested in musical theatre as an art form, because it is often dismissed en masse. I think it is just as important to be engaged with its masterpieces with the same intellectual fervor as, say, Shakespeare’s. Sondheim’s musical plays are the best we have.
Oren: Hey, I’m Oren Stevens. I’m a director/playwright, and the Production Coordinator and Artistic Associate at Bigger Than a Breadbox Theatre Company. I’m a huge fairy tale buff, and have used inspiration from them in both writing and directing projects; most recently I mashed up the stories of Baba Yaga, Cinderella, and Snow White in my new play Hungry/Happy. Full disclosure: I played the Baker in a production of Into the Woods in high school. It was set in a Wal-Mart. I will never bring it up again.
Marissa: Hi, I’m Marissa Skudlarek, playwright and SF Theater Pub columnist. I’ve been a huge Sondheim fan ever since I first saw Into the Woods at the age of 12 (the title of my SF Theater Pub column is a reference to A Little Night Music). In my junior year of college, I took a course on fairy tales and played Cinderella’s stepsister Lucinda in the drama department’s production of Into the Woods.
Nick: Oh, hello there! Perhaps you’ve heard of me? Nick Trengove, acclaimed local Bay Area actor and man-about-town. ITW holds a very special place in my heart — I directed a production of the show at UC Berkeley on a shoe-string budget. It was essentially the last thing I did as a student there. Aside from graduate. In any event, it was the last thing I did there that held any sort of significance for me.
Nick aside, it sounds like everyone is a pretty die hard Sondheim fan, and clearly when we talk about this show, we have to talk about Sondheim, especially as INTO THE WOODS is a bit of a standout in his career. So where does INTO THE WOODS rank in your personal “Best of/Favorite” Sondheim list?
Oren: This is always a painful question to answer — with most of Sondheim’s musicals I feel like I’m being asked to rank my children, and then with the rest I think to myself “Oh yeah… that one.” Company is, hands down, my favorite Sondheim show, and it’s completely because I think “Marry Me a Little” and “Being Alive” are such phenomenal songs, and between the two of them such a flawless summary of the show. Follies also occupies a very special place in my heart; besides the breathtakingly beautiful music, the aggressive and overwhelming nostalgia is so fully realized in every aspect of the show that at the end I’m an emotionally destroyed husk of a person in the best possible way. I can’t rank the others without ripping my soul into little pieces, but I will say that Into the Woods is definitely one that I love. If you want to point fingers at me for being safely non-committal, go ahead! You’re right.
Marissa: Into the Woods will always have a special place in my heart because it’s the first Sondheim show I saw and loved. I don’t think it’s my all-time favorite, though. A Little Night Music and Sunday in the Park with George move me more deeply. Sweeney Todd is flat-out brilliant and hard to mess up. I even have days where I think that Follies has the best set of lyrics ever written for the American musical theater. I guess I tend to lump Woods together with Company in my personal Sondheim ranking. Both of them are among the first Sondheim shows I loved; both have incredibly strong scores; both have about equal numbers of male and female roles, but the women are more interesting; both expertly depict neurosis and indecision in song; and both of them generally work when the production is thoughtful, but are not 100% foolproof.
Stuart: Well, I’m going to part company (get it?) with you on the idea that the women in Company or Into The Woods are more interesting than the men (nobody in Company is more interesting than Robert, and the Baker and the Princes are, to me, of equitable interest to the women in Woods), but otherwise I’m more or less on the same page that Sweeney Todd is unquestionably brilliant, as is A Little Night Music– both to me are perfect shows, and are tied for first place in the “Best Sondheim show” category. Both are also in my top ten musicals of all time. Probably top five. Woods comes second, Company a close third. That said, I think Follies is probably “The Great American Musical” if there is such a thing, and I will always, always, love Passion. That’s actually the one I’d most want to direct at some point in my life. And my favorite Sondheim song, ever, is “Someone In A Tree” from Pacific Overtures.
Corinne: Into the Woods is also solidly in second place for me, (with Sweeney Todd taking first.) Disclaimers: I am not familiar with every single work of Sondheim. Also, I do not think of Gypsy or West Side Story as “Sondheim Shows”, even though Sondheim worked on them. Is that weird? If I have to count WSS and Gypsy then I guess Woods will come in 4th.
Nick: Oh, it’s definitely first for me. As I see it, Woods watches, sagely aloof, from its pedestal while Company and Sweeney Todd duke it out for second and third place. Somewhere, far far down on the pecking order, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and Assassins wonder what it’s like to be as good as Into the Woods. They wonder and dream.
Brian: For me, top five, but never above number three. Sunday in the Park with George and Follies fight for that top spot. Both those musicals have aged well with me, while Woods was more relevant in earlier decades. This is probably more about the type of story it is, rather than its quality. I was more into the hero’s journey as a teen, and I discovered Woods when other stories like this were my favorites, from Lord of the Rings to Siddhartha. In one’s teens and 20s, the path ahead is everything. When one reaches middle-age, looking forward is part of the process, but so is sustaining what one has, and passing along some kind of legacy. Those themes are more prevalent in Sunday and Follies.
Huh. Notice how nobody has mentioned “Anyone Can Whistle?”
Stepping away from Sondheim for a moment, what are your thoughts on James Lapine, his collaborator, who wrote the script of the show and also directed the original production- still for many, the definitive version of INTO THE WOODS?
Nick: Oh Lapine is also a genius. Sunday in the Park with George, am I right? No, but seriously, I credit Lapine with really honing in on the psychology of these characters, lifting them out of their two-dimensional fairy tale origins and granting them each an interesting and relatable complexity.
Marissa: Yes, I love the characterization of Little Red as brash and bloodthirsty. I love “I was raised to be charming, not sincere,” which is one of the funniest lines in the show and yet gets at something very real (the thin line between smarm and charm) about life and the character. I love that the book of the show occasionally has these moments of winking at, or mocking, fairy tale tropes; but that, for the most part, it is sincere and the characters are fleshed out, rather than treated like cartoons.
Oren: What’s brilliant about the book is how effortless it is. I think it often gets overlooked because it glides by so smoothly, and when there’s about a hundred characters who are all on different missions, whose paths are crisscrossing constantly, that effortlessness is an insane achievement. In some ways, each scene feels very discrete — Jack and the Mysterious Man have an altercation, then both exit and the Baker and the Witch argue — but the reality is each scene feeds into the next flawlessly. People are watching each other, interrupting each other, hiding from each other (sometimes poorly) and the result is that you never for a moment think “I can relax, we’re between scenes.” The audience never checks out that way. As both a playwright and a director, I find this elegant seamlessness enviable. And not for nothing, it feeds into the music, too. Very rarely do you have a moment where you think “oh, a song is starting!” The music is constant enough, and the line between scene and song blurred enough, that everything flows together.
Brian: See, but that is partly why I maintain that no one really knows the entirety of Lapine’s contribution. Sondheim steals mercilessly from his book writers, and the sparser the book, the more you can bet he stole. That said, there are beautiful moments in act two that make the journey worthwhile, especially leading up to “No One is Alone.” The dialogue always seems well placed, the one-liners are hard to mess up, and he is invisible when it is called for. I’m also a huge defender of Goldman’s original book of Follies, which is also minimalistic, poetic, and deceptively simple.
Stuart: The flow between dialogue and song which is so effortless in Into The Woods is also part of what I love so much about Passion, another Lapine/Sondheim collaboration, which feels like a fever dream, if done right, and largely because the blurred line between line and lyric supports the blurred lines between passion and obsession which is the core of that story. I agree with Brian that Sondheim steals so much from his book writers that it makes it hard to tell, in some places, who is contributing what, but I also agree with Oren that Lapine is undeniably good at building a complex and byzantine network of plot and characters, which doesn’t always happen in Sondheim’s works, while it’s safe to say it pretty much always happens in Lapine’s to one degree or another, though this may be as much his contribution as director as it is writer (his film Impromptu, by the way, is an excellent non-musical, non-authored example of this). I will say this: I was much less worried about the film of Woods when I heard Lapine was writing the screenplay.
Corinne: The book has some shortcomings, and the score is so brilliant that it’s easy to see why it’s overlooked, but that said, it does the job of expanding on the story being told by the songs very well. There’s more meaningful repetition and connections than stand out in the first few readings and viewings- always a good sign. The script, like the score, is full of questions — which is so fitting for a show about people grappling with rights and wrongs. (FUN FACT: There are 420 questions in the show including questions asked in song. Trust me, I asked a computer.)
So, considering the songs are the bulk and thrust of the show, we gotta know: what’s your favorite?
Nick: “Moments in the Woods,” for so many reasons. Like any great Sondheim song, it’s a challenge for both the actor and the vocalist. Also, like most of the Sondheim greats, the important discoveries the character makes happen within the song. And when it’s done right (see Joanna Gleason), it really encapsulates a lot of what this musical is about – the tension between the fantasy of the lives we want to live and the reality of the choices and compromises we have to make. And that recognizing that having a choice and making it lends significance to our lives, even if it means we aren’t living our perfection. See? I told you. For so many reasons. Someone stop me.
Corinne: I actually really love another of the Baker’s Wife’s songs: “Maybe They’re Magic”. It’s so short and quick but so perfect. It tells us so much about who she is all while diving headfirst into core theme ideas about how right and wrong aren’t as clearly defined as fairy tales lead us to believe.
Marissa: “It Takes Two.” It’s almost a cliche to have a charming, witty, mid-tempo song that comes halfway through the first act and ends an argument or brings a couple closer together. Sondheim is fully aware of the cliche, so this song, while charming, is also a little bit knowing and ironic, which suits the characters of the Baker and his Wife. The title is generic but the melody is slightly odd and unexpected. And the lyrics are brilliant. “It takes trust / It takes just / A bit more / And we’re done / We want four / We had none / We got three / We need one / It takes two” — that’s nine lines, 27 syllables, seven rhymes, a recapitulation of the plot up to that point, and a pun on the song’s title. Sondheim, you take my breath away.
Brian: “No More.” It kills me. I don’t care how good or bad the production is, I’m going to be weeping like a baby when we get to: “No more giants waging war!/
Can’t we just pursue our lives/With our children and our wives/
’Til that happy day arrives/How do you ignore/
All the witches?/All the curses?
/All the wolves, all the lies/The false hopes, the good-bye’s/
All the wondering what even worse/Is still in store!
” Of course, it is important to remember that the Baker, who sings this, has just lost his wife, and that the actions he took on his journey led, more or less, to her death. There’s simplicity in the sentiment that gets to me. Into the Woods explores the theme of getting what you want, which is what you think you need. But at the end of the deceptively happy first act, only the evil stepmother and her daughters (and okay, Rapunzel, but more on that later) have learned the lesson. In the second act, character after character suffer the consequences of their paths, until the Baker is left with the child he thought he needed, but without the only person he truly cared about. The song makes us reexamine everything we thought we knew about the show. In act one, we want the “curse reversed,” for heaven’s sake – the Baker and his wife can’t have a child! In act two, we want them to defend their home by any means necessary. Over two hours into the story, we are forced to question the central journey of the play, just as we thought we knew the answers.
Oren: I always root for the underdog, so: there’s a song in the first act that usually doesn’t make it into the show. It’s called “Our Little World” and it serves as an introduction to the relationship between Rapunzel and the Witch (spoiler alert: it’s a weird relationship). It usually gets cut because… let’s just say it’s not the best one Sondheim ever wrote, but nonetheless I love it for two reasons. First, the monotony of Rapunzel’s existence is beautifully mirrored in the repetitiveness of the song. Secondly, because the Witch/Rapunzel relationship becomes very important later in the play, and this is the best introduction we get to it when everything is good. Here’s a real spoiler alert: it also drops a few hints as to why the Witch wants the curse broken, and why she would accuse Rapunzel of being biased against her ugliness — Rapunzel herself says it in this song. So, storytelling opportunities in both text and music, as well as its underdog status, make “Our Little World” one of my favorite songs ever written (objective quality be damned).
Stuart: Okay, so my favorite song, like Oren’s, is a bit of an underdog: “He’s A Very Nice Prince.” In particular, I like the full version, found on the Original Broadway Cast Recording, but usually trimmed out for stage productions. To me, this is where the show really starts to work its mojo, because you have a moment where the heroines of two separate stories, Cinderella and the Baker’s Wife, sit down and reflect on everything- and this is before the Wife realizes Cinderella has the shoe she needs. For a moment they are just people, connecting in the woods the way random people connect in life, and over the course of the song they sort of switch places: at the beginning Cinderella seems like this lost child and the Wife is this much more worldly person, but by the end of the song we see that the Wife is full of unrealized childish dreams, and Cinderella is already realizing not every dream is all it’s cracked up to be. There’s just a real poetry and nuance to the song and the character interaction that breaks my heart.
So, considering how character driven the songs are, we have to ask: who is your favorite character?
Stuart: I’m going to use this moment to make a plug for Rapunzel and Rapunzel’s Prince. Secondary and supporting characters often really fascinate me in any show, but to me, these two in particular are both very innocent, and the show is just brutal to them. They’re not particularly well developed (I consider this a weakness of the show, actually), but what little hints we are given draws two very idealistic people who rush, like most young people do, into a situation that at first is a fairy tale and then turns out to be a total nightmare: she’s a broken, devastated person who can not exist in the real world and he is utterly ill-equipped to deal with her despite his best intentions. Rapunzel is often dismissed as kind of dumb, but she’s not: she’s had no experience of the real world, that’s been denied her, and her outlook is one of a prisoner who is brave enough to look outside her prison- she’s optimistic, not dumb. And when the world turns out to be the world, like many optimists she is crushed, but her inability to forgive the world, her mother, her prince, results in her refusal to grow and ultimately she is physically crushed as well as spiritually crushed. Rapunzel’s Prince is often lumped in with Cinderella’s Prince and therefore dismissed as a cad (for the record- I hate when some directors have him ALSO play a Wolf, as it dismisses the character to make a banal, cliche statement about young men), but there are many hints throughout the show that he’s actually a pretty good guy- shy, self-deprecating- and unlike his brother he suffers for his love- he’s blinded and wanders for two years looking for Rapunzel! When Rapunzel turns out to be a nightmare, he plays at being a cad but it’s so half-hearted: a mere dwarf deters him from Snow White when a Witch couldn’t deter him from Rapunzel. When Rapunzel died in the Broadway production, a moment that always stuck with me was Chuck Wagner’s look of grief and utter helplessness, and Rapunzel’s prince vanishes from the show after that until the end. I always fancied he basically banishes himself for being less than the hero his competitiveness with his brother lead him to believe he had to be, and that when he once again stumbles across Snow White, his decision to kiss her is really his goodbye to Rapunzel- after all, when he kisses he thinks she’s unwake-able/dead, so his only motive would have to be personal. Anyway, if there is one thing I’d do with a production of Into the Woods, it would be to fully realize the potential of these characters. To me, they epitomize the shattered idealism theme of the show, and that’s a storyline I find very poignant in anything, because I am an idealist. So is Cinderella, but more on that later.
Marissa: I’m going to say the Baker’s Wife, just because currently, I have the most unanswered questions and unresolved feelings about her. If I typically find it annoying and retrograde when female characters just want to have a baby, why do I like the Baker’s Wife? Maybe it’s because she’s shrewd and funny, strong and active. Maybe it’s because having a baby is a mutual goal for both her and her husband, and he seems like a pretty hands-on dad. Maybe it’s because he acknowledges that he needs her and he couldn’t have accomplished his quest without her help — but then does that edge dangerously close to the patriarchal trope of the incompetent husband with a smart, endlessly forgiving wife? And then, when the Baker’s Wife gets killed right after having sex with the Prince, is it the equivalent of the sexist horror-movie trope where the slutty girls get killed and the virginal ones survive? And then, does the answer to that affect how seriously we’re meant to take her epiphany in “Moments in the Woods”? I don’t know. But I like characters who make me wonder.
Brian:The Baker’s Wife. Smart, funny, passionate, generally a truth-teller, and truly the hero of the first act, and the central tragedy in the second.
Corinne: I love the Baker’s wife for her relentlessness pursuit of what she wants, her strength and her cleverness. She also has a wonderfully interesting personal journey. If I were to do the show a third time, hers is the role I would most want to play.
Nick: Baker’s Wife, obviously. For the long answer, see my thoughts on my favorite song. For the short answer, she has the most interesting character arc in a show full of interesting character arcs.
Oren: I could spend hours looking at characters and trying to pick a favorite I don’t think anyone else would say, but fuck it: the Witch. She’s a popular favorite, and not just because she has all the best songs. The utilitarianism that lets her try to sacrifice Jack seems psychopathic, but ultimately she’s the most exciting character because she’s the most free — she is completely uninhibited by social mores. The only reason we find it unsettling is because one of those mores is putting a high premium on human life. I’m not saying sacrificing Jack is the right thing to do (I’m not disagreeing with it either — it’s a complicated question), but when something is based on fairy tales, then it has to take opportunities to push, prod, and refocus the way we think. If someone’s going to talk about murder, let them be convincing, let them seem clearheaded and intelligent and make everyone around them seem like emotional, foolish, goody-goodies who can’t get anything done. She is the starkest reminder that in the real world, right and wrong are messy.
Well, and because Western psychology, Freud and Jung’s archetypes, etc. is very much at the heart of INTO THE WOODS- now who is the character you RELATE to the most?
Nick: Still the Baker’s Wife. Maybe it’s a function of being young or whatever, but I’m still obsessed with trying to live a meaningful life, with reconciling what I want my life to be with what it is becoming.
Oren: I would have given a very different answer in High School, but I’m going to also have to go with the Baker’s Wife. She’s pragmatic, but still emotionally driven and passionate. She doesn’t take no for an answer, and can recognize when the people around her are being ridiculous. At the same time, she’s able to step back and analyze (sometimes over-analyze) her own actions. Her willingness to lie to Jack to get his cow is the gentler, more human, less psychopathic version of the Witch’s willingness to sacrifice him (and while I probably wouldn’t throw anyone to the giant, I do appreciate a do-what-you-gotta-do mentality). She’s also easily distracted by fantasies of an alternate life (“Very Nice Prince” and “Any Moment” — I’m lookin’ at you). Regardless of whether or not I actually have any of these qualities, I certainly identify with them in her.
Brian: The Baker. I think most of us want to be like the Baker’s Wife, but truly we are the Baker. We think we’re the hero, but really we’re making a lot of errors, bumbling along, trying to do the right thing, and making a heck of a mess.
Corinne: The Witch. While I picked the Baker’s Wife as my favorite, most of the traits I love her for are ones I wish I had. I’ve always identified with the Witch (maybe even more so when I played her at 18 than I do now) because I have so often found myself on the outside of groups of people I don’t feel I can really connect with. It’s also not unusual for me to be the once voicing the unpopular or opposing opinion. I identify with her sass and her ability to criticize/call others out without remorse. (Hey, I’m not good, I’m not nice – I’m just right. 😛 )
Marissa: I’m not sure if I currently identify with one Into the Woods character above all others, because frankly, nothing can compare with how deeply I identified with the Witch as a high-school freshman. I’d gone to a new school that year and not found it welcoming, and I very much felt like an outsider. To avoid feeling sad and lonely, I decided that I was actually misunderstood, that I was better than everybody and they’d be sorry one day. I remember walking around campus, cultivating my resentment while singing “Last Midnight” under my breath; “I’m not good, I’m not nice, I’m just right” felt like my credo. What I ignored, of course, is that at the end of that song, the Witch self-destructs. And that’s what I did that year, too. I felt angry, self-righteous, and invincible — and, in an attempt to make friends, I did something incredibly stupid and hurtful that backfired, big time. It’s dangerous to identify with the Witch.
Stuart: Cinderella. In fact, I would maintain that part of the reason why I’ve always loved this show, and why it made such a huge impression on me, is because Cinderella was probably the first character in a play I really, truly related to. I had related to characters in books before, but at 10, when I saw Into the Woods, I hadn’t yet seen a play where a character just made sense to me. And as I’ve gotten older- she makes more and more sense to me. Like Rapunzel, who is her doppleganger in the play, Cinderella wants something that isn’t material, but rather spiritual: she wants an experience, one she believes will transform her and allow her to finally feel like she belongs to somewhere. Then she has the experience and it’s not what she thought it would be, and comes with more than she bargained for. Her line in Act One, “Wanting a ball is not wanting a prince” nails that, and killed me the first time I heard it, I was like, “I know exactly what you mean.” Unlike Rapunzel, Cinderella is disillusioned but never stops learning while also never ceasing to believe in a benevolent world, and it’s her ability to live somewhere in-between “the nightmare” of her father’s house and the “dream” of the Prince’s castle, that ultimately becomes her strength: she, more than any of them, discovers that she can live in the woods. She’s learned to speak with birds and the spirits of the dead, she knows when to run and when to stand and fight, and she protects the people around her- whether it’s Jack, Little Red, or the Baker’s child- and believes in them even when they fail- she’s the one who welcomes the Baker back after he abandons them. Her journey in the play is about learning to be a good parent, someone who is neither the vague but purely supportive dead woman in a tree, nor the nasty wicked stepmother, nor the opportunistic survivor Wife, nor the overbearing and un-compassionate witch. She’s a high self-monitor, and thus often worries, even when she’s sitting on a throne or wearing a crown- that she’s an imposter or a failure (something I constantly worry about, especially when I’m sitting on my throne or wearing my crown), but in the end she wants to be more than a survivor and she comes to understand that entails being a leader and looking for ways to help, to protect, to forgive and to create. I’ve always read the relief with which she accepts the Baker’s invitation to move in (“Sometimes, I really enjoy cleaning”) as a combination of finally being included and appreciated, but also having finally found something she can truly contribute to. Her “I wish” that closes out the play I have always seen as a note of hopefulness, a recognition that we never stop believing in dreams until we’re dead. I have personally always believed that hope is the best within us and imagination is what keeps us alive and Cinderella epitomizes that while also being a neurotic mess on the inside. “An imaginative, hopeful, neurotic mess” is pretty much the most accurate description of myself that I can come up with.
Join us next week as we dive deeper into the structure and themes of the show, talk about what it means and how it works. Meantime, how would you answer these questions? Sound off in the comments section! Have questions for us- post them there!