The following article was originally published in the December 1987 print edition of Playbill.
One of the enduring attractions of fairy tales is the comforting message they convey to children. They depict a world clearly compartmentalized into good and bad, right and wrong, black and white: Virtue is rewarded, evil is punished, wishes come true, and the prince arrives on cue to rescue the fair maiden. Even though these stories often deal with acts of violence, abandonment, and death, their young protagonists always emerge victorious, presumably en route to living happily ever after.
Real life, however, is far more complex and far less predictable-a lesson we learn as we grow up. And it is that passage from fantasy to reality, from childhood to adulthood, from dependence to independence and interdependence, which supplies the impetus for Into the Woods, the new musical by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine. The Pulitzer Prize-winning authors of Sunday in the Park With George have assembled such well-known storybook characters as Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Jack (of Beanstalk fame), and Rapunzel and have retold their sagas as a cautionary tale for the eighties.
"The first act is the fairy tale," says Lapine. "The second act is the myth. People keep writing about the 'second act as if it's a continuation of what happens after the happily ever after. But it's really about growing up and real life and understanding the differences between reality and fantasy. There's a part of all of us that expects somebody else to take care of important issues. And it's crucial to say that there comes a time when you can't expect your friends to come up to the door and grab you. You have to go out and find a friend."
The excursion into the woods is a rite of passage, a test of character, fortitude, and inner strength. In those dark environs the travelers must battle not only very real foes, but their own personal fears as well. They start out as babes in the woods; they lose their innocence along the way and emerge tougher, wiser, more humane, and human.
While Into the Woods is very much an ensemble piece, the two pivotal characters are a Baker and his wife, played by Chip Zien and Joanna Gleason (the show also stars Tom Aldredge, Robert Westenberg, and Bernadette Peters as the Witch). The pair are desperate to start a family, but must break The Witch's spell in order to do so. Although childless couples abound in folk literature, this particular twosome happen to be the sly creations of Lapine, and their actions directly affect everyone else in the play.
The delightful first act closely follows the story lines of the familiar fairy tales, even as the authors intertwine the various plots. Each character goes into the woods to attain his or her wish; each is successful and sings confidently of being "Happy now and happy hence and happy ever after." But in the second act, everyone must return to the woods on a far more urgent mission: to save their land from a giant capable of annihilating them.
"The first act is such a romp that, on a certain level, audiences don't want to see what goes on in the second act," maintains Lapine, who also serves as the show's director. "They don't want to deal with people dying, and that's what the second act is about. We've even heard the same question we heard with Sunday in the Park With George: 'Why do you have a second act?' But that's the part of the show that really intrigues me."
Into the Woods is first and foremost an exploration of parent-children relationships and the need for letting go and growing up. The show is also informed by the notion, "Be careful what you wish for." The second act deals with the repercussions of how the characters attained their wishes, but it digs even deeper than that. It is a parable for the randomness of death in contemporary society and the necessity to connect with each other and work together if we are to avoid our own Armageddon. It is not out of deference to Cinderella that the authors warn: "It's nearly midnight." Yet all admonishments are offered with compassion and humanity, especially in such songs as "No More" and "No One Is Alone."
'The subject matter of this show is the most primal and basic Sondheim's written," claims Chip Zien, "and the music reflects it. The first time he sang and played 'No More' for the cast, we all stood around and cried. I couldn't even rehearse it for a while, because I couldn't get through it. I'm married, and I have two kids, and to me the song is about protecting my children. It's about reconciling my feelings with my dad and growing up and learning that nobody can run from their responsibilities. And in a larger sense, it's about facing huge, cosmic issues. Sondheim's saying, 'Come on, folks. Do something before it's too late.' It's incredibly powerful and moving."
Into the Woods has been an emotional journey for many of those involved. "I have a small son," offers Joanna Gleason, "and the show says so much to me in very personal ways. It just resonates through every part of me. It's thrilling to do, and at the end it's just a wipe out. I have to rely on technique to get through it."
There is a sweetness and simplicity which colors Lapine's book and Sondheim's score from start to finish. The title song, which recurs throughout the show, is a bouncy, Disneyesque ditty, which serves as a constant reminder that the characters are storybook figures.
"There is a kind of Disney thought-pattern to much of the show," asserts musical director Paul Gemignani, "and I mean that in the best sense. For instance, when someone dies, you hear a little sad music. The Witch has specific chords. The underscoring points out certain things. The subject matter lends itself to all of this. But it's deceptively simple. There are all kinds of colors in the score, and a complex rhythmic intensity. It's written as a chamber music piece, and the challenge is to make the sound crystalline.''
Both the lyrics and the libretto have a spare, stylized quality which the collaborators felt was necessary for this kind of material. "Even though fairy tales use flowery language, they are essentially underwritten in terms of plot," explains Lapine. "So we thought it was best to keep it sounding light and simple. Steve and I both enjoy creating certain resonances throughout a show, in terms of language and themes. And we try to reinforce it in each other's work.''
According to Zien and Gleason, they've succeeded admirably. "One of the great things about this piece is that it has an unusually fine, clearly conceived book on which to hang the music," asserts Zien. "And, the stylistic connection between the music and the scenes is particularly good.'' The result, says Gleason, is that the actors "get to sing the scenes and act the songs. At first the score was very daunting to me. There are a lot of notes and a lot of words to sing. But because you can act the songs, they became easier and easier. Now they're a joy to perform."
The authors went to work on Into the Woods more than three years ago, just after Sunday in the Park opened on Broadway. Lapine was on the verge of becoming a father, an event which undoubtedly influenced his writing. "Obviously it was something I was thinking about," he concedes. "But one of the things I want to get across in the show is that it's also okay not to have kids. That line always gets a big laugh, but the truth is you have to take responsibility for your own sake, not just for your children."
His first idea was to write an original fairy tale, a project which he started but never finished. "There were already so many existing stories that I didn't see the point," he recalls. "So then I decided to use some of those stories and mix them all up. The Baker and his wife were a conceit of mine, an attempt to make people think that there is an old fairy tale by that name. From the outset, I had an overall sense of what I wanted to do."
Zien participated in a very early reading of the first act as Rumpelstiltsken (who is no longer in the show) rather than the Baker and contends that it was at that reading that the show began to take shape. "There was no second act," he relates. "There was just an idea that the second act would be more serious. And the style at that reading was very broad. Originally the first act was about lots of different stories, and I think it became apparent that something was needed to anchor the piece, so that everything could spin around it. I hope it's not ungraceful of me to say this, but as the versions progressed, the Baker and his wife became that core."
One consistency from the very beginning is that, by and large, the women display much more fortitude than the men. "Fairy tales generally have more women characters than men," Lapine explains, "and the men tend to be weak or princelike cutouts. The women are usually stronger in those stories, so we made them stronger as well. That was a given."
A workshop was held at Playwrights Horizons in June of '86, with a complete first draft of the book and many of the songs for the first act. Last December Into the Woods received a full-scale production for six weeks at San Diego's Old Globe Theatre and, prior to its Broadway opening, an additional workshop was staged this past summer.
"One of the benefits of going away from the piece and coming back to it again is that the characters become clearer," maintains Gleason. "That's not only true for the actors, but for the writers as well. And they took advantage of that. They discovered where the actor could be inventive, what colors should be included. They worked it and reworked it carefully.
"The song I sing in the second act, 'Moments in the Woods,' was written after an extensive conversation with Stephen about images we could use in it," she continues. "It's a song about either/or; either you have one thing in life, or another. It's a little philosophical, a little ironic. It was also written to illustrate a decision that my character was actively making. And Stephen serviced all those needs I had as an actress. Since San Diego, it's been changed slightly and has become that much more powerful."
The show—particularly the second act—continued to evolve until shortly before opening night. Cuts were made, songs were added, scenes were altered, actions were clarified and, most significantly, a decision was made to go back to the San Diego script and kill off a character who had managed to survive the woods in the Broadway version. "I was very concerned that only the women were being killed," reveals Lapine. "I was upset about one character in particular, because people were reading it that her death was punishment for something she did wrong. That was never my intention, but I understood how someone could misconstrue it. When I realized that only the women were dying, I went back to my original concept and killed off a certain male character. That's what my instincts had told me to do from the start, and I think I was right."
Although the second act is dark, it is never bleak. The authors express hope in mankind, best summed up by the forthright, Hammersteinlike sentiment of "No One Is Alone":
"Hard to see the light now.
Just don't let it go.
Things will come out right now. We can make it so."
Without being preachy or judgmental, Into the Woods entreats us to see the forest through the trees—before it is too late.