An Appreciation of Sondheim’s Into the Woods

sondheim

Stephen Sondheim’s fairy-tale musical melange “Into the Woods” features the only rhyme-less song in the composer-lyricist’s career: “I Guess This Is Goodbye”, a short ode to a cow, sung by Jack, of Beanstalk fame. It speaks to the relentless genius of Sondheim, and the greatness of “Into the Woods”, that this apparent throwaway was actually assembled using intentional non-rhymes, each with the necessary combination of dissimilar vowel and consonant sounds to suggest the dim-wittedness of the character.

There’s an equally devious ingenuity to Fiasco Theater Company’s take on “Into the Woods”. Directed by Noah Brody and Ben Steinfeld, this is an unplugged, stripped-down version of the show. It unravels on a set that looks like a messy attic and generally encourages the charming impression of ramshackle looseness, though in fact everything is meticulously calibrated.

The basics are just as they are in the recently released Disney movie adaptation: “Into the Woods” interweaves and interrogates the familiar stories of Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk and Rapunzel, with a new story about a childless baker and his wife. The spirit of the two versions, though, is quite different: here, Cinderella’s tree is conjured out of a mannequin, Jack’s golden-egg-laying hen is a feather duster and Christmas-tree bauble, and Little Red is menaced by a mounted wolf’s head. Inviting the audience to join in make-believe is a natural, resonant fit for a show that draws on the stories told to children. Even more fundamentally, having the audience work with the actors in a common act of imagination feels right for a show that reassures that “No One is Alone”.

With the music undressed of Jonathan Tunick’s original orchestrations, here performed mostly on solo piano by music director Matt Castle, Sondheim’s loquacious lyrics have never been clearer. Fans will be especially grateful for this in the case of “Your Fault”, a preposterous four-part musical quarrel that’s the vocal equivalent of a game of hacky sack played at breakneck speed.

The naked piano arrangements also mean that the songs, more than ever, resemble soliloquies. As a company that specialises in Shakespeare—someone else who had a sense of the dark allure of the forest—Fiasco is uniquely qualified to navigate the emotional nuance of numbers like ‘No More’ (Steinfeld as the Baker) and ‘Moments in the Woods’ (Jessia Austrian as the Baker’s Wife).

The slickness of the ensemble is particularly apparent in the farce-like first act: Mr Brody and Andy Grotelueschen make a well-oiled comedy duo as the pining princes, Emily Young is a suitably batty Little Red, and Mr Grotelueschen also milks the role of Jack’s cow to its full comic potential. But the production executes the sentiment as assuredly as the silliness. This is surely the first time I’ve witnessed the Witch (Jennifer Mudge, adept at lowering the temperature of the room), lamenting her fallen Rapunzel (Young, again) and been reminded of the soldier father in a scene in “Henry VI”, cradling the son he’s accidentally killed.

This “Into the Woods” takes more liberties with Sondheim’s source material than most would ever dare. Even its opening moments, with the unpunctual entry of Sondheim’s assertive vamp, will be disorienting to those who know the show – but that’s the whole idea. This is a cast and creative team that understand that they do not just have a licence to experiment with a classic, but an obligation to do so—and the result turns out to be the most satisfying and enjoyable tribute to Sondheim’s creation you could wish for. As Little Red’s Wolf might declare: All the better to see and hear him with, my dear.

This review originally appeared in the Economist in January 2015.

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