Can we ever get enough of Into the Woods?
In the run up to an off-Broadway transfer to the Menier Chocolate Factory, chairman of the Stephen Sondheim Society Craig Glenday delves into the enduring appeal of this darkly comic show
Since the release of Rob Marshall's adaptation of Into the Woods for Disney in 2014, we've enjoyed professional productions of the Sondheim-Lapine show staged at, among other venues, the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, the Victorian Opera in Melbourne, the San Francisco Playhouse, the Hart House Theatre in Toronto, the Manchester Royal Exchange and - currently - the West Yorkshire Playhouse.
A recent and much-reduced production by the Fiasco Theater Company is transferring from the Off-Broadway Roundabout Theatre to the Menier Chocolate Factory next month, which to me begs a question: Can we ever have too much of Into The Woods?
The answer would appear to be no!
"Here we are 30 years later, still enjoying the show"
Into the Woods is a show from the third period of Sondheim's career - the post-Hal Prince era - and the second of his collaborations (after Sunday in the Park with George) with writer James Lapine. The idea evolved from Sondheim's desire to work with Lapine on a "quest musical along the lines of The Wizard of Oz". Lapine instead suggested a mash-up of fairytale classics, intertwining their stories but also switching the focus of the show to the dishonesties that the characters indulge in to see their wishes come true. Successful tryouts of Woods in San Diego in 1986 proved that this novel approach was a hit with fans, and when it finally opened on Broadway in November 1987 with a few tweaks - just in time for Christmas - it was a (largely) critical and commercial hit, securing three of its ten Tony nominations, including Best Score and Best Musical.
And here we are 30 years later, still enjoying the show. There are various reasons for this musical's lasting appeal. On a very basic level, it's a unique and surprising take on classic fairytales from our childhood, recounting as it does the tales of Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Rapunzel and their ilk. But more than a re-treading of these well-worn paths, Lapine's book is richly inventive and much greater than the sum of its parts. He adds interesting new twists - and an important degree of humanity and realism - to these fables. Combined with Sondheim's equally rich and highly thematic music, it's a show that appeals to children and adults alike, even if you've checked your brain into the cloakroom.
But beyond this surface-level enjoyment, there are depths to be explored. A journey into the woods is, of course, allegorical - it's about growing up and losing one's innocence - but with Into the Woods, it goes beyond this. What happens once our wishes are granted? "Are you certain what you wish is what you want?" asks Cinderella's mother earlier in the show. Every act has consequences; everything carries a cost. Disenchantment, the importance of community, societal pressure, the greyness of morality and the responsibilities of parenthood are all explored... not your typical musical-theatre fare!
"It's a show that appeals to children and adults alike, even if you've checked your brain into the cloakroom."
The other thing it has is memorable songs that touch us in many ways and stay with us long after the show. "Our Little World", "Giants in the Sky", "Agony", "Stay With Me", "No More", "No One is Alone", "Children Will Listen"... each a perfectly crafted number that propels the story along while also teaching us a valuable lesson or two. It's some of Sondheim's most heart-wrenchingly beautiful songwriting.
The composer-lyricist sums up the success of the show succinctly in his Hat books: "Early in our discussions I brashly predicted that if the piece worked, it would spawn innumerable productions for many years to come, since it dealt with world myths and fables and would therefore never feel dated. Moreover, it would appeal to schools and amateur theatres as well as professional ones, especially in conservative parts of the country which are hesitant to support shows that deal with contemporary themes in contemporary ways... I'm surprised to say I was right."
Craig Glenday is chairman of The Stephen Sondheim Society.
Into the Woods runs at the Menier Chocolate Factory from 12 July to 17 September.