I run hot and cold on Sondheim. His wit, both lyrically and musically, exceeds pretty much any practitioner of his art living. But his pretty much bottomless misanthropy makes it very difficult for him to tell effective stories. He does best, in my view, when his material forces him onto a clear narrative track. Thus my two favorites among his musicals are Sweeney Todd, where he found a story that suited his comprehensively bitter view of human nature, and A Little Night Music, where Bergman’s sunniest film forced him into a lighter mode.
Into The Woods, I’ve always felt, is an egregious example of the frequent Sondheim problem of a story that falls apart into general bickering followed by therapy. In other hands, the premise – a bunch of fairy-tale characters, having reached their ever-afters, discover that ever-after isn’t all that, and have to find their own way to true happiness – could work charmingly well, and in other hands it did. But in Sondheim’s hands, what you get is a charming setup that does a very good job of simply telling four fairy tales – “Little Red Riding Hood,” “Jack and the Beanstalk,” “Rapunzel” and “Cinderella” – intertwined with a story about a Baker and his Wife who want a child and can’t have one unless they placate the witch who has put a curse on them. And then, in the second half, the widow of the giant Jack killed comes down, like Grendel’s mother, seeking revenge for the death of her husband, and begins squashing people, and the surviving characters cry and point fingers at each other and wonder whether their narratives have any purpose anymore for an hour, before deciding that, yes, they’ll kill the giant and then, well, figure out what the remaining purpose of their narrative is. Basically, the second half of the show is a single joke: what if a bunch of fairy tale characters started acting like characters out of Company? This, great drama does not make.
The current production at the Delacorte – running for a few more days – deals with this problem by making the fairy tale characters relatively “real” from the beginning rather than stock archetypes. This is partly done through costuming – Red Riding Hood wears a red bike helmet, for example – and partly through characterization. These sometimes go in conflicting directions. The Baker, for example (Denis O’Hare, whose performance I found perplexingly inert) seems to take all the fairy tale stuff going on around him as patently absurd – “oh, look – a cow as white as milk” he says with mock-incredulity on meeting Jack, while the Witch is portrayed with fury and pain (and great vocal power) by Donna Murphy. Though their approaches don’t mesh well, they are both trying, I believe, to invest their characters with reality, to make sure they were, from the beginning, more than mere fairy tale characters.
This pays dividends in the first half, but it creates problems in the second, as the single joke of the show no longer works, and so we have nothing to distract us from the characters’ dithering. The transformation of the Giant’s Wife (voiced juicily by Glenn Close) into a physical presence on stage – a quite terrifying giant puppet reminiscent of the mother from Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” – has a powerful initial emotional impact, but this is undermined by the jokey quality of her dialogue. And it actually makes the dithering even more absurd. We see the giant. She sees them. What’s all the business about giving her another character about?
The other major alteration of this production was a significant improvement, but one with real costs in terms of continuity. A frame story is established in which a Boy (Jack Broderick the night I saw it) has run away from home after a fight with his (single) father. He holes up in the woods and, to amuse himself, begins telling himself fairy tales, using toys as props. The Boy thus becomes the Narrator of the story. This conceit pays off massively at the end, as the boy reappears at the end of the play, and is found by his father – who turns out to be the Baker, a single and very anxious father ever since his Wife was squashed by the Giant’s Wife. Their reunion, which plays out under “Children Will Listen” in the Act II Finale, brought tears to my eyes.
But it doesn’t make much sense, continuity-wise, as the Narrator was fed to the Giant’s Wife earlier in Act II, and killed.
Of course, if the whole thing – or, rather, all of Act II is a dream of the Boy, then continuity doesn’t matter. Indeed, if it’s all his dream, then the Giant’s Wife becomes the return of the dead mother, a terrifying female death. Which is pretty cool. But when you dream your own death, you usually wake up, and anyway why is the kid dreaming all of these grownups whining about their problems?
I suggested to my companion at the show that a better solution would have been for the Giant’s Wife to eat the Boy, and for him to emerge from her belly when she is killed. Then the adults wandering about aimlessly become a consequence of his death – the loss of their future – and the death of the Giant’s Wife is plainly about killing the ghost of his own mother, and thereby returning to life. But I still don’t think it would exactly work – the fact is, the second half of the show just doesn’t work that well for me.
There were things I enjoyed, though. The kids’ playground set – particularly the creation of the beanstalk from green childrens’ umbrellas. Sarah Stiles’ delightful characterization as Little Red Ridinghood, and Chip Zien’s as the Mysterious Man. The weakest links in the production performance-wise were, unfortunately, Gideon Glick’s vocally inadequate Jack and both the Baker and his wife (Amy Adams), who had little chemistry and didn’t seem integrated generally into the rest of the production.