In the often lightweight genre of musicals, composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim has tended towards the grim, in shows about a homicidal barber, presidential assassins and America’s opening and despoiling of Japan.
Then there is his Grimm musical, Into the Woods, written with his Sunday in the Park with George collaborator James Lapine. Its first act, which interweaves several familiar fairy tales – Cinderella, Rapunzel, Little Red Riding Hood, Beanstalk Jack – with an original story of a baker and his wife trying to remove a witch’s curse which has left them childless, is lighthearted in tone. But after intermission, the show turns dark as the writing team explores the real world consequences of “happily ever after.”
Premiered on Broadway in 1987, where it won three Tony Awards and ran nearly two years, Into the Woods has become Sondheim’s most produced musical, despite its considerable production and performance demands.
For Bruce Linser, who is directing the musical as part of Florida Atlantic University’s 2017 Festival Rep, this is a particularly apt time to see Into the Woods and consider its numerous themes. “Because of the social fabric of where we are, politically and socially,” he says. “It goes in cycles and this is a time when we yearn for something that means something more, that touches us more deeply.”
While keeping the show entertaining, Sondheim and Lapine infuse this story of an interdependent community besieged by a giant with a variety of thought-provoking ideas. “The themes that we’ve focused on are fantasy versus reality and the pursuit of happily ever after,” notes Linser. “Everyone wants that fantasy that doesn’t really exist and yet we keep trying to pursue it. We are so polarized right now in our society. I’m right and you’re wrong and that’s all there is to it. The importance of finding that middle ground, of living in that uncomfortable gray area is an important part of this show.
“And the class distinction. We have the royals versus the peasants, and how in the end everybody’s got to come together and work together or we’re going to destroy ourselves or be destroyed.”
Like the recent production of Julius Caesar in New York’s Central Park whose assassinated Roman emperor had an uncanny resemblance to our new president, Linser says he briefly considered a similar link to Into the Woods’ giant.
“If I could have done that, I would have in a second,” he concedes. “But it’s very clear that the giant is a woman. But absolutely, that is the sense behind the threat, I think.” Still, if the bullying giant gives theatergoers Trumpian notions, that would be OK with Linser. “I think if people are thinking when they come, that’s not going to escape them.”
Some productions of the show feature a Disneyfied cartoonishness in the first act. If anything, Linser is working against the show’s fairy tale style.
“We took a lot of the fairy tale-ness out of it. I know that sounds silly, because it’s all about fairy tales,” he says. “But to me, there’s a very thin veneer between these fairy tale characters and us. I’m really trying to make those characters into people, to bring the humanity forward and put the fairy tale in the background. I think people are going to hear the story in ways they’re not used to.”
The first act ends with “happily ever after,” but Sondheim and Lapine ask us to look beyond that point to the consequences of what we wish for.
“We think, ‘If only we had money, if only we had power, if only we had a beautiful spouse, if only we had whatever.’ What Sondheim has done is given you that at the end of the first act. But attaining that can prove unsatisfying,” suggests Linser. “That wealth doesn’t make you happy, you may gain that beautiful person, but what after that? I think that’s the whole point of the show. At the end, you realize that ‘ordinary life’ is really not that ordinary.”
This is pretty heady material for a musical, yet Linser considers Into the Woods to be Sondheim’s most family-friendly show – another reason it is so frequently produced.
“We talked about that a lot. We didn’t want it to be presented as a children’s theater thing, because it’s not. I don’t think there’s anything darker than what kids see on TV or movies, but we don’t think it’s really for kids. I think middle school and up are going to be fine, but there’s some pretty dark material in it and we don’t shy away from it.”
Linser hears himself and quickly adds, “Still, there’s some really funny stuff here, so come and have a good time.”
INTO THE WOODS, Florida Atlantic University’s 2017 Festival Rep, 777 Glades Road, Boca Raton. In repertory from Friday through July 30. $25. 800-564-9539.