To quote one of the few fairy tales not referenced in Into the Woods, the emperor has no clothes. Yes, here’s another post in which I point out the deficiencies in a Sondheim show. Why do I do this? One reason is the prevalence of unquestioning Sondheim-worshippers, unaware their God ever nods. More positively, there are flawed shows that are saved by the quality of the songwriting, and it’s interesting to see where good songs do and do not lift us up from the sludge of turgid storytelling. Also, if we must place Sondheim on a pedestal, it’s a respite, a reality check, to observe the swing-and-a-miss.
In his book, Look, I Made a Hat, Sondheim describes the freedom he felt working with James Lapine on Sunday in the Park With George. It was a new experience to collaborate with a director-librettist with something of an Off-Broadway aesthetic. That meant a reduced reliance on plot-driven structure, ample time for flights of fancy, magical conversations with dead people, and stage images that are merely beautiful rather than forwarding a narrative.
I think this meeting of two very different minds was largely successful. A story unfolded gradually, and you had time to ascribe meaning to the seemingly trivial events you’d seen an hour earlier.
Into the Woods, the second Lapine-Sondheim collaboration, does just the opposite. It’s fairly bursting with plot, tons of trivial events that mean much to the characters but never become meaningful to us. Children’s Theatre is a familiar genre, and its best shows charm and amuse, wittily. Into the Woods seems to want to eschew charm, and there isn’t enough comedy to keep us engaged. It’s no surprise the Forbidden Broadway parody was called Into the Words because, during its inexcusably long first act, dense and intricate lyrics keep shooting at us like a military machine gun. There’s rarely time for the performers to take a breather, but what’s worse is that our ears get too few chances to relax. It’s exhausting for us all.
These tongue-twisters come in service of several stories we’ve heard before, plus one we haven’t. Among them is Little Red Riding Hood, and after she’s freed from the wolf’s stomach, she proceeds to recap the entire tale we’ve just seen, the tale we all know from childhood. Sans pause.
I’ve an intense aversion to attempts at profundity. It’s been a struggle I’ve grappled with in writing a musical involving epiphanies of a religious nature. If it weren’t bad enough that Little Red is wasting my time re-telling a tale I’ve known from childhood and in fact have just seen, she then proceeds to try to get all philosophical about it. “I know things now, many valuable things,” she claims: “Flowers have their dangers…nice is different than good.” Let me ask you something: Is that profound? Is it funny? Is it funny that a child thinks these lessons have value? Does anybody give a damn?
At another point, a parade of characters recite various fairy-tale morals and one is clearly funny: “A slotted spoon won’t hold much soup.” At that juncture, the show seems to be reveling in the meaninglessness of morals. Good. But you can’t have it both ways. Profundity or silliness: can’t be and; must be or.
Meaninglessness rears its ugly head again in the storyline that’s original, about an unnamed baker and his wife. A rapping witch with an outsize vocabulary (rampion?) sets them on a quest. They have to collect four odd items and she promises to end their infertility. Why they believe she’ll keep her word is anybody’s guess: are rappers seen as particularly trustworthy? In a seemingly endless procession of scenes, they acquire then lose then acquire again these four things. Yes, fairy tales are sometimes as dull as this. Some are crafted to put children asleep. Others teach ethical lessons. Neither is a particularly good goal for a musical. We don’t like being preached to and being put to sleep in the theatre is never considered a positive thing.
Much of the music is jagged, dissonant: plum ugly. That combats the soporific effect and separates Into the Woods from Children’s Theatre. My favorite melodies in the score, though, both happen to be lullabies. Sondheim had stolen bits of melody from Leslie Bricusse before, and here robs him more blatantly. In the 70s, believe it or not, Bricusse had a chart-topping hit song from a movie musical for children. Sondheim slows and quiets down The Candy Man for a second act gem called No One Is Alone. Music geeks might recognize that, as the lyric philosophizes its way through unresolved questions, the song ends with an unresolved chord. Neat. I also like the gentle sway of the barcarole he uses for a comic male duet. It’s quite welcome after the pages of frenetic 6/8 that reminds parents of The Teddy Bear’s Picnic. It contains a delicious pun (“you cry on their biers”) and builds to one of those tense juxtapositions of a chord and a melody note right above it. Sounds agonizing, I know, but it’s apt – the lyric and the song’s title are “Agony.”
In Sondheim’s stronger shows, such as Sweeney Todd and Company, immoral or amoral actions happen and, thank God, nobody sits around moralizing about them. His lesser shows, such as this and Merrily We Roll Along, are old-fashioned morality plays in which choruses or characters explicitly spell out ethical lessons for us. So our minds aren’t engaged in the usual fun of drawing our own conclusions. It’s every bit as didactic as agitprop, and agitprop, at least, is passionately and earnestly felt.
So, one leaves the theatre, worn down by all the sermonizing and says “What the hell was that?” Later on, one might wonder what prompted Sondheim and Lapine to write something so antithetical to Lapine’s Off-Broadway aesthetic. Was it to make a lot of money? Well, they succeeded there. Into the Woods is the most produced of Sondheim shows. It’s thought of as his most accessible, containing familiar characters like Cinderella and Rapunzel, thus presaging this horrid epoch of jukebox scores containing The Names You Know. Perhaps it’s reading too much into it, but of course there was a scourge randomly killing off people as the show was written, AIDS. Subconsciously, we experience the tragic parallel of loved ones lost in real life and fairy tale people senselessly dispatched. And so we might look again at that baldly-stated moral. In the face of a widespread catastrophe, we must all stick together. Rather cold comfort to those affected by AIDS, where the true need is for brilliant solutions from scientists, more than community and connectivity. In light of that, No One Is Alone seems more hollow than The Candy Man.