Monday, January 24, 2011

Back in Time: 2002: Into the Woods (Revival), Part II: The Creative Team

In the first part of this blog series, I started to make a case for examining the impact of the revival  of Into the Woods, rather than the original production.  I think that looking at the creative team behind the production will further justify this choice.

Stephen Sondheim (Music and Lyrics):  Despite winning the Tony Award for Best Score for the original production, Sondheim continued to tinker.  For the London production, he added a duet for the Witch and Rapunzel, "Our Little World," which is now a part of the licensed production, and was included in this revival.  This revival also featured several lyric changes, including tweaks to each of the Witch's numbers, most notably, "Last Midnight," which incorporates a verse from a previous incarnation, "Boom! Crunch!"  He also added lyrics for Jack and Little Red at the end of Cinderella's "On the Steps of the Palace," which neatly tie the three stories together thematically, and set us up for this trio of characters working together in Act Two.

James Lapine (Book and Direction):  Lapine probably had the biggest overall impact on this production.  He pretty much let go of all of his original directorial decisions from the original production.  Book-wise, he added (along with Sondheim) ways to more succinctly tie together elements of the story, creating parallels both obvious - "Hello, Little Girl" now features two wolves, one after Little Red and the other after the Three Little Pigs, which more neatly parallels the "wolfish" traits of both Prince Charmings later in the story.  He also make more human and accessible the central character of Milky White. Sure talking and singing aren't necessary, but making the character be played by a human that moves and reacts is both in keeping with the fairy tale genre and in reminding us that when we go after what we want, all creatures are at stake.  Is a cow's life, central to creating new life, any less valuable than a human life?

Directorially, he has created a major shift in tone with this production.  Some accused him of "Disney-fying" the production because this version is brighter, dancier, and special effects laden.  I say that, in fact, Lapine "Americanized" it.  The original embraced the European mores and underlying culture in the original; he kept to the traditional stylings of the tales of  the Brothers Grimm.  By making the first act, at least, a brighter, more comic version - the characters are still grounded, but they have a more contemporary feel - including all out dance numbers, versus skipping around the May Pole, Lapine offers that ideal which is both fantastical and unattainable.  But Americans just love the illusion of happiness and lives together - throw on a coat of new paint, rearrange the furniture, and Wham! all the troubles and issues are hidden.  And if not hidden, the part of someone else's story.  Add to it a more contemporary self-awareness (The Producers and Urinetown have both happened since the original production and definitely influenced this newer version) and that ever popular "smile-through-cynicism" attitude that has pervaded society and allowed us distance from each other without physical distance, and you have fairy tale characters that more like us than the ideal us.  Sure, every girl can become Cinderella, the princess, but she can also celebrate the woman that got her there - Cinderella, the down-trodden.  Even the central story, completely made up by the authors, The Baker and His Wife, has a more contemporary edge, given the relative youth of the actors playing the roles.  In fact, all of the characters are played by more age appropriate actors.  It is a trade off, though.  The bone-weary desperation of the original maybe rang a little truer than the youthful "we can't get pregnant" angst.  Take away the fairy tale and the younger Baker's Wife might be an IVF candidate.  Perhaps today's reality has taken some of the edge off.  And the bigger specters of life and death imposed on the original - is the Giant really AIDS?  Nuclear Holocaust? - seem a little out of whack.  This production seems bent on the idea that we are our own worst ememies - is the Giant a self-destructing society on the brink of economic and political disaster?  Is it homegrown terrorism?  Or is it the unseen, unexpected enemy that you can reason with.  Yes, fresh from 9/11, like it or not, we bring entirely new and even scarier baggage with us to this production.

No matter what you thought of Lapine and Sondheim's changes - I like most of them, actually, and can live with the others - the revival of Into the Woods shows us the depth of the whole piece, viable even after modernizing and thematic tweaking.  It also shows us two of theatre's finest minds willing and able to re-examine a wildly popular piece, in an effort to make it even stronger.  (Since then: Lapine and Sondheim have collaborated on Sondheim on Sondheim, and various revivals of their works, both on Broadway and in London)

John Carrafa (Choreography):  Even though the original production had a movement/staging credit for Lar Lubovitch, one has to look much harder at the original to justify that the piece even had choreography, let alone earned a Tony nod for the same.  Carrafa, hot at the time after his inspired work on Urinetown, certainly added more of a dance element throughout the revival.  Parts of the opening number are an all out dance routine, which is then paralleled in later reprises of the tune.  Act one has a more traditional finale with stylized dance and movement.  Into the Woods will never be a dance show, but one imagines that this revival took every available opportunity to get on its feet and move. (Since then: director/choreographer of Good Vibrations; choreographer Dance of the Vampires)

Douglas Schmidt (Scenic Design):  Schmidt was clearly on board with Lapine's vision.  He created very clever story books for each of the three main stories, which opened to reveal the characters in their setting.  Bright and colorful, the books and later the woods, were simultaneously deceptive in their cheeriness and thus more sinister.  How fitting then that the Witch, who "created" the story of Rapunzel, must climb the spine of the Rapunzel book to reach the the love of her life.  And what is scarier than being duped by something that seems safe?  Also cool, is the completeness of the design - the show opens with books opening and characters coming out; the show ends with the characters disappearing into a closing book.  The implication is both of finality and of a cycle.  What will happen the next time the book is opened? (Since then: Sight Unseen at Manhattan Theatre Club)

Susan Hilferty (Costume Design):  Hilferty, of course, was just warming up here, one can see in retrospect.  Her fairy tale characters are at once recognizable, but all with a contemporary edge - the Witch, in particular.  How fitting that just a year or so later, she created a new clothing language for the people of Oz in a a little show about two other witches, Wicked(Since then:3 Tony Nominations; Tony Winner for Wicked, plus Spring Awakening, Assassins, Lestat, and the upcoming Wonderland)

Brian MacDevitt (Lighting Design):  The lighting design for this show earned McDevitt a Tony Award.  He used his lights and colors like so much paint on a brush.  It is rare to praise a lighting design for being almost a character in the show, so overt was his work.  Normally, you want lighting to create mood and such, but without the audience really noticing it.  Here, though, the lighting plays an integral part in shifting time, space and mood in just the same obvious way fairy tales do.  Both the tales and the lighting of this show are obvious in all the right ways, adding to the immediacy of what the audience and the actors are experiencing.  (Since then: 37 Broadway productions and 4 Tony Awards.  This season alone: Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, The Book of Mormon and The House of Blue Leaves)

Dan Moses Schreier (Sound Design):  One only needs to have heard the frightening voice of Dame Judy Dench as it "moved and boomed" around the theatre, just as the Giantess she was playing was supposedly moving about the woods, to truly understand the importance of Schreier's work on this show.  There are many necessary sound effects in Into the Woods which add to the feel and the mood and the "reality" of the show.  And I can recall sitting in the Broadhurst Theatre thinking that the sound was fantastic.  Voices were clear, the music sounded like it was coming through my own headphones, and the special effects sounds were spot on and felt like they were right where they were supposed to be. In short, he really did his job.  Exceptionally.  And let's not forget that in the 15 years between opening nights, huge advances in sound have been made.  One can only imagine what te next revival will sound like.  (Since then: 26 Broadway Productions, 4 Tony nominations (all for Sondheim shows!).  This season: The Merchant of Venice and The People in the Picture)

Speciality Design:  There are Playbill credits for Projections, Special Effects, Illusion Design in this production, and each played a huge part in this technically updated production - from levitating the witch, to illuminating her sceptre, to the effects on the wolves' costumes, to the puppetry styling of Milky White.  The production took the "maybe they're really magic" line to heart, as things zoomed in, came up through the floor and disappeared as quickly with a smooth rapidity heretofore unseen.  But the one effect that REALLY stood out for me was the tree at Cinderella's mother's grave, which morphed before our very eyes to reveal her mother's face in the leaves and bark of the tree.  Truly remarkable!  And even more chilling when she returns to the destroyed tree and nothing moves.  Sad, abrupt, lonely, and sad.  It made the original's effect, live woman behind a scrim hole in a tree seem downright old school.

I think that the biggest reason the revival of Into the Woods has such an impact on its place in Broadway history is because it embodies all of the shifts in public taste, behavior, and the advances in theatre technology all at once in one production.  The differences in the original and the revival are many - some work exceptionally well, others not so much - but perhaps because they were so relatively close together in time, this new production also serves as a reminder of how fast things change, even in the age old art form of theatre.

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