Twenty-five years ago, when INTO THE WOODS played its first preview in New York, many audience members walked out after the first act. They weren’t necessarily dissatisfied; they’d simply assumed that they’d seen the entire show.
The theatergoers had a point. The stories of Cinderella, Rapunzel, Little Red Ridinghood, Jack of Beanstalk fame and the Baker and his Wife had seemingly been resolved. The Narrator had sung “Journey over! All is mended!” and was then joined by the cast proclaiming that everyone would live happily “Ever After.”
Pretty soon either composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim or director-librettist James Lapine – or some well-wisher – decided that having the Narrator say the words “To be continued!” would help the audience stay around for Act Two. The phrase was inserted, theatergoers returned to their seats and a two-year run resulted.
French critic Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr had died almost a century before INTO THE WOODS opened, but his famous remark that “the more things change, the more they stay the same” is relevant to what happened on Wednesday afternoon at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park.
At the end of the first act of the current production of INTO THE WOODS, the Narrator did not say “To be continued” – but for good reason: the show was not continuing. This was a special kiddie matinee for INTO THE WOODS, and only the first act – the funnier and the less dour one – would be performed for them.
The Delacorte was close to capacity, about half filled with adults who were escorting the half that were children. One could tell from the generous laughter through the entire 80 minutes that this tale of a Baker and his Wife was new to many. They enjoyed seeing the comic struggles of this pair that was trying to find a cow as white as milk, a cape as red as blood, hair as yellow as corn and a slipper as pure as gold. Then they ran into Jack and his cow, Little Red Ridinghood, Rapunzel and her long hair and Cinderella and her golden slipper.
I was surprised when a little boy came out to start the show. I’d seen the full two-act presentation 16 days earlier, and didn’t much like the idea that either co-director Timothy Sheader or Liam Steel had dreamed up: this lad had run away from home after a fight with his father, which we’d heard replicated over the sound system. Now that he’d run into the woods, he was going to put on INTO THE WOODS in his head. Well, a lad would have to be awfully bright to do come up with those words, lyrics and melodies!
For this performance, the fight was dropped, thank the Lord, and here the lad was simply the Narrator, just another hired actor who’d learned the role in the 1987 musical that won both composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim and bookwriter James Lapine Tony awards.
Should you use a kid in your upcoming production as Narrator? Think twice before you cast one. While the lad was excellent, he did have a good deal of responsibility in getting out information in lickety-split fashion. His young tongue just hasn’t had that much training. Use an adult.
As soon as the other characters bounded on stage, delighted little children turned to their parents, not to have them clear up what they didn’t understand, but to say “That’s Red Ridinghood!” or “That’s Cinderella!”
They loved when Little Red Ridinghood bought a baguette from the Baker, put it in her mouth and talked with her mouth full. They’ve been told since they were toddlers not to do that — and if there’s one thing kids love, it’s seeing another kid be naughty and getting away with it.
Of course, even Act One has some things that went over kids’ heads. Only the adults understood the Wife’s rationalization about trading mere beans for a big cow: “If the end is right, it justifies the beans.” And I saw plenty of smiles on the faces in the row in front of me when Jack’s mother mourned “Your mother’s getting older” and touched her neck to see how it was holding up. Nevertheless, I heard one teen bark out a loud laugh after he got the joke when The Baker’s Wife told Cinderella “What I wouldn’t give to be in your shoes.”
Part of the reason that there was more adult laughter than children’s giggles was that some parents brought really little kids. The mother in front of me had a baby on her lap who might have still been in the womb when The Book of Mormon opened. She bounced him up and down in tempo to the title song, and he seemed to have a good time.
Another child, a wee bit older, was very much impressed at how a theater seat works. He pushed on it and it went down as he’d expected, but he was fascinated that whenever he let it go, it would snap back up again. This was more compelling to him than such lines as “While her withers wither with her.” But when The Wolf howled, the kid suddenly stopped playing with the chair, turned around and watched the rest of the show.
There was plenty for the kids to enjoy, however. They cackled when Rapunzel moaned in agony when the Witch climbed up her hair. They laughed when Little Red confessed that “I ate all my sweets,” for they could certainly identify with that. Then they gurgled with pleasure when they saw three actors dressed as The Three Little Pigs. Now Pigs get a lot of bad press, but these so-called dumb animals knew enough to run away from the Wolf, which is more than we can say for Little Red Ridinghood. Best of all, the kids were so impressed when many cast members worked together to create the bed in which Little Red Ridinghood’s grandmother had rested, thanks to just a few pieces of cloth and a couple of pillows. Sometimes theatrical magic trumps reality.
In the nighttime edition, Sheader and Steel had made more of the Wolf’s eating Little Red – turning it into a sexual act. Mercifully, they dropped it for this matinee and, to be frank, I hope they’ve dropped it from the “real” production, too.
But the directors added plenty of nice touches, some of which you might want to incorporate in your upcoming production:
Cinderella wore glasses. I guessed that the unseen Fairy Godmother gave her contacts or corrected her vision.
The cow that needed to be as white as milk was carried around by an actor. He was dressed in a white shirt, yes, but also in a vest, pants and shoes that were all brown. If you plan to have an actor carry around Milky White, you might put him in a totally milky white costume.
When The Baker negotiated with Jack to sell his cow – and was offering only beans for the animal – the cow slowly shook his head from side to side as if to say “You’re being cheated! Don’t do it!”
There was some nice staging on “It Takes Two,” the number in which The Baker comes around to trust his Wife. Here, he also became playful with her, leading to their nice kiss at the end. We saw what they must have been like years ago before they were married, when they had first found love and were courting. Keep it in mind.
When the time came when the Baker and his Wife had all four items and time came for the Witch’s transformation, Sheader and Steel kept our eyes so focused on her that we didn’t notice what was going on at the side: the Baker’s Wife had suddenly acquired a pregnancy pad.
After the shoe fit Cinderella and marriage with the Prince resulted, some wedding guests held up posters. My favorite: the one that said “SOLEmates.”
In a way, this INTO THE WOODS worked better than many productions because of the sunlight. Comedy plays best in bright light, and INTO THE WOODS is usually lit very dimly because it takes place both in the woods and mostly at midnight. Here, the sun helped make the first act – well, sunnier. Can you do yours outdoors?
The best tribute that the kids gave? Three times during the 80-minute presentation, a noisy helicopter flew overhead. I looked carefully to see how many kids would turn their heads up to see them – and never saw a single kid’s eyes leave the stage. They’ve seen helicopters before. They’ve never seen anything like this.
You may e-mail Peter at email@example.com. Check out his weekly column each Tuesday at www.masterworksbroadway.com and each Friday at www.kritzerland.com. His newest book, Broadway Musical MVPs, 1960-2010: The Most Valuable Players of the Past 50 Seasons, is now available through Applause Books and at www.amazon.com.