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Unconfirmed rumors tell us that a certain Meryl Streep movie may, just may have prompted this reissue of the 1990 American Playhouse taping of the original 1987 Broadway production of Into the Woods. It's a welcome event; viewers just discovering the show through the film adaptation should indeed see Stephen Sondheim's original. A delightful cluster of fractured fairy tales, the show has great music, comedy, and heart. Behind its magic and humor are universal concerns: how do we manage our desires, problems and fears out in the real world. And in a daring midpoint twist, the show becomes a sage parable that ranges way beyond the realm of children's stories.
The video is a recorded performance of original musical videotaped uncut. To remove the curse of a Witch (Bernadette Peters) that prevents them from having children, the Baker and his wife (Chip Zien & Joanna Gleason) enter the woods to gather several magical items. There they meet Red Riding Hood (Danielle Ferland), who's just escaped the clutches of the Wolf (Robert Westenberg) and enlist the aid of a number of characters from other stories (Jack and the Beanstalk, Cinderella, Rapunzel). A half-dozen familiar storylines become entangled, yet all is straightened out by the time intermission rolls around ... after which the show does a complete reversal on our expectations, pitting the characters this time against real world problems that can't be wished away.
Into the Woods is a marvel plain and simple, from Sondheim's melodic songs to his great characterizations. A generally spoofy tone does no harm whatsoever to the story, in which familiar storybook characters take on human dimensions. Little Red Riding Hood, for example, is a selfish glutton and her Wolf comes off as a rapist-murderer. The Witch invokes her curses out of disappointment, bitterness and revenge. A definite class difference separates a baker's wife from the princesses who flee into the woods to avoid their worthless, vain princes. The dialogues given these characters are often hilarious ("Dwarfs are very upsetting!") and the songs pierce straight to their heart's desires - Children Will Listen, Giants in the Sky.
Lapine and Sondheim are known for their radical dramatic structures, but Into the Woods is audience-friendly. The first half is basically a comedy romp that encourages us to consider how relevant are the fairy tale characters' problems to modern life. The central idea of a middle-class Baker and his Wife struggling to keep going and have a family works blends well with the fairy tale stories. Minus a few magical touches, life for is a jumble of personalities that have hope and desires. Some are young and others just inexperienced, and even the most likeable need help to muster the courage to go forward.
By the mid-point the various intrigues of the basic stories seem to have sorted themselves out, leaving us at the intermission curtain with a big 'happily ever after' finale. In the second act the playwrights must move into unknown territory, and face the same kinds of problems we mortals in the audience must deal with. In the life beyond 'happily ever after', problems can't be solved with magic. Princesses discover that their perfect mates aren't so perfect, hopeful plans are cut short, and reckless adventurism has dire consequences. Even the most powerful characters have painful lessons to learn. A parent can become monsters if they try to hold their children against their will. Worse yet, instead of simple dangers, they encounter terrible forces that can destroy them all. The set storybook characters must grow into real people, accept responsibility for their actions and deal with devastating loss.
The show thus becomes serious, while staying firmly in make-believe land: we can interpret the second act's fearful, monstrous force any way we wish. Most of the inhabitants of this fairytale land try to run away, and the characters that remain have only each other to rely upon. Into the Woods is about responsibilities that we must face but normal fairy tale characters don't have to. When the stage becomes dark the 'amusing' characters are revealed as vulnerable and frightened. There's no such thing as permanent security: 'happily ever after' is fleeting even for storybook princesses. Only by having the courage to face the unknown is there any hope of survival; some of our brave people must form new relationships, new 'families' outside their traditional roles. Into the Woods' handful of fairy tales has plenty to say about real lives.
The cast of NYC stage stars shines. Bernadette Peters of course gets the most attention for her impressive Witch, acting and singing up a storm through a gnarled mask. Another fine talent, Chip Zien, works in soap operas and has accomplishments on his resumé such as providing the voice for the ill-fated Howard the Duck. Others are instantly recognizable from appearances in Woody Allen films. Danielle Ferland sings a song in Radio Days and the great Joanna Gleason has parts in Hannah and her Sisters, Boogie Nights and various TV series.
Into the Woods is an entertaining, accessible and intelligent musical, a full course of theatrical excitement smoothly directed and covered in 3-camera TV style. It happily retains all of the original artificial stage trappings, such as a cow named Milky White that is made of plastic. The settings and costumes are more than enough to inspire the suspension of disbelief. The presentation is not perfect -- why couldn't those people shoot this thing on film? But considering that so few original Broadway productions have been recorded in this way, we're grateful that it exists. It would be interesting to know why more original shows aren't taped or filmed, although I'm certain the reason is money, contracts, guilds, the whole structure of the business.
As for the new Streep/Rob Marshall version, this spoiler page has dared to list some changes made en route to the screen. Back in 2002 I wrote that, "a literal film version with 'real' settings and splashy special effects would dissipate the impact of this great show." Well, that's only because I saw the play first - having seen and enjoyed most of the Broadway musicals I know only through their film versions, I can hardly object to filmmakers dealing with the necessary realities of adaptation. 1
Image's Blu-ray of Into the Woods is of course an up-rez of the 1990 NTSC American Playhouse broadcast, a reformatting done rather well. I saw some artifacting on the main title scene but none in the body of the show itself -- the image still looks solid. The picture is of course a bit soft, and in long shots bright details can bloom, but overall it looks very good. At first I thought this new BD looked dark, but the new encoding darkens only the blacks that were milky in the DVD. The increased contrast range makes the image look just a little richer. No extras are included, the same as with the older DVD.
The usual superlatives apply to Into the Woods: you'll laugh, you'll cry. In a culture that keeps trying to spin the definition of Family Values in different ideological (or marketing) directions, Sondheim's musical rings true. It's a sane and insightful look at what parents, children, and families are really about -- as demonstrated in children's stories hundreds of years old.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
1. I'm well aware that Mr. Sondheim consulted in the adaptation of his play. The way his mind works, he's likely considered thousands of possible alterations for his musicals. He's a harsh self-critic but also a practical showman.
2. Note: I'm not entire certain that one of my photo choices shows the correct Witch actress, or Ms. Peters with a different makeup job for the stage show.
The version of this review on the Savant main site has additional images, footnotes and credits information, and may be updated and annotated with reader input and graphics.