Theatre yesterday and today



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"Oh, if life were made of moments, Even now and then a bad one—! But if life were only moments, Then you'd never know you had one."

These lyrics, written by Stephen Sondheim for the Baker's Wife in Into The Woods, are imprinted on my mind. I heard them for the first time when I saw the Old Globe Theatre production more than a year before the show opened on Broadway in the winter of 1986. I had moved to Los Angeles earlier in the year, and when I found out that Sondheim's first show post-Sunday in the Park With George was trying out in nearby San Diego, I made arrangements to drive down and see a Saturday matinee.

It was rough around the edges (after all, this was its first full-scale production), but the genius of the piece shined through. This quest musical, featuring characters out of the Grimm's fairy tales (with some additions from Sondheim and librettist James Lapine) was original, daring and boasted one of Sondheim's best scores. Cinderella, Jack (of Beanstalk fame), Little Red Riding Hood and others were cleverly interweaved in a story both light and dark. But with the construct of the Baker and his Wife, the only characters created out of whole cloth and not out of the imaginations of either brothers Grimm, the show had found its golden egg. Their story, among the many the show told, was so successful that it stood to reason that with the right input from audiences (there really isn't such a thing as wrong input, as they usually tell you what's working and what isn't), Sondheim and Lapine were on a sure path towards getting "out of the woods" and to Broadway.

The original cast of Into the Woods (1987)

Tom Aldredge, Bernadette Peters, Robert Westenberg,

Joanna Gleason and Chip Zien

As fate would have it, right after that matinee performance I attended, I found myself eating an early dinner at a nearby Mexican restaurant. And who was at the very next table, but Sondheim and George Furth, his friend and collaborator on Company and Merrily We Roll Along, and of course they were discussing the show. I have never eavesdropped like that before or since, but wouldn't you? The only thing I recall (and it's near verbatim) was when Sondheim told Furth, "I'm still pregnant with it. I haven't given birth to it yet."

The Baker and his Wife are also clearly "in the wrong story," a wonderful inside joke, as they in no way resemble any of the others, distinctly urban as they are. This was aided immeasurably by the casting. Chip Zien as the Baker was warm and adorable and sang the role beautifully. And due almost entirely to the strength of her portrayal of the Baker's Wife, Joanna Gleason gave the show its rightful central figure. This is a performance that I've seen done by many other actresses, but no one else has ever matched her perfect balance of humor, pathos, integrity and sincerity she brought to it, not to mention the comedic timing of Carole Lombard or Lucille Ball.Another important element to what made Sondheim and Lapine's creation of the Baker and his Wife work so well, was how they were able to forge the characters identities, yet remain true to the fairy tale world the show inhabited.

While preparing this column, I asked Joanna Gleason what her memories were of how things evolved with the changes made between the two versions of the show. Here's what she had say about it:

"I think the weight of the emotional freight increased for the Baker’s Wife when they changed my death from San Diego’s version. In San Diego, I sang my song, and an apple came rolling onto the stage …I bit into it, and marched off. Later, Jack comes running in to the group with my scarf and something was said along the lines of 'never eat apples in the woods!' (i.e.poison) and that was the last you ever saw of me. Ever. Until the curtain call.

Someone at a talk back said they were disappointed to lose the Baker’s wife, and in such a comical matter-of-fact-butt-of-a-joke-way.

I agreed.

Before we geared up for NYC rehearsals, Steve had us to his house (me, Bernadette, Chip) and played a new ending, wherein I return as a ghost to sing to my husband and Cinderella and the baby, etc… AND I was to be killed by the Giant.

It made all the difference."

The indelible "moments" Into the Woods have provided theatre fans over the years have proven not only durable, but meaningful. With so many songs to choose from in the Sondheim cannon, his lyrics to "Moments in the Woods" may be the most canny of them all. Not only clever, but with meanings that continue to delight and inspire. In a recent on-line forum I was reading among theatre devotees of the show, one observation made me rethink nearly everything about it as, until this discussion, I had never thought of the word "woulds" for woods. Think about it: In the course of any given day we all indulges ourselves in "woulds." What new meaning then does it give a line like "You can't live in the woods?", if you substituted "woulds"?

Or take the final lines of the song:

"Let the moment go.

Don't forget it for a moment, though.

Just remembering you've had an 'and' When you're back to 'or', Makes the 'or' mean more Than it did before. Now I understand— And it's time to leave the woods!"

While writing about this specific show in his book, Look, I Made a Hat,

Sondheim doesn't mention anything about "woulds" and "woods." Maybe it's not what he meant, but I'd be surprised, being the kind of wordsmith he is, if he wasn't well aware of the connection between the two and how the phrases could work both ways. He is also somewhat dismissive of any AIDS allegory, which he says people write and ask him about all time. He says most of them want to know if he meant the giant to be AIDS, and though understanding of why they might think that, it doesn't make sense to him. "To James and me, it is a giant. Enough said."

But at the time, how could Sondheim not have been sensitive to what the theatre community was going through in November,1987 with the ongoing decimation from AIDS? It had only been 4 months since one of his most brilliant collaborators, Michael Bennett, had died of the disease. It can't be ignored how deep the resonance goes when it was decided to bring back the Baker's Wife at the end of the show after she had died, and to sing "Sometimes people leave you halfway the wood"? The night I first heard this line on Broadway it was entirely new to me (remember, it wasn't in the San Diego production) and I burst into tears. I still do every time I hear it.

The Baker's Wife continues singing:

"Do not let it grieve you,

No one leaves for good.

You are not alone.

No one is alone."

Since it premiered, Into the Woods has gone on to become one of most successful shows Sondheim ever wrote. It endures as an enormously popular property with schools and amateur theatres, something Sondheim hoped for and suspected would happen, as he wrote in Look, I Made a Hat "if the piece worked." It certainly did. Thanks for all the moments.

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