“Anything can happen in the woods,” Stephen Sondheim wrote.
That lyric tells one premise of Sondheim’s modern fairy-tale musical Into the Woods, which will be performed by the University of Colorado Department of Theatre and Dance over two weekends, Feb. 22–March 3. Theatre professor Bud Coleman directs the production, and CU alumnus Adam Ewing conducts the freelance orchestra.
The cast comprises students from both theatre and dance and the College of Music. With a large number of characters, there is a single cast, but roles that are sometimes combined are played by separate actors in this production.
“We have a lot of talented students,” Coleman says. “I wanted to share the wealth.”
In addition to all the magical things that can happen in the woods, another premise of the show is the question, just what happens after “happily ever after”? To answer that question, Sondheim and book author James Lapine imagine some very familiar fairy-tale characters all together in a single story. Each of the characters has a backstory before the fairy tale begins, and each one faces the unintended consequences of their wishes.
“You’re going to see Cinderella and her step-sisters, Jack [from] Jack and the Beanstalk, Little Red Riding Hood, but Sondheim and Lapine take their story past the traditional Grimm fairy tale,” Coleman says. “We’ll actually find out one version of what might have happened to them after they get their wish.”
In spite of being based on children’s stories, Into the Woods is multi-layered and filled with meaningful adult perspectives. Sondheim wrote that for him, fairy tales are “not what’s real, only what’s true,” which means the characters have to be more complex than in the original tales or the Disney movies. We as the audience have to take those characters very seriously.
“At the beginning of the rehearsal period some of the students were mystified,” Coleman says. “Their brains said, ‘If this is Little Red Riding Hood, then it must be a cartoon.’ But the journey of the characters is quite serious.”
As is true of all of Sondheim’s shows, the major characters learn from their experiences and come out very differently than they went in. The characters who survive at the end of Into the Woods “have massive arcs,” Coleman says. “They are in a completely different place at 10:15 than they were at 7:30.”
Coleman points out that Sondheim learned to write musicals from Oscar Hammerstein II, who in shows from Oklahoma and Carousel to The Sound of Music was not afraid to offer a moral.
“Into the Woods is very Hammerstein-esque in that community is vital,” Coleman says.
“This is not a show where the message is ‘do your own thing.’ The message is ‘no one is alone. And so be aware of what it means to be a person on this planet.’ It’s pretty darn deep, but I just see Oscar (Hammerstein) smiling from heaven.”
Coleman say that both the moral of the story and the timlessness of the original tales make Into the Woods still relevant more than 30 years after its Broadway debut.
“The message that I feel is inherent in the show, and is very timely now, is, ‘What does it mean to be a citizen of the world?’”
Ewing sees the same messages, and the same depth of expression, in the music for the show.
“Toward the end of the show we have two beautiful numbers, ‘No One is Alone’ and’ ‘Children Will Listen,’” he says. “It’s very easy to just think that they are beautiful melodies spun out over lush orchestration, but it’s much deeper than that.
“There’s a level of detail and specificity in the lyrics that we coach [the singers] to bring out, and really draw upon in their own characters throughout. Our cast has done an admirable job of delving into that world, and I’m looking forward to seeing how much further they go with it.”
He encourages the audience to pay attention to details in the text and music.
“It’s very much a show that you have to be invested in as an audience member,” he says. “Paying attention even from the very beginning, the way the narrator introduces the show, and things that happen in the first five minutes have profound impact on how the show develops.”
But Ewing doesn’t want you to think that seeing the show is a chore.
“It’s very refreshing to come back and see Cinderella and Jack and the Beanstalk and all of these other fun childhood characters we’ve grown up with portrayed in new and different ways,” he says.
ON THE BILL: Into the Woods — by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine, presented by CU Department of Theatre and Dance. Feb. 22–March 3, University Theatre, 1595 Pleasant St., Boulder. Tickets: 303-492-8008 or cupresents.org/event/1660/cu-theatre-dance/into-the-woods/
Based on classic fairy tales, ‘Into the Woods’ contains multiple acts of thievery, murder, accidental death, amputation, infidelity, kidnapping, family arguments and child neglect.