The first live stage performance of Into the Woods that I ever saw was a production by the Davis Musical Theatre Company during the summer of 1990. My two sons (then ages 7 and 10) and I had been invited to attend the performance by the parents of one of my special education students at Rio Americano High School in Sacramento, whose other son was an aspiring actor at Jesuit High School just down the street — a Catholic high school that was reputed to have had the best theatre program of any high school in Sacramento. The boys’ mother had been particularly anxious for me to see the show, as my dating patterns, having been a single mom for the previous four years, closely paralleled the experiences of Cinderella, at the ball, and the baker’s wife, in the woods, with the handsome prince, who, by his own admission, “was raised to be charming, not sincere.” At the point in the show that the prince in this production delivered that infamous line, my friend, herself happily married, threw me a knowing glance, wink, and smile.
Over the next two decades, as the show continued to gain momentum in its popularity, I saw three more productions, all in Sacramento — Sacramento City College (my first alma mater), CSU, Sacramento (my fourth and final alma mater), and Music Circus (one of California Musical Theatre’s venues), this one featuring Sacramento favorite Vicki Lewis as the baker’s wife. I had also watched the video of the original Broadway version several times (featuring Joanna Gleason as the baker’s wife and Bernadette Peters as the witch). Having seen several productions with me, my sons (now almost ages 32 and 35) had been anticipating the release of the Disney film every bit as much as I had, and the three of us finally saw it together at the LA Live 14 Theatre in Los Angeles on the evening of Saturday, December 27th. The alterations that had been made from the original script had been the subject of much controversy, but the casting couldn’t have been more perfect, nor the special effects more extraordinary.
The greatest challenge of making the story line more family friendly was in downplaying the sexual tension between Red Riding Hood and the wolf and between Jack and the giant’s wife, which was accomplished in part by casting younger, juvenile actors in the roles of Red and Jack. In every other production I’ve seen, both roles have been portrayed as 18 years or older — at least the age of Cinderella and Rapunzel, the two princes’ mates. Both the wolf (in an anatomically correct, extremely revealing costume) and Cinderella’s prince had been portrayed by the same actor (I assumed intentionally, per Lapine/Sondheim’s original script directions). Of course, in the stage versions, the audience never actually sees the giant’s wife, but merely hears her voice. Having her portrayed in the film by Frances de la Tour, an older actress, implies a much more maternal relationship with Jack.
To say that the Lapine/Sondheim script is, at its very core, all about marital and parental relationships is a severe oversimplification, and yet the script and the lyrics attack those extremely sensitive subjects in a more profound way than any other production — musical or otherwise — ever has. The four central characters who survive until the end (five, counting the infant) are bound together by an overwhelming sense of grief and loss, and, as so many do when facing mutual tragedies, they form their own blended family, the two younger members sharing equal responsibility for the infant, having matured into semi-parental roles by successfully overcoming their own childish fears through their bravery in the face of danger. Despite the necessary accommodations to the script and soundtrack for the film version, it seems fitting somehow that it should be produced by the company that was started by a man whose vision was a gift to his own daughters and to many other children for several generations afterwards. And, as such, it’s a wonderful introduction for them to Sondheim’s work, just as it was for my own children almost a quarter of a century ago.
Finally, on an even more personal note, following the characters’ journeys in the film through actual authentic woods (or a much closer replica than can be accomplished onstage inside a theatre) was reminiscent for me of the joint Boonville/Philo Fourth of July picnics at Hendy Woods that I attended as a child with my family during the summers of 1957, 1958, and 1959 (before leaving Mendocino County for the first time), as well as my return there with my older brother in August of 2006. It is so heartening to see that a place of such pristine beauty and purity still exists, thanks to the selfless efforts of so many people who have invested their time, money, and energy toward its preservation. As director Rob Marshall mused in his introduction to the libretto that accompanies the film’s soundtrack, “The ‘woods’ of our story can mean so many things. It is the place you go to find your dreams, confront your fears, lose yourself, find yourself, grow up and learn to move forward.” Eight-and-a-half years is a long time to be away from it — perhaps it’s time for me to venture back Into the [Hendy] Woods once again, while it’s still possible.