Producing “Into the Woods”

Into the Woods Poster and logo for sale

Into the Woods

INTO THE WOODS Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim; Book by James Lapine

Performance length: about 2 and ½ hrs. with a 15-minute intermission.

ACTING: Easy

MUSIC: Hard

SET DESIGN: Hard

COSTUME DESIGN: Medium

CAST POTENTIAL: The cast is composed of several familiar fairy tale characters, such as Little Red Riding Hood, Jack (and his milk cow), Cinderella, Rapunzel, an evil witch, a charming prince, and a hungry wolf.  While some roles are larger than others, the cast is by and large an ensemble.  Each character has an opportunity to shine.

CROWD REACTION: One part familiar, the other strange and inventive, Into the Woods challenges our most cherished stories in an engaging way, making it very appealing for audiences.

GENRE: Musical

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SUMMARY: Based on several Brothers Grimm fairy tales, the first act is a veritable collage of our most familiar fairy tale characters, weaving together their trials.  The string that ties all these stories together is the Baker and his wife, who have been cursed from having children by the ugly old Witch.  However, the Witch says the curse will be lifted if the two can find the ingredients for her potion: “the cow as white as milk, the cape as red as blood, the hair as yellow as corn, and the slipper as pure as gold.”  By the first act’s end, the Baker is successful, the Witch drinks the potion and turns young and beautiful, and all the characters earn their greatest wish.

Where most fairy tales end, Into the Woods continues.  It shows how the characters did not live “happily” ever after, that their greatest wishes turned hollow, and that the happiness they sought is still lost.  To make matters worse, a Giant has come crashing down from the heavens and threatens to destroy land unless they can offer Jack as a sacrifice.  The characters must work together to purge the Giant while battling the moral dilemmas that haunt them at every turn.

CASTING CONSIDERATIONS: This is an exciting musical for any casting pool for the sheer breadth of opportunities it affords. There are plenty of juicy roles here, lots of comedy, and a fantastic score.  However, it should be noted that Sondheim’s syncopated and complex musical style is in full force.  As exciting and fun as the music is, it is very difficult and dominates most of the text. Into the Woods verges closely towards operetta.  Make sure you have the singing talent to carry this piece.

SCENIC CONSIDERATIONS: As a tapestry of fairy tale stories, the musical demands a flexible set: one that can at once show the Baker’s house, Rapunzel’s tower, or the titular woods. Costumes are equally as varied. The text also calls for a mobile cow, the Witch’s spectacular onstage transformation, growing beanstalks, and a Giant’s falling corpse.

OTHER CONSIDERATIONS: Like many of the musical’s charming characters, it has two sides.  At once funny, adventurous, and whimsical, Into the Woods can be equally dark, challenging and perverse.  The second act is filled with mature content that may not be acceptable for a high school audience, including infidelity, lust, and murder.  Ultimately the play’s central message is directed towards adults, to be mindful of children – the stories you tell are the ones you live and “children will listen.”

PERSONAL REFLECTIONS: Before there was Wicked, there was Into the Woods. The two focus on postmodern themes — discriminating authority while espousing the virtues (and elusiveness) of personal truth – through an investigation of popular stories and myths.  No one sews entertainment and philosophy as seamlessly as Sondheim, which is what makes this musical so alluring. Its ability to deliver profound questions through engaging dramaturgy makes us pause in wonderment, as if we were children listening to the Grimm stories for the first time.

About Matthew McMahan

Matthew McMahan is an actor, writer, and dramaturg, who has worked both in New York and regionally for theatre companies such as the Wooster Group, the Atlantic Theatre Company, the Indiana Repertory Theatre, Young Playwrights, Inc., and the Living Newspaper. He is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Drama from Tufts University in Medford, MA.
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