Due in theaters this Christmas, the film adaptation of the Stephen Sondheim musical Into the Woods features an all-star cast: Johnny Depp, Meryl Streep, Anna Kendrick, Emily Blunt and Chris Pine are among the A-listers on board. They'll bring Little Red Riding Hood, Jack (of Beanstalk fame), Cinderella and other Brothers Grimm fairy-tale creations to life, through Sondheim's beguiling music and the snarky book by James Lapine.
Nearing its 30th anniversary, Into the Woods, despite its fantasy-world storylines, is vintage Sondheim: The songs are fast, poly-syllabic and complicated. Most of them are funny, too, and advance the plot in site-specific ways. The melodies, natch, are absolutely gorgeous.
Still, the show didn’t produce any breakout standards like “Send in the Clowns” from Sondheim’s earlier A Little Night Music. The score for Into the Woods kind of needs to be heard as a whole.
Which brings us to SCAD’s spring production. With Kevin Wallace as musical director, Performing Arts chair Michael Wainstein is directing a full-scale Into the Woods at the Lucas Theatre.
He is an unabashed Sondheim fan. “The actors trying to master the rhythms and notes might disagree with me, but I think Into the Woods is one of the most accessible of his shows,” Wainstein says.
“You have to master the rhythm, and the pitch, and the bizarre orchestrations that don’t help you at all when you’re trying to sing the right melody. Characters that are complex. Very, very fast patter songs. Seventeen other people singing different things. It’s very, very, very challenging.
“But it’s also very, very, very rewarding, because once you get all that down, there’s just something so rich about it that it’s just transformational for actors.”
The SCAD cast includes Amber Hancock, Matt Webb, Michael Sterling Miller, Kerry Auer, Hailey Vest, Aaron Catano, Martine Fleurisma, Laura Spears and many, many others. Most are seniors or MFA candidates.
Choosing Into the Woods for the pole-positioned spring musical was the result of careful consideration.
“A., it’s a good musical challenge,” Wainstein explains. “B., it’s such a stylized piece, it’s a good opportunity for students to do something very different in contemporary theater. So much of what’s going on today in film and TV, for example, is fantasy, sci-fi, non-reality. And a lot of the American plays that are around are much more realistic.
“So the opportunity to understand how to create a character that’s really far-flung from your everyday reality, and do it in a way that makes them real, is really good training for all that awaits them in contemporary film and TV.”
He sees it as a generational thing. “The style is very tough for actors. I grew up going to the theater, going to movies, seeing style in all its forms. And I find that a lot of our students don’t have as much experience, or even haven’t seen as much stuff. So playing something other than contemporary realism is hard. And since so much of the work out there is not contemporary realism, we felt like this show would not only give them a musical challenge, it would also give them an acting challenge.”
The storybook saga, which centers (sort of) around a childless couple (the Baker and His Wife), is, as they say, deceptively simple. As the plot moves forward, more characters from the childhood bookshelf enter the fray. One can see it as subtle social commentary, or as just a lot of song-and-dance (and funny costumes) fun.
“We’re playing very realistically within the high style that it is,” says Wainstein. “We’re trying to create these well-known literary characters, but trying to make them three-dimensional human beings, and trying to look at them from a much more human viewpoint.
“Not to say that it isn’t effervescent and fun, but the piece really calls for the traditional approach. Because it’s all about turning tradition on its ear.”