Into the Woods (in revival at Center Stage in a co-production with Connecticut's Westport Country Playhouse) is one of that handful of musicals that can truly be called profound. And small surprise, because its subject, the folklore passed on from parents to children under the deceptively superficial name of fairy tales, is equally profound. Fairy tales are timeless because the kitchen drudge who yearns to become a princess, the little girl vanquishing a wolf encountered on the way to grandmother's house, the simpleton who sells the family cow for a handful of magic beans, and their kindred, are archetypes of each of us, at various moments in the trajectories of our lives. As such, there is actually nothing superficial about them. By mashing up these stories, composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim and book author James Lapine demonstrate The Common dynamics in these tales that enable them to speak so powerfully to us.
As most theatergoers know, the stories start with a common sense of longing. As we discover Cinderella (Jenny Latimer), the Baker and his Wife (Erik Liberman and Danielle Ferland), Red Riding Hood (Dana Steingold), and Jack (of Beanstalk fame) (Justin Scott Brown), The Common phrase in their song is "I wish." To pursue these wishes (to go to the festival, to have a child, to visit granny, to sell the cow), they are compelled to enter "The Woods," which are far more than any mere geographical Black Forest. These are simultaneously the place where anything can happen (like the dreamlike forest in A Midsummer Night's Dream) and a metaphor for early encounters with risk and growth that come into each of our lives. Mostly, things go well for the heroes and heroines, as befits their status in the tales about them. They not only succeed, but they learn much about the world and themselves, leading to some degree of mixed emotions. As Red Riding Hood summarizes her encounter with the wolf: "And he made me feel excited/-Well, excited and scared." Ditto Cinderella fleeing from her prince: in this version of the story, there is no short-lived pumpkin coach whose expiration forces her to leave the palace, but she simply finds herself unable to process immediately the erotic promise of the encounter and needs to break it off for the moment.
As we proceed, we also learn that these tales are not only about young people finding their mates or coming to terms with their sexuality or starting their families. They are about age as well as youth, especially the familiar dance of closeness and separation between parent and child. This is most poignantly true of the Witch (Lauren Kennedy) and Rapunzel (Britney Coleman) pictured above. What Rapunzel sees as the mother interfering with her independence and her relationship with her Prince (Robert Lenzi), the Witch sees as protecting her daughter from a terrifying and deadly world. They are each wrong – and right.
Act I of course ends with all problems resolved, and all the heroes and heroines successful, as the ancient tales ordain. But Act II is where the real genius of the show goes to work. Like Act II of the Fantasticks, but far more richly, it takes as its premise the obvious truth that every happy ending is the beginning of another tale, and that when you have nowhere to go but down, down is where you have to go. Lapine and Sondheim ask themselves and us what these same archetypal characters could tell us about ourselves if they were allowed to play out their strings further, beyond the happy endings. The answers to that question are what make this musical one of the great evenings of theater.