Into the Wondrous 'Woods' Again

On Seeing Stephen Sondheim’s Masterpiece Then and Now

Children May Listen: The Public Theater’s production of Stephen Sondheim’s ‘Into the Woods’ features a child as narrator.
joan marcus
Children May Listen: The Public Theater’s production of Stephen Sondheim’s ‘Into the Woods’ features a child as narrator.

By Wendy Salinger

Published August 24, 2012, issue of August 31, 2012.
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How surprising and inevitable everything seemed that night in 1987, as is true with all great works of art. So many pleasures. The brilliant rhymes, the delicious humor, the ironies rubbing against each other (as it were and not as it were), the suburban couple lost in a fairy tale world. The bean theme, the staff of life, twisting and turning, backward and forward, replicating itself. The ravishing melodies seeming to come out of nowhere and then sink back down before you could hold them; the Witch’s love song to her daughter, “Stay With Me.”

Tonight, though, even after things are well under way, I feel oddly distant from the performance. My companion says he feels this, too. We wish the orchestra were out in front, or at least visible. We want to feel more inside the music.

But my biggest problem tonight is that a child has been cast as the Narrator. At first, this seems like an interesting idea for coming up with a fresh way to look at the musical. Worth toying with, maybe. After all, fairy tales are for children. But for me it doesn’t work.

Like “Macbeth,” where the haunted woods creep ever closer, and like other Shakespeare plays, “Into the Woods” is about time. Time has been cursed. It’s out of joint. Parents have cast out their children or locked them up; the dead aren’t really dead, their curses spring up to ensnare their offspring. People aren’t going about the business of getting and spending, of having children, in the normal way. The natural order of things has been thwarted, and it has to be set right. Someone has to free the time.

That’s why a child can’t be cast as the Narrator. The Narrator tells the tale. We don’t need an added frame. There are already frames within frames, carefully set, the necessary number of mirrors. If you move just a finger, you upset the balance.

My companion tonight, who’s much younger than I am, asked me before the performance whether I was worried that I might have outgrown the musical. I told him he was either overestimating my maturity or underestimating the musical. It’s both, really. There’s a reason there’s a separate “children’s version” of “Into the Woods.” The only way they can keep the child as the Narrator throughout this production is to put him to sleep for the second act.

But my companion’s question is a good one. Meanings change, interpretations change. In the original production, Chip Zien played the Baker; tonight he’s playing the Mysterious Man. If I saw the original production today, would it mean as much to me as it did then? Is it the production, or is it me? I’m not the same person I was in 1987. Many things have fallen by the wayside. People, too.


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