About six weeks ago, I watched a taped production of Stephen Sondheim's Into the Woods. It happened to be on my Netflix queue because I was curious about Sondheim's work. What a delightful surprise to discover this piece of work (which is not even considered Sondheim's best.)
The story melds several traditional fairy tales (Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk, Cinderella) into one with the addition of three new characters: the Baker, the Baker's wife, and the witch. One aspect I really enjoyed was the ensemble nature of the work. No one character dominates and pretty much every major player has at least one great song. The casting was terrific; everyone acted superbly (the standout being Joanna Gleason as the Baker's wife). I also really liked the fact that each character had a unique voice (not chosen just to be beautiful and melodic, but to fit the character). The book by James Lapine was also very funny and witty, matching Sondheim's clever lyrics.
None of the songs are really show-stopping with the exception of "Children Will Listen" in the Act II finale. But that's fine because "Into the Woods" is an ensemble work and you really have to watch the whole thing to appreciate it. Unlike the other musicals I've seen (Les Miserables, Phantom of the Opera, etc), the acting was more important than the singing. Not that the singing was bad, but I really enjoyed the fact that the actors and actresses put so much effort into being the characters. The most amazing song is Joanna Gleason's performance of "Moments in the Woods." It was wonderful to see her express different moods with slight movements of her head and facial expressions and even do little things like fix up her hair while singing.
What I really like about the songs in Into the Woods is that they're tied to a character's thinking and slightly ambiguous. Little Red wonders whether she did the right thing "straying off the path." Cinderella debates whether she should tell the Prince who she really is. Perhaps that is why some people find Sondheim unusually cerebral for a songwriter. The ambiguous nature of Into the Woods is fitting since the woods are a metaphor for our journey through life.
Bernadette Peters is the main attraction and she does a wonderful job with the witch, but I find the character of the witch to be a little shallow compared to the Baker and the Baker's wife. As an example, I really loved the song "It Takes Two" where the Baker and Baker's wife sing about how they need each other.
To sum up, Into the Woods was a wonderful introduction to Sondheim's work and I look forward to more!
Additional note: I just read a Sondheim interview where Sondheim summarized "Into the Woods" as a Bronx couple (the Baker and his wife) living in a world of fairytale characters. What an apt and succinct characterization! It makes the show seem even funnier.