When Composer-Lyricist Stephen Sondheim and Director-Librettist James Lapine completed their Pulitzer-prizewinning musical Sunday in the Park with George in 1984, they began exploring two new ideas: to create from scratch a classic myth or fairy tale for the stage and to bring together Lucy, Ralph Kramden and other memorable sitcom characters in a single overlapping story for a TV special. Eventually the two plans sort of fused. Instead of the sitcom figures, the authors decided to jumble larkingly together the characters and archetypes popularized by Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm. The strikingly original yet completely accessible result opened on Broadway last week.
Into the Woods is a musical fairy tale in which Jack, of beanstalk fame; Little Red Ridinghood; Cinderella, Rapunzel and their respective princes; Sleeping Beauty; Snow White -- and, of course, a wicked witch and a menacing giant -- are living out their stories in the same forest at the same time, bumping into each other and entangling one another's narratives. As funny as Sondheim's A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, as musical as his A Little Night Music, as morally inflamed as his Sweeney Todd, yet more forgiving and affirmative than anything he has written before, Into the Woods is the best show yet from the most creative mind in the musical theater today. It is also that joyous rarity, a work of sophisticated artistic ambition and deep political purpose that affords nonstop pleasure.
Broadway could not need it more. In recent years the musical, which once planted America's theatrical flag from Rome to Tokyo, has been subjected to a kind of reverse Monroe Doctrine. The Great White Way's four hottest sellers -- Cats, Me and My Girl, Starlight Express and Les Miserables -- come from London (Les Mis originated in Paris). So does Phantom of the Opera, which opens in January but already boasts a $10.5 million advance sale. During the 1980s, dozens of homegrown musicals have come and gone, some losing as much as $7 million.
Into the Woods cannot change the situation by itself or even by example. For one thing, imitation is a less viable route to success in the theater than in prime-time TV. For another, only Sondheim is Sondheim. Says Composer- Lyricist Jerry Herman, author of La Cage aux Folles and Hello, Dolly: "We would all agree that Steve is the genius of the group, the one who keeps on taking the musical theater to new places." What Into the Woods does, gloriously, is make the case for what musicals might be, blending innovation and old-fashioned storytelling into an elixir of delight. It makes audiences think of Freud and Jung, of dark psychological thickets and sudden clearings of enlightenment, even as they roar with laughter. Its basic insight, plainly influenced by the revisionist scholarship of Bruno Bettelheim, is that at heart, most fairy tales are about the loving yet embattled relationship between parents and children. Almost everything that goes wrong -- which is to say, almost everything that can -- arises from a failure of parental or filial duty, despite the best intentions.