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With the musical's summer Broadway engagement, a longtime fan takes stock of the show's life lessons
Watching Into the Woods at City Center Encores! this past spring was the first time I felt the kind of exhilaration that theatre used to provide on a regular basis before the pandemic. Beyond gratitude that I could still have that experience, there was something more—the sensation of revisiting a favorite work of art and discovering that it may not have changed, but I have. So—like the characters in Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's Into the Woods, who periodically address the audience in song to relate what they've learned—I began to review what the four different productions I've seen have taught me at different times in my life, from the Broadway premiere 35 years ago, to the Encores! mounting, which has transferred to the St. James Theatre for a limited run.
In a work full of delights and insights, one song has always been a touchstone for me: "No One Is Alone"—particularly its reprise in the Act II finale, sung by the Baker's Wife. It always moves me to tears. But even as I anticipated that moment at City Center, I was unprepared for the depth of my response. The performance has replayed itself incessantly in my mind ever since.
My first encounter with "No One Is Alone" was not even in the show itself. In October 1987, I was working in the record club division at RCA. I was invited by Jay David Saks, a producer at the Red Seal label, to attend a recording session by jazz great Cleo Laine, who was making an album of Sondheim songs just as Into the Woods started previews on Broadway. She sang what would become the standard solo version of "No One Is Alone" (no reprises). Out of context, it came across as a ballad of consolation and reassurance. However, without having seen the show, I didn't comprehend how it fit in.
A line in the second verse resonated strongly: "Sometimes people leave you halfway through the wood." My mother was dealing with a recurrence of cancer at that time, and her prognosis was uncertain. Also, a very close friend, Joaquín, had been diagnosed with AIDS a few months earlier, an almost certain death sentence at the time. He and I were scheduled to attend Into the Woods soon after it opened, so I steeled myself to hear those words again, and hoped what would resonate with him was the title of the song.
A month later, sitting in RCA's house seats, Joaquín and I, and my partner Richard, were enjoying the journey. It was fun to encounter four cast members from Sondheim's previous show, Sunday in the Park with George: Bernadette Peters as the Witch, Robert Westenberg as the Wolf/Cinderella's Prince, Barbara Bryne as Jack's Mother and Danielle Ferland as Little Red Riding Hood. Of course, there were also superb performances by Sondheim first-timers such as Chip Zien (the Baker) and Joanna Gleason (his wife).
After "No One Is Alone" and the (literal) downfall of the giant, it was time for the characters to put the pieces of their lives together as best they could. Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and Cinderella joined the newly widowed Baker and his child. In response to the Baker's parenting doubts, his wife, who had perished a few scenes earlier, returned to offer words of encouragement and a reprise of "No One Is Alone." Earlier, the lines following, "Sometimes people leave you halfway through the wood" were, "Others may deceive you; you decide what's good. You decide alone; but no one is alone." However, the Baker's Wife had different lyrics: "Sometimes people leave you halfway through the wood. Do not let it grieve you; no one leaves for good. You are not alone; no one is alone."
The floor fell out from under me. My heart rose in my throat. I started to sob. Those words released months of accumulated emotion in anticipation of oncoming losses, certain and uncertain. The last minutes of the show were a blur; I had to see the production again to fully experience the finale. As with all Sondheim musicals, I returned numerous times, both before and after Joaquín died, four months after seeing it with me.
The original cast album (another recording session I was privileged to attend) served as a lasting memento of the show and that period of my life, even though the finale, with its affecting reprise, was omitted.
Yet lyrics from the finale proved prophetic: "Into the woods you go again, you have to every now and then. Into the woods, no telling when: Be ready for the journey." My next journey came with the 2002 Broadway revival. A song originally composed for the London production ("Our Little World" for the Witch and Rapunzel) was added, as was a new character, a companion Wolf double cast as Rapunzel's Prince. One supporting character literally acquired new depth: Milky White, Jack's beloved cow, came to three-dimensional life via the endearing performance of Chad Kimball. The Three Little Pigs made a cameo as well, having been cut from the original production. Vanessa Williams was a winning Witch alongside strong performances by Stephen DeRosa and Kerry O'Malley as the Baker and his wife, and rising star Laura Benanti shone as Cinderella.
The reprise of "No One Is Alone" enabled me to count my dead, who now included my own mother as well as all my uncles and two aunts. I also was in mourning for my recently ended 15-year relationship with Richard, though we continued as friends. Act II made an especially sober impact less than a year after September 11, 2001.
Another decade passed before I went into the woods of Central Park to see the musical again. The Public Theater mounted an outdoor production based on one staged in London's Regent's Park a few years earlier. The cast featured some Sondheim second-timers: Donna Murphy (Passion) as the Witch and Denis O'Hare (Assassins) as the Baker. Film star Amy Adams, in her New York stage debut, played the Baker's Wife, and Jessie Mueller provided a new slant on Cinderella.
Chip Zien—the Baker in the original production—poignantly portrayed the Mysterious Man. (In this production, the role of the Narrator, usually played by the same actor, was assigned to a child.) Seeing Zien perform the other part of the duet with the Baker in the central portion of the song "No More" and hearing its concluding words, "Like father, like son," reminded me of my own father, who had died soon after the previous revival. It also inspired thoughts of how our roles can change in life—not so much a reversal as an evolution.
Which brings me to 2022 and City Center. I certainly wasn't alone the day I saw Into the Woods this time: I had my husband Ray beside me, seeing the show for the second time (the 2002 revival had been his first). Encores! returned to the original version—no extra song or wolf—but extended the tradition of beefing up the part of Milky White, who, with her puppeteer Kennedy Kanagawa, had some brilliant stage business. Stellar performances by Heather Headley as the Witch, Neil Patrick Harris as the Baker and Sara Bareilles as his wife, and an outstanding supporting cast (among them Lauren Mitchell, graduating to Cinderella's stepmother after having played a stepsister in the original production), evoked and enhanced feelings I first experienced half a lifetime ago.
But something had changed. My role had evolved. My story is now part of Act II. This time, I'm the one with a recurrence of cancer and an uncertain prognosis, and it's possible I will wind up leaving my husband halfway through the wood. That's a journey I'm not quite ready for, and with luck I have a few more hours before the "Last Midnight."
A lyric from the finale sums it up: "Into the woods, each time you go, There's more to learn of what you know." I'm ready to continue the journey.
Daniel Guss is a native New Yorker. During his career at RCA, he reissued over 1,000 compact discs, ranging from the recordings of such classical superstars as Arturo Toscanini, Jascha Heifetz, Arthur Rubinstein, Enrico Caruso, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Leontyne Price and James Galway, to classical music compilations and Broadway cast albums. He is now general manager of the Early Music Foundation.
Top image: Gavin Creel as the Wolf and Julia Lester as Little Red Riding Hood in the City Center Encores! production of Into the Woods. Photo by Joan Marcus.
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