Not Great, Not Bad, Just Nice

After exploring a couple of new-to-me musicals, I have been craving both some familiar territory and a show by an iconic composer. Into the Woods seemed to be just the thing. I am not a Sondheim connoisseur, but this show has been in my top ten since I first saw it in a local production. The original Broadway cast album has been a favorite of mine even longer, ever since I fell in love with its star, Bernadette Peters.

Everything about Into the Woods seems to be a recipe for success. Before the first curtain rose, its audiences were already familiar with its characters and themes. It draws on nostalgia and then haunts you with beautiful melodies and poignant lyrics. The stage show also has a generous helping of comedy that thankfully comes through in the albums at points, especially with regards to the Witch.

Stephen Sondheim wrote the music and lyrics for Into the Woods, which had its Broadway opening performance on November 5, 1987, at the Martin Beck Theatre. That original production ran for 765 performances, closing September 3, 1989. It tells the story of a baker and his wife who desperately want a child of their own. The plot weaves together the familiar fairy tales of Rapunzel, Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk, and Little Red Riding Hood. The musical made its West End debut in 1990 at the Phoenix Theatre, running for 197 performances. It has been revived a number of times, notably in 2002 on Broadway and in London in 2007, and is a popular choice for school productions. A feature film was released by Disney in 2014. Including the movie, there are four Into the Woods cast albums available.

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The 1987 original Broadway cast recording of Into the Woods opens with the classic “Once upon a time…,” which is appropriate for a couple of reasons. First, we are listening to a musical about fairy tales, and second, the story is kind of brilliant. Actually, the general plot is outlined pretty well by this album and it would not be difficult to give it a listen and know what is going on story-wise for the most part. Technically, the Baker and his Wife lead the cast, but it’s clear after the first five minutes that Bernadette Peters (as the Witch) is the star here. From the moment she delivers the famous “Witch’s Rap” to her soaring vocals on “Stay With Me,” her presence is gigantic throughout the album. Still, I have to give the award for best song on the OBCR to Chuck Wagner and Robert Westenberg’s duet of “Agony.” In addition to being a funny song built around sibling rivalry, Wagner and Westenberg each have stunning voices.  Sadly, this album would have benefited from some better sound engineering, as some of the tracks give the impression of having been recorded in a giant tin can. My only other real issue with this album is the way some of the songs are packaged on the same tracks together. If I want to listen to the spectacular “Giants in the Sky” I shouldn’t have to listen to both “A Very Nice Prince” and “First Midnight” to get there.

While I had heard the OBCR many times before, this was my first time listening to the original London cast recording. Let me tell you something, this London cast album gets a fair amount of hate from Into the Woods fans but I found it very much as enjoyable as the Broadway cast album. Sure, Julia McKenzie is no Bernadette Peters, but her Witch provides just as much comic relief, if not even more. She even has a new song, “Our Little World,” which expands nicely on the Witch’s relationship with Rapunzel. The whole cast provides a mostly enjoyable listen. This recording is longer and some of the tempos could be changed for ease of listening, but overall I liked it! Best of all is that each of the songs are given their own tracks. Take note, original Broadway cast album producers.

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Before we move on to the 2002 Broadway revival cast album, it is important to note that that production was directed by James Lapine, who wrote the book for Into the Woods. Perhaps because someone with such intimate connections to the musical was in charge, its cast album suffers a bit from trying to do too much. In “Hello, Little Girl,” for example, an extra Wolf is added as are the Three Little Pigs without any reason or follow-up. That said, most of the cast gives it their all. A glaring exception is Vanessa Williams as the Witch. Her parts have been transposed to accommodate her limited vocal range, which is fine if you value star power over capable talent.

It was about halfway through the 2002 recording that I had a revelation: the music for Into the Woods is kind of boring. It doesn’t have that catchy kind of attraction that would automatically make any of its number classic show tunes and the melodies repeat often, which is common enough but monotonous. Sure, “No One is Alone” is one of the most beautiful songs around, but how often have you caught yourself singing it in the shower? Regardless, the show itself is gorgeous and deserved to be made into a movie. Whether it deserved the movie it got is another question entirely.

A film adaptation of Into the Woods was released by Disney in December of 2014. Its star packed cast includes Meryl Streep, James Corden, Emily Blunt, Anna Kendrick, and Johnny Depp. Being a Disney film, this is a thoroughly sanitized Woods. The reprise of “Agony” is gone, along with all hints of the Princes’ adultery. Jack’s long-absent father is also written out of the script and both “Ever After” and the “Act II Prologue” have been removed. But my biggest shock with this album is always how great everyone sounds. It’s clear that the cast was chosen for singing talent as much as box office draw. If I were going to introduce a child to Into the Woods, this would be the album I chose.

For all of its shortcomings, Into the Woods is a fantastic musical for which its cast albums do not do justice. It is a very close race, but I thing the 1991 original London cast just edges out the original Broadway cast for my favorite Into the Woods cast album. Although, to be fair, the OBCR is mostly carried by the venerable Peters. This has been interesting and I can’t wait to explore more Sondheim and see how his other shows measure up.

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Musical: Into the Woods

Music and Lyrics: Stephen Sondheim

Opening Performance: November 5, 1987, Martin Beck Theatre, New York City

Cast Albums I Listened To: 1987 Original Broadway Cast, 1991 Original London Cast, 2002 Broadway Revival Cast, 2014 Film Soundtrack

Highlights: “Giants in the Sky,” “On the Steps of the Palace,” “Agony,” “Your Fault,” “No One is Alone”

Honorable Mention: It’s not technically a stand-alone song, but “Witch’s Rap” is a highlight of the Prologue.

Favorite Cast Album: 1991 Original London Cast

Overall Impression: While Into the Woods is a favorite show of mine, the music does get a tad boring making the albums tedious at times. Still, it is brilliant how these fairy tales are woven together with a whole new moral.

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