I hate musicals. And I will continue to feel contempt for the genre until the audience stops clapping after every damned song. It's an infuriating habit. It means that most of us consider a musical a mere collection of tunes--at best, a happy diversion, a pleasant spectacle. We don't expect to be transported, elated, swept away. If we were swept away, we'd be too absorbed to clap.
Lyric Opera Theatre's current production of Into the Woods is a perfect illustration of the general attitude. Stephen Sondheim's clever score (with a book by James Lapine) offers a dark variation on "Once upon a time," a fairy tale with a twist. Familiar motifs are fractured and rearranged to illuminate subtle ideas about self-determination and moral responsibility.
But Lyric Opera's production delivers a sprightly sequence of musical numbers instead of a story with cumulative meaning. At the end of each song, the performers pose with a flourish to allow time for the dutiful applause. The effect is polished and empty.
Stephen Sondheim once said, "What lasts in the theatre is character." He meant that a song is just a song until it's informed by a story, a history, a sequence of choices. "Steve could never write a song without some dramatic situation to base it on," an early Sondheim collaborator once said. In a musical, the story may be a mere springboard for the songs, but the context is critical. Otherwise, we might as well be listening to Rick Dees' Top 40 or a loved one warbling in the shower.
Into the Woods begins with a bang. The curtain rises on a stageful of characters with urgent stories to tell. Cinderella wants to go to the festival. Jack wants to save his beloved cow from the market. The Baker and his wife long for a child. Little Red Riding Hood is off to grandmother's house, stoutly asserting, "I have no fear. . . . The woods are just trees, the trees are just wood."
The Witch sets the Baker and his wife on a desperate scavenger hunt. She will answer their prayers for a child if they bring her a cow as white as milk, a cape as red as blood, some hair as yellow as corn and a slippper as pure as gold. In the course of their search, they run into Cinderella, Jack, Little Red Riding Hood and an assortment of other characters including Rapunzel, two princes, a nasty wolf and a mysterious old man.
By the end of Act I, all are happy, their wishes fulfilled. But Act II poses the dangerous question: What happens after "Happily ever after"? The answer, boys and girls, is disappointment, disaster and death. James Lapine's terse set description in the book sets the tone: The woods. Something is wrong. The natural order has been broken. Trees have fallen.
The director's articulate program notes refer us to Bruno Bettleheim's classic Freudian analysis of fairy tales, The Uses of Enchantment. Of course, you don't need Freud to sense something unpleasant under the surface of those tales. Fairy tales are ambivalent, make no mistake. In the Brothers Grimm, Cinderella's wicked stepsisters get their eyes pecked out by little birds as punishment. Sondheim likes that stuff. The Brothers Grimm would have loved Sweeney Todd.
But Graham Whitehead's direction doesn't bother with psychology or existential philosophy, or even spookiness. The stage looks exactly the same in Act II as it does in Act I. Something is wrong--a merciless giant is causing murder and mayhem--but no one onstage looks particularly panicked or horrified. They just keep on singing. The audience claps. Or yawns.
Consider "No One Is Alone," the song that precedes the show's finale. It's a wonderful song with the visceral allure of a truly beautiful melody. The lyrics complement the overlapping musical line with haunting simplicity:
Sometimes people leave you, Halfway through the wood. Others may deceive you. You decide what's good. You decide alone.
But no one is alone.
That song is the culmination of Sondheim's whimsical allegory. Human existence is perilous. Sometimes people are crushed by giants. But there is hope. The music lifts. We should be lifted.
Predictably, in the Lyric Opera production, "No One Is Alone" becomes just another tune.
Individual performances provide some moments of fun. Christopher Scott Wyatt and Marshall Taylor are hilarious as the handsome boneheaded princes. (Taylor has the best line in the show: "I was raised to be charming, not sincere.") Kirsten Witsman supplies an easy warmth as the practical Baker's wife. When she finds herself in the arms of a prince during the song "Any Moment," her contradictory response is a delight.
In fact, the vocal performances are universally fine and accomplished. This is a credit to Arizona State University's musical theatre program, since almost half of the cast are first- or second-year students. Unfortunately, their skill and energy can't conceal the production's essential lack of heart.