The Giant always looms large over the characters in “Into the Woods,” the celebrated Sondheim musical of fractured fairytales. The vengeance-seeking beast has long served as an elastic metaphor for life’s obstacles and societal turbulence. When the show debuted on Broadway in 1987, it was seen as a parable for the AIDS crisis. With the 2002 revival, it landed as an allegory for the catastrophe and divisive aftermath of 9/11.
For the recent Broadway revival — whose direct-from-New York tour lands at the Emerson Colonial Theatre for two weeks, March 21 to April 2 — the idea for reviving the show “was born during and in response to the pandemic,” explains director Lear deBessonet. In those dark days, she’d reached out to composer Stephen Sondheim and book writer James Lapine about mounting the show when theaters finally reopened as part of Encores! series at New York’s City Center, where she serves as artistic director. While Encores! typically presents concert stagings of rarely revived musicals, deBessonet thought it was a felicitous time to bring back a beloved gem instead.
“The pandemic was a shattering event. Life stopped,” deBessonet says over the phone. “It really felt like there was a giant threatening our very existence as humans and the society we had built. There was just so much uncertainty.”
DeBessonet recalls struggling to explain the crisis to her young son as she tucked him into bed. “I was trying to make him feel safe while being honest about the fact that there are scary things in this world, and we as humans don’t control all of those things,” she recalls. “After he went to bed that night, the Baker’s lyrics from ‘No More’ flooded my mind. In particular the part where in his desperation and brokenness, the Baker sings, ‘How do we ignore all the wolves, all the lies, the false hopes, the goodbyes, the reverses, all the wondering what even worse is still in store?’”
This star-studded “Into the Woods” was one of the hottest tickets in New York last year, after transferring to Broadway in the summer. While various big names shifted in and out of the show during its six-month run, the headliners from the fall — Gavin Creel, Montego Glover, Stephanie J. Block, and Block’s husband, Sebastian Arcelus — are taking the show on tour to only 10 cities. Much of the cast that finished the show on Broadway are also part of the tour, including Gloucester native Katy Geraghty, who plays Little Red Riding Hood.
Block, a Tony Award winner for “The Cher Show” in 2019, says she and Arcelus thought it “seemed vital” to bring the musical to audiences across the country. “When the last curtain went down in January at the St. James [Theatre], we just weren’t done telling the story.”
“Into the Woods” mashes up characters inspired by classic fairytales. There’s the slipper-clad Cinderella (Diane Phelan), the tower-trapped Rapunzel (Alysia Velez), and their dashing princes (Creel and Jason Forbach); defiant Little Red Riding Hood (Geraghty) and her villainous pursuer the Wolf (Creel again); Jack the giant killer (Cole Thompson) and his beloved cow Milky White (puppeteer Kennedy Kanagawa). Meanwhile, the Baker and the Baker’s Wife (Arcelus and Block) are hoping for a child but struggling to conceive. The hideous old Witch (Glover) reveals that the couple’s infertility was caused by a curse she cast. She offers to lift the spell if they bring her four ingredients (a cow, a cape, hair, and a slipper) within three days. The indelible score features “Ever After,” “No One Is Alone,” and “Children Will Listen.”
“All these stories are in our DNA. You don’t even realize how deep they are,” says Creel, a Tony Award winner who’s starred on Broadway in “Hair,” “Hello, Dolly!” and “The Book of Mormon.”
“There’s stories about greed, vanity, and ambition, how to be careful, how to be safe in a strange place, who to trust,” Creel says. “There are lessons about wanting to be rich and the perils of that desire, wanting to be courageous but getting eaten by a wolf, wishing for something more than you have, and then realizing it’s not what it’s cracked up to be.”
The twisty concept is that the story imagines what happens after “happily ever after.”
“In Act One, everybody is wishing for the thing that they want. I wish for a Prince. I wish for wealth. I wish for a child,” deBessonet says. “But in Act Two, they have to find a way as a community to come together to face an obstacle that is bigger than any of them and to get over their differences.”
Even the Witch, explains Glover (Tony-nominated for “Memphis”), has something that she believes will make her complete. “She wishes to be transformed, to be closer to her daughter, and to hold onto her. [The song] ‘Stay With Me’ is this potent, powerful expression of a mother’s love for her child.”
The Encores! concert productions are bare bones and low on spectacle, with no grand sets or elaborate bells and whistles. The simple set, designed by David Rockwell, features birch trees suspended from the rafters and the orchestra situated deep onstage. “Rapunzel’s tower is a picture frame on top of some stairs, with a rope for her hair!” says Creel.
“By stripping away things that could distract you from the emotional essence of the story and the music, it really allowed the words to be heard and felt in a unique way,” deBessonet explains. “It’s really getting back to the elemental roots of what makes theater unique — telling the story and connecting with the audience.”
Playing the Baker’s Wife alongside her husband, Block says, has been especially poignant because their characters’ fertility struggles are “remarkably personal.” “It took us over five years to conceive our child,” she says of their daughter Vivienne, born in 2015. “So there are many unspoken layers that we share with these two characters. I believe that the audience can sense that because of how we sing together, how tears well up in my eyes at certain points.”
When deBessonet spoke with Sondheim and Lapine in 2021, she recalls their enthusiasm for the proposed revival and its themes of community and connection, especially as people were beginning to gather again for live theater after pandemic isolation. “We really connected over the way that this show speaks to the full spectrum of humanity at all the different stages of life,” she says. “These fairytales are expansive enough for us all to find our way within them.”
INTO THE WOODS
Presented by Emerson Colonial Theatre, March 21-April 2. Tickets from $39. 888-616-0272, www.EmersonColonialTheatre.com
Christopher Wallenberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.