“Something of Great Constancy”: Shakespeare to Sondheim: Part 1

By Gregory Kable, dramaturg, Into the Woods

The children about to enter the forest.
By Kay Nielsen; 1925.

Among the many rich connections between A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Into the Woods is their uncommon fusion of multiple sources. Shakespeare drew upon characters and influences from as diverse an array as Greek mythology, Italian romance, English folklore and Elizabethan social life, and his success in weaving these threads into a coherent whole stands as a testament to his mastery of dramatic form. The same can be said of Into the Woods, but there’s something else their pairing in repertory reinforces: both Shakespeare and the team of Sondheim and Lapine create works which are twin meditations on the nature and importance of storytelling itself.

Befitting a musical based around journeys, Sondheim and Lapine’s own progress toward their piece was circuitous rather than linear. Having happily collaborated on Sunday in the Park with George, a chamber musical about creativity and its discontents in reaction to the disastrous reception met by Sondheim’s previous effort, Merrily We Roll Along, the partners submitted an idea for a television musical involving a car accident which would enable plot collisions among beloved small screen characters from situation comedies, police dramas, and medical shows. While this particular project never materialized, the pair transplanted its sampling concept from television into the fertile ground of fantasy. Given the adventurousness and sensibilities of its authors, the resulting work, Into the Woods, would be much more than a simple retelling of familiar tales in the style of an extravaganza like 1903’s Babes in Toyland or a charming confection such as 1959’s Once Upon a Mattress. In this piece, as in many others, Sondheim draws upon examples of his mentor, librettist Oscar Hammerstein II whose partnership with composer Richard Rodgers yielded a precedent in the watershed 1957 fairy tale musical Cinderella, a live television broadcast which both honored and subtly subverted its source tale, expertly balancing sincerity and wit, with the effect of inhabiting both a storybook and modern world simultaneously. Sondheim and Lapine would revisit and extend that approach in a manner that would yield consistent delight while increasingly tapping deep wells of emotion.

 To be continued Wednesday…

Come see Into the Woods and A Midsummer Night’s Dream at PlayMakers November 1 – December 7. For tickets, call 919.962.PLAY (7529) or visit our website.