Most of the fairy tales we know today have happy endings. The princess gets her prince, the boy slays the giant and the girl saves her grandmother. But what if the story didn’t end there? “Into the Woods” (1987), Stephen Sondheim’s beloved fairy-tale musical, seeks to answer the question, “What happens after happily ever after?”
First staged on Broadway in 1987, “Into the Woods” is one of Sondheim’s most popular musicals, with several productions on Broadway and the West End over the last few decades and a movie adaptation in 2014. The latest version, which began as an Encores! production at the New York City Center in May, transferred to the Broadway stage in June. The musical weaves together several classic Brothers Grimm fairy tales, including “Little Red Riding Hood,” “Jack and the Beanstalk,” “Rapunzel” and “Cinderella,” to tell a story of love, loss and the harsh realities of life.
The cast is led by Broadway veteran Brian d’Arcy James and singer Sara Bareilles, who play the Baker and the Baker’s Wife, two characters original to the musical who tie the fairy tale narratives together. James and Bareilles have incredible stage presence and strong chemistry, guiding the story through moments of light and darkness. Bareilles, in particular, takes center stage with an enthusiastic performance as the Baker’s Wife. The musical’s book, written for the original production by James Lapine, moves quickly through the complex story without missing a beat, and the cast leans into the script’s many funny moments with impressive comedic delivery.
As the two princes, Gavin Creel and Joshua Henry bring the house down as they try to one-up each other in the comical song “Agony,” and Patina Miller, as the Witch, brings her unmatched vocal talents to key moments in the production, in numbers such as “Stay with Me” and “Last Midnight.” Phillipa Soo brings grace and humanity to Cinderella, and her crystal-clear soprano is one of the show’s strongest voices. Every member of the cast deserves recognition for their performances, but one of the show’s biggest surprises is the delightful Milky White, Jack’s beloved cow brought to life by actor Kennedy Kanagawa. Kanagawa operates a cow puppet onstage while acting out its emotions, often stealing away attention from his human co-stars.
In keeping with the typical Encores! production, “Into the Woods” has the simplest of sets — an array of large trees surrounds the stage, and behind the actors is a 15-member orchestra. The production’s updated orchestrations highlight Sondheim’s songwriting genius as musical motifs come and go throughout the story. Director Lear deBessonet’s hard work is on display as the musical moves from one moment to the next without losing any momentum, and the performers seem to be genuinely having fun on stage. Bright, colorful lighting and costume design create an eye-catching stage picture that you won’t want to miss a moment of.
Act 1 of the musical opens with each character voicing their greatest wish: Cinderella wishes to go to the festival; Jack wishes his cow would give milk; the Baker and his wife wish for a child. The first act has plenty of standout moments like Gavin Creel as the Wolf, and Jack’s “Giants in the Sky.” After breaking a spell set by the Witch, the characters’ wishes are granted and each person finds their happily ever after. What seems to be a conventional fairy-tale story unravels in Act 2 as the characters face the consequences of their actions and grapple with questions of love, loss and forgiveness.
Despite the tonal shift in Act 2, the actors keep the musical’s energy going as the threat of a larger-than-life giant looms over them. The inherent comedy of the show remains intact, especially in one scene where the Baker’s Wife (Bareilles) has a chance encounter with one of the princes (Creel). In “Your Fault,” the characters debate who deserves the blame for their misfortune, and difficult lessons are learned as the story reaches its bittersweet ending. The musical reaches its cathartic finale with “No One is Alone” and “Children Will Listen,” as the characters grapple with the repercussions of their wishes.
“Into the Woods” on Broadway takes a 35-year-old musical and makes it feel brand new again. Even devoted fans of the show will be struck by the music, comedy and emotional impact of the new production. Originally scheduled to run at the St. James Theatre on Broadway from July to August, the show has since extended its run to January 2023 due to popular demand. For a few more months, audiences will get exactly what they wished for.