A Goodbye Letter to INTO THE WOODS
Think about where you were on May 4, 2022. The lights on Broadway finally felt like they were back on, Tony nominations were about to be revealed, and Patti LuPone had not yet read an audience member to filth. In other words, they were simpler times. Yet, all that changed for me when a star-studded Stephen Sondheim musical revival of Into the Woods opened at New York City Center that fateful day.
The rapturous applause for Into the Woods, both inside NYCC and on social media (and 24 hours later, the reviews), was palpable for two weeks straight. Cancellation lines snaked down 55th Street with people hoping to catch a glimpse of Heather Headley, Sara Bareilles, Neil Patrick Harris, Denée Benton, Gavin Creel, and more. It was the place to be, and everyone knew it!
For me, Into the Woods instantly tapped into a theatre community zeitgeist that leaned heavily on our need for catharsis after two years of pandemic shutdowns and industry reckonings. While Sondheim’s fairy tale adventures have always offered up themes of wish fulfillment, family dynamics, and disparate communities, this revival captured our collective fears of isolation and failure in an ever-changing world.
When director Lear deBessonet extended a hand into the audience with that finale featuring children and senior citizens singing “Children Will Listen,” as if to say, “we’re here, everything will be ok,” my heart shattered and then was put back together again. I don’t know if I’ll ever cry so openly in a theatre ever again, and I’m not sure I want to, but I still get teary-eyed as I hear a choir of 70 sing “wishes are children” in my head (it’s a core memory, I’ll never forget it).
That Into the Woods then came to Broadway was hardly a shock. Neither were the inevitable extensions, blockbuster box office receipts, and the release of a Grammy-nominated Original Broadway Cast Recording.
Instead, it was the break-out stars like Julia Lester and Kennedy Kanagawa, and long-time Broadway favorites like Patina Miller, Phillipa Soo, Joshua Henry, and Brian d’Arcy James, who added another layer that the Encores! staging laid a foundation for. It set up a musical revival that could go on forever, in theory, with each performer bringing a unique voice and personality to a well-trod role (this is the third Broadway staging, after all). Just ask Tony winners Stephanie J. Block and Joaquina Kalukango, who gamely stepped in as the Baker’s Wife and the Witch, respectively, more than halfway through the limited run.
Even the sparse set, essentially some shifting birch trees and a night sky backdrop that was a necessary facet of an Encores!-style production, translated beautifully in a way that still allowed Rob Berman’s orchestra to shine on Broadway. Those little details, combined with nuanced performances, made a memorable piece of theatre that won’t be forgotten any time soon.
Of course, every fairy tale story must come to a close. What a gift to know Into the Woods is only leaving NYC for other kingdoms. I can think of no better next step than a national tour for this production—with many of the Broadway cast members, no less! After all, doesn’t everyone deserve a happy ever after?