The wordplay of Stephen Sondheim is the gift that keeps on giving. Take a moment to look at “Moments in the Woods,” a song of brilliant language, deep insight, bountiful wit and, as always, true to its character, in today’s “Theatre Yesterday and Today.”
“Oh, if life were made of moments,
Even now and then a bad one — !
But if life were only moments,
Then you’d never know you had one.”
These lyrics, written by Stephen Sondheim for the character of the Baker’s Wife (she and her husband are never referred to by their proper names) are from the 1987 Broadway musical in Into the Woods and remain imprinted on my mind ever since the first time I heard them. That was a year before it came to New York, when I saw the Old Globe Theatre production in San Diego during its try out. I had moved to Los Angeles earlier in the year, and when I found out that Sondheim’s first show post-Sunday in the Park With George was starting performances — once again written with his same collaborator James Lapine as book writer and director — I made it my business to drive down and see it.
It was rough around the edges (after all, this was its first full-scale production), but the genius of its conception shined through. This quest musical, featuring characters out of the Grimm’s Fairy Tales (with some additions from Sondheim and Lapine) was original, daring and made immediately clear that it boasted one of Sondheim’s best scores. Cinderella, Jack (of Beanstalk fame), Little Red Riding Hood and others were cleverly interweaved in a story both light and dark. But with the construct of the Baker and his Wife, the only characters created out of whole cloth and not out of the imaginations of the brothers Grimm, the show had found its golden egg. Their story, among the many the show told, was so successful that it stood to reason that with the right input from audiences (there really isn’t such a thing as wrong input, as they usually tell you what’s working and what isn’t), Sondheim and Lapine were on a sure path towards getting “out of the woods” and to Broadway.
As fate would have it, right after that matinee performance I attended, I found myself eating an early dinner at a nearby Mexican restaurant. And who was at the very next table, but Sondheim and George Furth, his friend and partner on Company and Merrily We Roll Along, and of course they were discussing the same matinee I had seen. I have never eavesdropped like that before or since, but wouldn’t you? The only thing I recall (and it’s near verbatim) was when Sondheim told Furth, “I’m still pregnant with it. I haven’t given birth to it yet.”
One of the best aspects of the plotting is that the Baker and his Wife are clearly “in the wrong story,” a wonderful inside joke, as they in no way resemble any of the other Grimm characters, distinctly urban as they are. This was aided immeasurably by the casting. First, there was Chip Zien as the Baker, whose innate warmth and one-of-a-kind vocal abilities, sang and acted the role beautifully. And due almost entirely to the strength of her portrayal of the Baker’s Wife, Joanna Gleason, by dint of what she personally brought to the role, made it abundantly clear who the rightful central figure had to be. This is a performance that I’ve seen done by many other actresses, but no one else has ever matched her perfect balance of humor, pathos, integrity and sincerity she brought to it, not to mention the comedic timing of a Carole Lombard or a Lucille Ball. Another important element to what made Sondheim and Lapine’s creation of the Baker and his Wife work so well, was how they were able to forge the identities of the characters yet remain faithful to the bizarre fairy tale world the show inhabited.
I’ve had a number of opportunities to discuss the show, and her character, with Joanna Gleason. Her memories of how things evolved over the changes made between the two versions of the show are best told in her own words:
“I think the weight of the emotional freight increased for the Baker’s Wife when they changed my death from San Diego’s version. In San Diego, I sang my song, and an apple came rolling onto the stage … I bit into it and marched off. Later, Jack comes running in to the group with my scarf and something was said along the lines of ‘never eat apples in the woods!’ (i.e. poison) and that was the last you ever saw of me. Ever. Until the curtain call.
Someone at a talk back said they were disappointed to lose the Baker’s Wife, and in such a comical matter of fact, butt-of-a-joke way.
Before we geared up for New York City rehearsals, Steve had us to his house (me, Bernadette, Chip) and played a new ending, wherein I return as a ghost to sing to my husband and Cinderella and the baby, etc… AND I was to be killed by the Giant.
It made all the difference.”
The indelible “moments” Into the Woods have provided theatre fans have proved not only durable, but meaningful. With so many songs to choose from in the Sondheim cannon, his lyrics to “Moments in the Woods” may be the canniest of them all. Not only clever, but with meanings that continue to delight and inspire. I recall vividly one particular on-line discussion about this song, among theatre devotees of the show, which made me rethink nearly everything about “Moments.” It had to do with the homophone of “woulds” and “woods.” Think about it: In the course of any given day we all indulge ourselves in “woulds,” so what new meaning then does it give a line like “You can’t live in the woods?”, if you substituted “woulds”?
Or take the final lines of the song:
“Let the moment go.
Just remembering you’ve had an ‘and’ When you’re back to ‘or’,
Makes the ‘or’ mean more
Than it did before.
Now I understand —
And it’s time to leave the woods!”
Leaving the “woulds” is just as important for this character as leaving the literal “woods,” don’t you think?
While writing about Into the Woods in his book, Look, I Made a Hat, Sondheim doesn’t mention anything about “woulds” and “woods.” Maybe it’s not what he meant, but I’d be surprised — being the kind of wordsmith he is — if he wasn’t well aware of the connection between the two and how the phrases can work both ways. This also brings to mind another matter — one in which Sondheim remains dismissive — which is when any sort of AIDS allegory is brought up with regard to the show’s story. He mentions in his book how people write and ask him about it all the time. He says most of them want to know if he meant the giant to be AIDS, and though understanding of why they might think that, it doesn’t make sense to him. “To James and me, it is a giant. Enough said.”
But at the time, how could Sondheim not have been sensitive to what the theatre community was going through in November 1987 with the ongoing decimation from AIDS? It had only been 4 months since one of his most brilliant collaborators, Michael Bennett, had died of the disease. It can’t be ignored how deep the resonance goes when it was decided to bring back the Baker’s Wife at the end of the show after she had died, and to sing “Sometimes people leave you halfway the wood”? The night I first heard this line on Broadway it was entirely new to me (remember, it wasn’t in the San Diego production) and I burst into tears. I still do every time I hear it.
The Baker’s Wife continues singing:
“Do not let it grieve you,
No one leaves for good. You are not alone. No one is alone.”
Since it premiered, Into the Woods has gone on to become one of the most successful shows Sondheim ever wrote. It remains an enormously popular property with schools and amateur theatres, something Sondheim hoped for and suspected would happen as he wrote in Look, I Made a Hat “if the piece worked.”
It certainly did. And a special thanks to both Sondheim and Lapine… for all the moments.
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