- Finian Hackett
From Central Park to Cher - the Story of 'Into The Woods'
Updated: Sep 8, 2021
One of Sondheim's most treasured pieces, Into The Woods, also happens to be one of my favourite shows and the site's namesake! The show's intertwining of the Grimms Brothers and Charles Perrault fairytales and the addition of music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim was, and is still, one of the most clever musical ideas in the current musical theatre catalogue. It has seen many productions over the years and even a Disney film adaptation, so, here is a brief history of the magical musical Into the Woods.
Into the Woods made its premiere in San Diego in the Christmas of 1986. The original tryout featured many changes but the most significant being the addition of 'No One is Alone' into the show. Once the show transferred to Broadway a year later, Bernadette Peters was added to the cast as The Witch and Tom Aldredge as the Narrator/Mysterious Man. The run of 2 years was an impressive feat, with the show receiving 10 Tony nominations and winning 3 for Book, Score and Best Actress for Joanna Gleason (Baker's Wife). Unfortunately, Phantom pipped it to the post for Best Musical, although Into the Woods won the Drama Desk award of the same name, and a Grammy! Bernadette Peters was famed for her performance as The Witch but only played the role for the first 5 months before actresses like Betsy Joslyn and Phylicia Rashad took over. The original cast all returned for the PBS filming of the show in 1989, which can now be watched on Broadway HD or right below!
The show's West End debut came in 1990, where the show ran for a much shorter 197 performance run at the Phoenix Theatre. The cast was star studded, with Nicholas Parsons and Imelda Staunton as the Narrator and Baker's Wife respectively, and Julia McKenzie leading the billing as The Witch. This production was a much darker take than the Broadway original but still received critical acclaim and 7 Olivier nominations. It won for Best Actress (Imelda Staunton) and Best Direction (Richard Jones). It lost the Best New Musical award to that year's only other nominee...Sunday In The Park with George! A win/win either way for Sondheim. The biggest change in this production was the addition of 'Our Little World', a song to show the relationship between Rapunzel and the Witch.
Into the Woods saw its first major revival in London just 8 years after the original production. The show ran at the Donmar Warehouse and starred Sophie Thompson as the Baker's Wife (which she won the Olivier for), Jenna Russell as Cinderella, Clare Burt as the Witch and Sheridan Smith as Little Red Riding Hood. The show was dark and intimate but only ran for 5 months.
The first (and currently only) Broadway revival opened in 2002 for a run of 279 performances. The show, directed by the book writer James Lapine, had a cast like no other: John McMartin, Gregg Edelman, Christopher Sieber, Laura Benanti, Judi Dench (as the Giant's voice) and Vanessa Williams. It featured many additions including the song 'Our Little World' from the London run, the cow being portrayed by a live performer and a cameo from the Three Little Pigs! The Tony-winning revival was surrounded by some controversy when Laura Benanti (Cinderella) fell and fractured her neck during a performance, forcing her to leave the production! Rumours swelled that Benanti was 'problematic' and 'difficult to work with' however these rumours were completely unfounded. She survived voice threatening surgery and those false rumours and is now a Broadway star, winning a Tony for another Sondheim show, Gypsy.
Regent's Park/Central Park Productions
The first open-air production played London's Regent's Park in 2010. The limited 6-week run saw one major narrative change - the Narrator was now a young boy who had run into the woods following a family argument. The cast leading this eerie production were Hannah Waddingham, Mark Hadfield, Alice Fearn, Michael Xavier, Jenna Russell (as the Baker's Wife this time), Helen Dallimore (the original West End Glinda) and Judi Dench (once again as the Giant's voice). The show was a major success with Sondheim himself attending twice! It won the Olivier for Best Musical Revival and was filmed for Digital Theatre and Broadway HD (it's worth a watch).
The same production transferred to Central Park at the Delacorte Theatre. The cast was awash with Broadway stars including Donna Murphy, Jessie Mueller, Denis O'Hare and Amy Adams in her professional stage debut, currently her only ever stage performance. The original Baker, Chip Zein, starred as the Mysterious Man. Once again the production was unanimously praised with a Broadway transfer on the cards, but after negotiating contracts, the production fell through and never made it to Broadway.
The idea of making a film of Into The Woods had been circulating since 1990 when the first reading took place. Amongst the original cast were Cher as the Witch, Robin Williams as the Baker, Goldie Hawn as the Baker's Wife and Danny DeVito as The Giant (yes, The Giant). In 1997, Billy Crystal and Susan Sarandon were in the mix for the film but again this fell through. Disney eventually picked up the rights and in 2012 backed a 3-day reading starring Victoria Clark, Donna Murphy, Laura Osnes, Alison Janney and Cheyenne Jackson. Some of the film's eventual cast were also present.
In 2014, the Disney film was released starring the likes of Emily Blunt, Johnny Depp, James Corden and Anna Kendrick, along with Meryl Streep as the Witch, a role that earned her her 19th Oscar nomination! The film was generally praised despite small changes to the storyline and cutting of musical numbers to appeal more to the PG rating of the film.
The future of Into the Woods is looking bright. A West End revival is planned for this Christmas at the Old Vic (directed by controversial Monty Python star Terry Gilliam). A Broadway revival featuring the cast of the 2019 Hollywood Bowl production, which featured the likes of Patina Miller, Sutton Foster, Skylar Astin and Gaten Matarazzo, has also been talked about - a move that would likely prove very popular. However, Into The Woods is making a return in the form of a New York City Center Encores! production starring Sara Bareilles, Christian Borle, Ashley Park and HEATHER HEADLEY as The Witch. I am beyond excited.
Let me know below your Into The Woods memories and where you'd like to see it next!