Refracted Fairy Tales


Children love fairy tales, but only the most sophisticated and knowledgeable adults really believe in them. Take Stephen Sondheim, master of cynical wordplay: In his panoply of images, the rescuer of last resort was a prince slaying a dragon long before he wrote the score of Into the Woods, or even began collaborating with James Lapine. True, Sondheim is at best an unsteady believer: In his versions, all too often, the dragon is likely to eat the prince. Still, few Broadway musical writers have shared even that degree of faith. (The only fairy-tale figure in Oscar Hammerstein’s oeuvre is that “big black giant,” the theater audience.)

When the idea for Into the Woods came along in the late ’80s, it must have seemed ideal for Sondheim’s preoccupations, as well as matching Lapine’s recurrent themes—the unpredictability of love, the complexity of art-making, the difficulties and dangers of child-rearing. As it evolved, it took on the panoramic form that, though problematic for audiences, apparently appeals to Sondheim. The meager events of Follies are set off against the skits and songs of a Ziegfeld-style spectacle, those of Sunday in the Park alongside the details of Seurat’s painting; Assassins struggles to work up connections among its gallery of would-be president-killers. And Lapine’s struggle to link Cinderella and Rapunzel with Red Riding Hood and Jack the Giant Killer, by way of a paradoxical witch and a childless baker and his wife, bears marks of strain at every turn.

Lapine’s current recension of Into the Woods hasn’t lightened the load appreciably. If anything, his clearing away some of its digressive outgrowths has made the script seem cruder and more burdensome. Sondheim’s score sounds richer and stronger—but then, it’s an acknowledged fact that all Sondheim scores sound better on rehearing. Here the effect is as if the ultra-sophisticated songwriter were happy to revel in the innocent enchantments, leaving his librettist-director the burdensome task of finding an orderly way out of them. Where the earlier production looked as though Lapine was carefully sorting his way through the characters’ destinies, the current staging has the air of a set of problems being efficiently solved. Set designer Douglas W. Schmidt’s woods are indeed lovely, dark, and deep (his kiddie-book interiors look garish in contrast), but the traffic dashing through them often seems as hectic and unsurprising as a midtown rush hour. Nothing that might pull you into the magic of the tale (and up through it into a heightened view of reality) happens until somebody finally holds still and starts to sing, at which point Sondheim and his magical elves, orchestrator Jonathan Tunick and conductor Paul Gemignani, can work their spell.

Even then, the spell only intermittently takes effect. The problem isn’t a noticeably wide discrepancy between the original roster and this one: There are members of the 1987 cast I’d gladly see onstage in these roles, but comparisons are odorous, as Dogberry says, and the difference between the two groups is very much a matter of win some, lose some. The real problem is the overall decline in Broadway singing standards in the intervening years. Though many onstage have good loud voices, in terms of vocal execution only Laura Benanti as Cinderella, and Gregg Edelman and Christopher Siebert as the brother princes, seem to fathom what Sondheim’s up to musically. And Vanessa Williams, though her stylistic impulses tempt her in an altogether different direction, makes musical sense of “The Last Midnight,” which I don’t recall Bernadette Peters doing. In fact, Williams, though her statuesque glamour is nowhere near as endearing as Peters’s waifish presence, makes the Witch’s role seem altogether more coherent.

She can’t make it seem as sympathetic, however. Lapine and Sondheim have added a duet for the Witch and her imprisoned ward Rapunzel (“Our Little World,” first sung in the London production) that, in jacking up the emotional tension, gives the character’s maternal protectiveness a creepy lesbian edge. Adding to this weird tilt, the Baker’s reunion with his father now seems to carry no emotional weight at all—in part because John McMartin, as the Narrator, tends to make everything he says sound piffling. In general, despite some strong acting (notably Stephen DeRosa’s as the Baker), the spoken sequences lack heart—not a great help to a script in which the intersecting stories already tend to get in each other’s way. Only when Sondheim’s at his best—not always the case in this score, despite the brilliance of his precision-tooled lyrics—are you likely to think that this is a fairy tale to trust.

The Man Who Had All the Luck, Arthur Miller’s first Broadway venture, is also a fairy tale of sorts. The only difference is that when an eccentric with a foreign accent appears out of nowhere in the depths of the night, to solve a problem that rescues the hero from an impossible dilemma, he (the eccentric) exclaims, “America!” instead of “Rumpelstiltskin!” Don’t start thinking this is one of Miller’s social dramas, though: The tiny, amiable fable may be steeped in small-town folksiness and baseball, but it’s really a psychological study in the art of self-help. The action takes place in 1938, and the work premiered in 1944, but neither the Depression nor World War II is more than a flickering presence, and Austria’s just a place guys with accents and funny mustaches come from to better themselves in the good old U.S.A.

Miller’s hero, however, is a native-born hometown boy who everybody believes is lucky. And the joke is, he is. This wouldn’t make for much of a drama except that he doesn’t believe it. Convinced that his good fortune has to turn bad someday, he sees it as a perpetual sword of Damocles hanging over him, with every windfall inching it closer to the fatal drop. A storm, a misunderstanding about his wife and the Austrian Rumpelstiltskin, and an elaborately contrived mix-up about (would you believe) mink ranching add up to the crisis that teaches him, predictably, to enjoy his good luck and leave destiny for others to fret over. Somehow it called up memories of Jules Feiffer’s antithetical parable, about the guy who tried to outwit the laundromat machine that always gave his wash back with a sock or two missing. Feiffer was able to do the whole thing in eight panels, of course, and summed up the moral far more cogently (“Stop trifling with the laws of Nature—bring the machine more socks!”). But then, he wasn’t under the pressure of constructing a marketable play in the old Broadway style, a tactic Miller sensibly gave up on as he progressed.

And progress he did. The two cogent reasons for seeing The Man Who Had All the Luck, despite its not being much of a play, are the amount of promise it shows and the fun of measuring the vast distance between it and Miller’s for-real plays. Even All My Sons, shaped inside Ibsen’s 70-year-old cookie cutter, walks taller and more animatedly than this early, cautious attempt. At the same time, The Man Who Had All the Luck can stand with later Miller in its humor; in the easy flow of dialogue in its best scenes; in one or two smartly caught character snapshots (especially a tetchy rich eccentric, played stylishly here by Mason Adams); and in a few big moments where you can hear the themes that will occupy Miller through his whole career sounding out for the first time, with the big, ringing tones of a brand-new carillon. The most noticeable of these is the play’s emotional pivot, when the hero’s younger brother, a likable lunk who’s been raised by their father to think of nothing but a baseball career, finally hears the bitter truth from a major-league scout. For a minute, as father and brothers sit silent and helpless in their pain, a procession of Miller sibling miseries to come seems to wash over the stage: Kellers, Lomans, Eddie Carbone with his immigrant boarders, the embittered brothers of The Price. Nothing these later families go through is mentioned, but the scene seems to carry them all, encoded in its DNA.

It’s also the point where Scott Ellis’s production is most effective. Otherwise, the staging is more smooth than distinctive, the acting more reasonable role-filling than character creation. The exceptions to the latter clause are Adams, as aforesaid, and Sam Robards as the handily appearing Austrian. Chris O’Donnell, in the title role, is the nominal star, a pleasantly competent young actor with a low-voltage stage presence. Samantha Mathis, as his wife, is yet another of those Hollywood girls with no personality and a Minnie Mouse voice. I wish the Roundabout were a movie company—then, presumably, it would only hire trained stage actors. Meantime, the real star of the show is an authentic 1930s Marmon roadster—the most beautiful automobile I’ve ever seen on any stage. It’s also the only cast member that doesn’t seem dwarfed by Allan Moyer’s vast, barren set, which looks more like an airplane hangar than like any space called for in the script. He shouldn’t take the name of the theater so deeply to heart.