Sondheim on Creating Into the Woods

Posted on: February 4th, 2015 by Roundabout


The following is an excerpt from Stephen Sondheim’s Look, I Made a Hat: Collected Lyrics (1981 – 2011) with Attendant Comments, Amplifications, Dogmas, Harangues, Digressions, Anecdotes and Miscellany. Thank you to Alfred A. Knopf for allowing us to share the author’s insights with our audience.


9752_10152605170954983_8564591556323886762_nAfter the exhilaration of Sunday in the Park with George, I wanted immediately to write another show with James Lapine. I suggested that we write a quest musical along the lines of The Wizard of Oz, the one movie musical I had loved in which the songs not only defined the characters and carried the story forward but were wonderful stand-alone songs as well. James replied that it would be frustratingly difficult to invent a fantasy quest that could sustain itself for two hours or more because there were too many possibilities: a shining irony when you consider that the last line of Sunday in the Park with George comes from the young artist looking at a blank canvas and exalting, “So many possibilities.” But indeed, how do you go about inventing a picaresque adventure peopled with fantastic creatures? When you have infinite choices and no point to make, every plot is possible and every character is arbitrary except for the principals. In Candide, for example, Voltaire had a simple moral observation to propound and tailored a plot to illustrate it, but the episodes are arbitrary (which is one reason the musical Candide has had no definitive script and score since its premiere in 1956). We had nothing we wanted to say, merely a desire for a form, which is not a good way to begin writing a play. (Content Dictates Form.)

Then James came up with the notion of inventing a fairy tale in the tradition of classic fairy tales, one that could be musicalized and fleshed out into a full evening, which excited us but died aborning. After a couple of tries, James realized that fairy tales, by nature, are short; the plots turn on a dime, there are few characters and even fewer complications. This problem is best demonstrated by every fairy-tale movie and TV show since Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, all of which pad the lean stories with songs and sidekicks and subplots, some of which are more involving than the interrupted story itself. And those are all less than two hours long. It seemed to be an insoluble, self-defining problem until we remembered something he’d concocted a year before when we were looking for a quick way to make a buck.

It was an idea for a TV special: a story involving TV characters from situation comedies (for example, Ralph and Alice Kramden, Archie and Edith Bunker, Mary Richards and Lou Grant, etc.) in a car accident which brings to the scene characters from the cop shows (T.J. Hooker, Joe Friday, Cagney and Lacey, etc.) who take them to the hospital where they are treated by Dr. Kildare and Marcus Welby and Ben Casey, etc. I loved the idea and proposed to James that we write a brief treatment and sell it to Norman Lear, the most imaginative producer of such fare. Lear loved the idea, too, and declared he couldn’t wait to see the script. We explained that we weren’t interested in writing the script, just selling the idea. He in turn explained that he wasn’t interested in buying the idea, just in reading the script. This concluded our conversation. Now, in 1986, James came up with the notion of applying the TV idea to the Brothers Grimm. We would write a story in which the lives of famous fairy-tale characters would collide and intertwine in a mutual meeting ground, and where else but the woods, where so many of the stories take place? To weave them together, James invented his own fable, that of a Baker and his Wife, a pair who would go on a quest that would touch and involve such characters as Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Jack, Rapunzel, the Three Little Pigs, Snow White and, of course, a Wicked Witch. The pigs and Snow White got left behind in San Diego, where the show tried out, but the others remained to populate an olla podrida of (mostly) farcical and (finally) tragic events. We ate our cake and had it, too: it would be a fairy-tale quest.

And ah, the woods. The all-purpose symbol of the unconscious, the womb, the past, the dark place where we face our trials and emerge wise or destroyed, and a major theme in Bruno Bettelheim’s The Uses of Enchantment, which is the book that everyone assumes we used as a source, simply because it’s the only book on the subject known to a wide public. But Bettelheim’s insistent point was that children would find fairy tales useful in part because the protagonists’ tribulations always resulted in triumph, the happily ever after. What interested James was the little dishonesties that enabled the characters to reach their happy endings. (Dishonesty was something Bettelheim preferred not to deal with, as the posthumous revelations about his falsifying his academic credentials would seem to indicate.) James was also skeptical about the possibility of “happily ever after” in real life and wary of the danger that fairy tales may give children false expectations. As his play Twelve Dreams had demonstrated, he was drawn not to Bettelheim’s Freudian approach but to Carl Jung’s theory that fairy tales are an indication of the collective unconscious, something with which Bettelheim would be unlikely to agree. James and I talked about fairy tales with a Jungian psychiatrist and discovered that with the exception of “Jack and the Beanstalk,” which apparently is native only to the British Isles, the tales we were dealing with exist in virtually every culture in the world, especially the Cinderella story. African, Chinese, Native American – there is even a contemporary Hebrew version in which Cinderella wants to dance at the Tel Aviv Hilton.

In inventing the story of “The Baker and His Wife,” James contributed his own cultural fairy tale, an American one. The Baker and his Wife may live in a medieval forest in a fairy-tale medieval time, but they are at heart a contemporary urban American couple who find themselves living among witches and princes and eventually giants. Cinderella gets transformed into a princess, Little Red (which is how we always referred to her) gets eaten by a wolf and comes back to life, Rapunzel gets rescued by a prince, but the Baker and his Wife are merely trying to earn a living and have a baby. Their concerns are quotidian, their attitudes prototypically urban: impatient, sarcastic, bickering, resigned – prototypical, except that they speak in stilted fairy-tale language and are surrounded by witches and princesses and eventually giants. This makes them funny and actable characters, and their contemporaneity makes them people the audience can recognize.

In any event, the gimmick – or, more respectably, the idea – of mashing the tales together gave us a form, much as gimmicks have done in the past (see Schnitzler’s La Ronde). If we were to focus on the consequences of the little transgressions each character makes in pursuit of his or her heart’s desire, it followed naturally that the first act would deal with the traditional telling of the tales up to the Happily and the second with the Ever After. The first would be farce, the second melodrama (still with laughs, of course). As I say, Content Dictates Form – or should.


Into the Woods is now playing at the Laura Pels Theatre through April 12. For more information and tickets, please visit our website.

Related Categories:
2014-2015 Season, Education @ Roundabout, Into the Woods, Uncategorized, Upstage

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Into the Woods: Designer Statements

Posted on: January 28th, 2015 by Roundabout


With only 10 actors, one piano and boundless imagination, this witty and wildly theatrical re-invention is Into the Woods like you’ve never seen it before! The creative team share their vision for the musical below.

Derek McLane, Set Design
When Fiasco approached me, they said they didn’t want a forest, but they needed a container to put the show into. I felt I needed to create some abstract version of the woods. So I thought: What if it was all inside a piano? Upstage, there’s a giant exploded piano harp, with hundreds and hundreds of piano strings in different layers, going from bass strings to treble strings. They’re over-scaled, but they’re laid out in a way that’s very true to the pattern and angle of the strings you would find in a grand piano. On the sides of the stage are a number of stripped-down piano harps. All of this is open so everything can be lit-through—which is part of what gives it that evocation of the woods, even though nothing looks like the woods.

In a funny way, Sondheim’s work—some of those shows have been done so many times that it’s almost like doing a classic. There’s such a long history of significant productions, so you actually feel an obligation to try something original. It would be a wasted opportunity not to. (This quote was originally printed in American Theatre Magazine and is used by permission)


Photo by Joan Marcus

Christopher Akerlind, Lighting Design
Derek McLane’s idea that he has created a container for this Into the Woods is so interesting to me. I like to think that my best work has simply allowed a play, musical, or opera to happen, rather than having decorated or added literal interpretation of atmosphere to it. This is what I think of as Elizabethan lighting; a tribute to the idea that Shakespeare and his company created 38 or so great plays with next to nothing but text and performance. Though new to this production and the Fiasco folks, I’ve felt an immediate aesthetic kinship in our pre-production conversations. The lighting will have less color and fewer artificial textures than in typical musical theatre productions. I’ll be looking for simple gestures that frame, enhance, and caress these hardworking performers.

Whitney Locher, Costume Design
Audience members familiar with other productions of Into the Woods will probably notice right away that certain characters and elements are missing from this production, most notably the Narrator character, who is replaced by all of the cast members taking turns as storytellers. Because it is the actor’s role as storyteller at the heart of Fiasco’s approach to every project they undertake, it is my job as costume designer to enable each actor to transition quickly and easily into different characters with the simple addition or subtraction of such things as a hat, cape, or jacket.

Conceptually, this piece has been set in an attic of memory — filled with objects that could have come down through several generations. The costumes combine modern and period elements to capture a similar feeling of existing somewhere in between the Edwardian era and now. The color palette has been kept intentionally neutral so that the pops of color in added garments provide some fairy tale flair. It has always been imperative in my collaborations with Fiasco that the actors are never hidden or overwhelmed by the costumes and that my work helps to support and enhance their performances.




Darron L West, Sound Design

For the Sound Design of Into the Woods, the early discussions of how we were going to re-imagine it centered around the desire to make a chamber piece, but would utilize simple storytelling with only the things we absolutely needed to tell our story and to have the company of actors provide all the sound effects and music in the show. In the early creative stages, the rehearsal hall was filled with things you might find in your grandmother’s attic or an old, dusty music store. Piles of instruments and odd things that make noise were scattered around the room. The instruments and items that appear on stage in the production are the ones that made the cut from the early days of rehearsals. Many of the actors are also musicians, so Into the Woods has been re-scored using mostly portable instruments. The entire score is performed with piano, guitar, cello, banjo, toy piano, bassoon, bells, autoharp, and French horn. Even “Little Red,” Emily Young, dusted off her trumpet to have on hand for the princes’ fanfare moments in the show. As rehearsals progressed, it was clear that we needed a textured tonal instrument to assist in the Witch’s magic moments. So I brought my water-phone into rehearsal, which became a major element for the magic sounds throughout the production. It’s a beautiful handmade brass instrument with metal tines attached to a brass bowl that is filled with water, and the tines are bowed like a violin.

Along with the traditional instruments, there are a countless number of sound effect makers manipulated by the cast in the show: coconut halves (for the princes’ horses’ hooves, of course), various small whistles, and water pipes for the bird sounds you hear as they advise Cinderella in the story. From the start, we knew that the piano would be the major musical element driving the production, and the piano score of Into the Woods is very lush on its own. Not to mention the extraordinary arrangements that Matt Castle did with the cast. Even the set on stage is a giant instrument and played frequently during the production. The giant piano harp walls have been rigged with contact microphones that pick up the vibration of the strings and, during the show, the strings of the harp walls are struck with any manor of things: mallets, drumsticks, metal pipes, guitar picks, sticks and even the actors’ elbows. A fun fact about the piano harp walls is that on average it takes close to seven hours to complete the tuning before our technical rehearsals can even begin.

Into the Woods is now playing at the Laura Pels Theatre through April 12. For more information and tickets, please visit our website.

Related Categories:
2014-2015 Season, Education @ Roundabout, Into the Woods, Uncategorized, Upstage

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Interview With Actress Carra Patterson

Posted on: January 22nd, 2015 by Ted Sod


Carra Patterson

Education Dramaturg Ted Sod interviews actor Carra Patterson from Little Children Dream of God.

Ted Sod: Where were you born and educated? Where did you get your acting training?
Carra Patterson:
I was born in Saint Petersburg, Florida. My mother was only 16 when I was born, so she was a teenage parent, but she took my brother and me to college with her, so I spent many of my early years growing up on a college campus.  Education was always very important in our household. We eventually settled in Atlanta, Georgia, which is where I attended college. I got my bachelor’s degree from Georgia State University and my MFA from NYU’s graduate acting department.


TS: I’m curious why you chose to do the role of Sula in Little Children Dream of God. What was it that spoke to you?
It’s such a beautiful role. Jeff Augustin, the playwright, did a great job of just writing a juicy, rich role. And as a young black actress, you don’t find that many roles of this caliber to be honest. It’s such a gift. At first glance, Sula seems like this beautiful, delicate, almost virginal character, but she’s a fighter. And there is nothing pretty about her past or her journey. Sula is not a victim who’s helpless and depressed. She’s a fighter who is literally clawing her way out of her painful past. I love that complexity, and that’s what I’m looking forward to exploring during rehearsals.


TS: I just saw a TV interview with Meryl Streep, who said she reads a lot of scripts and she knows it’s the right one because her heart starts beating faster. Did something like that happen to you when you were reading Little Children Dream of God?
Oh, definitely. There is this final moment in the play – and I don’t want to reveal too much – where Sula finally confronts her past. I remember the first time I read it aloud, it was so visceral, I could literally feel the drums and the rhythm of the language, almost like a trance. There are so many moments in this play where you don’t know if it’s a dream or a nightmare. I look forward to bringing those moments to life and seeing how they translate from the page to the stage.


TS: What type of research do you have to do to start on this role?
Lots! I am not Haitian, so I am pretty much reading everything I can get my hands on. Although the play is set in Miami, it’s very much a story about Haiti; its culture is very important to the world of this play. There’s no way I can truly understand Sula’s journey without an exploration of Haitian art, spirituality, and traditions.


TS: I know you haven’t started rehearsal yet, but what do you think the play is about?
In a way, the title says it all. Children come into this world full of innocence and possibility, and somewhere along the way, it gets lost. I think every character in the play is trying to recover a sense of hope. I definitely think that’s what Sula is wrestling with throughout the story. Every parent wants his or her child to have a better life, and Sula wants her son to hold on to the innocence that she’s lost.


TS: What style do you think the play is written in?
What I love about Jeff’s writing is that on one hand it has a magical, dreamlike quality and then in the next moment, it switches to a tone that’s edgy and straightforward. I love how the writing vacillates between those two worlds at any given moment.


TS: How do you see the relationship between Sula and Carolyn?
I love Carolyn’s character. She seems to be a symbol of motherhood. However, Carolyn is not the typical mother…she has 11 children, who we never meet in the play. But she also seems to nurture many of the characters in the play in one way or another. I think Sula admires this quality in Carolyn, and sometimes that terrifies her. Between motherhood and her relationship to God, Carolyn represents almost everything Sula is running away from.


Deirdre O'Connell (Carolyn) and Carra Patterson (Sula). Photo by Walter McBride.

TS: What about Sula and Joel? That’s a very complex relationship.
I think Sula and Joel are teachers for one another. While they both are trying to recover the ability to dream, Sula also forces Joel to embrace his Haitian roots -- the language and the traditions he’s lost touch with. Joel is trying to encourage Sula to create a new history for herself and her son. Sula and Joel push each other and force one another to face their fears.


TS: How would you describe Sula’s relationship to Haiti?
Well, although Sula is running from the pain of mistakes she made in Haiti, she loves her home. She forces Joel and Madison to reflect on their own loss of connection with Haiti. Even though she’s running from the life she had, she carries the beauty of the culture with her, and that’s where the conflict lies with Sula.  In order for her to move forward and create a better future for her son, she still has to confront the mistakes and the pain of her past…something we all have to do at some point.


TS: How do you like to collaborate with the director?
I love when there’s a true collaboration process between the actors and the director to tell the story. There are all kinds of directors, and I have definitely had experiences where it doesn’t feel collaborative at all. Sometimes directors know exactly what they want and it’s your job to just do that. Luckily I know the way Gio works, and I am so excited to get started on this journey.


TS: Have you worked with Giovanna Sardelli, the director, before?
I have. She taught me at NYU during my first year, and it was great. Every time we’ve seen each other since, we always say, “I can’t wait to work with you!” And now it’s happened. I think a true collaborative process is about trust – the actors trusting the vision of the director, the director trusting the ability, interpretation, and input of the actors. I absolutely believe that I’ll have that with Gio. And because she also started as an actor first, I know she knows how to communicate with actors in a way that enhances the collaborative process.


TS: You mentioned doing a table read of this play. Do you have a history with the project?
About a year ago, I had the opportunity to do a reading of this play. It was  last minute, so I had to dive in right away. By the end, I was blown away by the story and by the journey that Sula takes. That’s when I fell in love with this play. And I was looking forward to the opportunity to audition for it all year.

Little Children Dream of God begins previews at the Black Box Theatre January 24. For more information and tickets, please visit our website.

Related Categories:
2014-2015 Season, Education @ Roundabout, Little Children Dream of God, Little Children Dream of God, Roundabout Underground, Uncategorized, Upstage

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