Where were you when you first heard Stephen Sondheim?
For people of a certain age, that potentially transformative moment might have occurred sometime this month, in a screening of Rob Marshall's film adaptation of Sondheim's musical Into the Woods. And by people, I mean present-day children more likely drawn to Disney than Sondheim (once described in the Sunday Times as "that rare thing in the musical theater world: an intellectual heavyweight").
This is a somewhat difficult prospect for adult Sondheim fans. Into the Woods remains in many ways the ideal Sondheim primer for the young—it is, after all, a musical entirely about children and the fictions associated with being one—but it has a reputation among enthusiasts as easy, if not shallow. A Disney production, made for the screen, promises an even simpler rendition. Is it possible for a global children's-entertainment conglomerate to do justice to a composer beloved for his complexity and difficulty? And even if it is, is that the best way to introduce a new generation to Sondheim's genius?
Spoiler alert: there are no happy endings.
The truth is, Into the Woods wasn't my favorite Sondheim musical as a child—not because it was too dark, but because it seemed a little too simple. Like its original New York reception, mine was similarly moderate. "Too many of the other songs bring the action to a halt," writes Frank Rich in 1987, "announcing the characters' dawning self-knowledge didactically." Like everyone, I came to love the PBS broadcast of that original Broadway cast, but my relationship to Into the Woods felt more like a slow burn than anything else. As Rich rightly notes in his review, "Time and second hearings always tell with a Sondheim score." Has there existed a more respected giant of Broadway who has simultaneously endured so very many initial flops?
Funny enough, my kneejerk resistance to Into the Woods was probably in response to elements of the show that usually make for Broadway hits. The musical had magic, fairy tales, children, the possibility of true love and pat endings! It begins by resembling a more classic Broadway show, which meant that it could not resemble your typical Stephen Sondheim show. Even with the second act in which all the happy endings of the first begin to turn to shit, Sondheim still ends the musical on a note of reunion. The final two words—"I wish!"—ring with optimism.
And as a sophisticated child of the 90s, I had no patience for anything that did not irritatingly try my patience. (Are Sondheim Fans the Most Obnoxious Subgroup of Theater Nerds?) "Is this a musical for children?" I likely asked, while returning to the familiar discomfort of Sunday in the Park with George. When you're young and nothing makes sense, it's almost reassuring to find art that never asks to be made clear sense of—that, in fact, explicitly validates an ongoing search for further disorientation.
I don't think that it was just a superficial desire for complexity and difficulty that drove me away from Into the Woods either. Sondheim emphasizes in his introduction to Look, I Made a Hat (the collected lyrics from the second half of his career, with a title that references Sunday no less) how his later collaborations with James Lapine did in fact change his approach to composition and, more importantly, narrative.
I have often been accused of writing "cold" scores: intellectually acute but emotionally dispassionate, not user-friendly. Warmth comes in many guises, however, and one man's passion is another man's sentimentality. When I look back as objectively as I can at the shows I wrote before James and contrast them with Sunday in the Park with George and others I wrote with him, it seems clear to me that a quality of detachment suffuses the first set, whereas a current of vulnerability, of longing, informs the second. It's not that I prefer one to the other, but at this late date I can more easily understand the early and persistent reaction to my songs (although, I'm glad to say, the persistence seems to be wearing down with the passage of time). With James, detachment was replaced by a measure of compassion. When I think of songs like "Sunday" or "Move On" or "No One Is Alone" (from Into the Woods), I realize that by having to express the straightforward, unembarrassed goodness of James's characters I discovered the Hammerstein in myself—and I was the better for it.
Both mentor and "surrogate father" to a young Sondheim, Oscar Hammerstein apparently taught the boy everything he knows, even though Hammerstein wrote librettos that one might not immediately associate with Sondheim: The Sound of Music, Oklahoma!, The King and I, Show Boat. These are, in a more traditional mode, sentimental musicals. One might even call them melodramas. In other words, while Hammerstein frequently makes me cry, it is often for different reasons than why, say, Sondheim's Company leaves me weeping.
Perhaps it's obvious, then, to consider Into the Woods—that Sondheim musical about fairy tales and children—as working in a more directly Hammerstein mode. But I think Sondheim's point here is important: it's not really a difference in complexity or subject matter that distinguishes the Sondheims from the Hammersteins, but a shift in emotional orientation. Notably, it's Lapine's scripts or stories that urge Sondheim from a de facto position of detachment into "a current of vulnerability, of longing […] a measure of compassion." Not just "No One Is Alone," but songs such as "Children Will Listen," "Giants in the Sky," and "It Takes Two" strike me as particularly Hammersteinian in this sense.
There's a verse in "Giants in the Sky" where Jack is singing about the Giant's wife, which makes a beautiful turn from seeing her as an object of terror to one of tenderness:
A big tall terrible Giant at the door,
A big tall terrible lady Giant
sweeping the floor.
And she gives you food
And she gives you rest
And she draws you close
To her Giant breast,
And you know things now
that you never knew before,
Not till the sky.
It's exactly this description of the lady Giant—one suffused with compassion and a bit of longing too perhaps—that makes her final appearance, in which she stomps around town in anguish and rage, all the more startling. But we get it too. Her husband is dead. Witches can be right, / giants can be good. / You decide what's right, / you decide what's good.
It also seems to me a beautiful move for Sondheim, looking back on his decades-long career, to see how he ends, in many ways, much where he began: a boy in Oscar Hammerstein's living room learning " how to structure a song, what a character was, what a scene was; […] how to tell a story, how not to tell a story." The witch was right, children will listen.
Unless raised by parents with Broadway leanings, early encounters with Sondheim will probably lack intention. They may even go unobserved: Madonna's sultry ballads in Dick Tracy; the love theme to Reds; many, many Simpsons parodies. First contact often takes place not in Sondheim's home medium of live theater, but through cast recordings, film adaptations, or television reruns. Robert Wise's movie musical West Side Story continues, for example, to be a common introduction to the composer, fueled by the fact that Wise's adaptation is considered an important and innovative film in its own right. But as an entrance into the world of Sondheim, even a stage version of West Side Story might still feel partial. The now renowned composer-lyricist was here hired only as a young hand to pen the accompanying words to Leonard Bernstein's score.
This dynamic was certainly emphasized in my first Sondheim interaction, where I listened to the original 1957 West Side Story Broadway cast recording over and over for a musical history class in which we focused more on Bernstein's orchestral arrangements than on Sondheim's lyrics. The movie version, which I watched on a whim, wasn't a requirement for the class. Only in retrospect can I begin to account for its significance to my childhood.
West Side Story too is a musical about youth (just consider its source text); indeed, Sondheim's entire oeuvre is in many ways an evolving meditation on forms of adolescence. Following West Side Story, there was Gypsy—a firecracker of a musical based on striptease artist Gypsy Rose Lee's fraught relationship with her helicoptering stage mom, Rose Hovick. (Gypsy was also really the last big project in which Sondheim did not write both music and words.) Early on in the show, a young Louise (Lee's surrogate in the musical) sings a quiet ballad that ends on the question: "I wonder how old I am?"
This rhetorical distinction—between numerical and emotional age—is put to task in almost every Sondheim play. Never does he take the interior life of adolescence for granted as simple or easy; innocence is a luxury guaranteed for no one. If anything, perhaps the most distinctive condition of Sondheim being musical theater's "intellectual heavyweight" lies in his decision to take children seriously.
More than his contrapuntal orchestrations and dense wordplay, Sondheim's notorious difficulty properly resides in what his contorted musical and grammatical logic only work to express: narratives that continually undercut what is initially presumed to be straightforward or even naïve. What more appropriate medium too for such an undertaking than musical theater—an art form that, perhaps more now than at the beginning of Sondheim's career, often gets dismissed as the exemplification of innocuous unsophistication?
Regardless of whether Sondheim saw children to be his main audience, those of us who discovered him as children have a different story to tell. For growing up in a culture that seemed intent on teaching us either through cautionary tales or constant affirmation, Sondheim offered something far more ambiguous (even risky!) that felt, as such, singularly and secretly directed just at us kids. "There's a place for us," sings an anonymous off-stage figure during the ballet scene in West Side Story. I always appreciated how this song could simultaneously address Tony and Maria's romantic predicament, as well as the uneasy predicament of growing up. One finds a generosity of address in Sondheim's lyrics, as every song about outsiders implied a secret world wide enough to house all those wandering individuals.
Though I should acknowledge that, as someone who grew up with Sondheim as a kind of bible text, my relationship to him is also colored by a kind of protective narcissism. Anyone that plays such a crucial role in one's private emotional upbringing can be difficult to share. ( It actually resembles a kind of possessiveness found in early adopters.) It's true too that sometimes describing one's passion for Sondheim resembles a kind of measuring contest, where your ruler becomes "how many times have you performed Company in your bedroom in the role of every cast member," or "whose dream cast of Assassins is more delightfully unpredictable?" One effect of discovering this secret world is a desire to guard it against all interferences.
You see the residue of childhood attachments in so many reviews of Marshall's Into the Woods. Richard Lawson opens by making his investments clear: "When Disney says they are making a big, star-studded movie version of something you've loved since you were eight years old, I suppose you could have one of two reactions." The options are excitement and horror, and it seems like critics and fans alike almost uniformly default to the latter. This isn't our first rodeo. Rachel Shukert recounts "the worn-out VHS tape of the PBS broadcast of the original Broadway production that the librarian in town finally just gave you one day because you were the only person who ever checked it out." It's such a unique anecdote, but Shukert's second-person address also seems to say: "Who doesn't have a special relationship to that televised production?" It remains by far and away the best video adaptation of any Sondheim.
The reception for Marshall's Into the Woods, on the other hand, has been split. Some like it fine—a more than decent interpretation of Sondheim's dark story, especially as Disney adaptations go. Others were left wanting. (Critics are truly concerned about the specific consequences of the each of the film's cuts. In making the movie more family-friendly, does this new version sacrifice the musical's original darkness and complexity for, god forbid, "accessibility"?) I'm not sure there's a right take, especially given how contingent interpretation is upon one's own attachment to Sondheim. But I do recognize more and more that, while this most recent adaptation might tend toward playing it safe, there is a way in which doing so also becomes a marker of fidelity to the play, to Sondheim, and to Hammerstein. It's important to allow Into the Woods to be "user-friendly"—not because children can't take it otherwise, but because of the implicit affirmation of vulnerability and identification that such adaptations suggest.
In many ways, what makes Into the Wood seem easy and childish are what make it so devastating. For here, any threat of darkness or difficulty is only exacerbated when considering the massive hope Sondheim's characters invest in futurity. And this is a threat posed as much to mothers and fathers as it is to their children. Fairy tales are a high stakes game, and in Into the Woods, everyone is set up to lose something.
Which is probably why I'm less offended by Marshall's movie than I might have anticipated. There are some questionable cuts, sure, and it's not a classically great film by any means, but as an adaptation of Sondheim, it keeps in true spirit. Marshall offers us a deeply compassionate interpretation and I would urge skeptical viewers to follow Sondheim and seek the Hammerstein in themselves, remembering all the while that this doesn't mean "simplify!" but, in fact, "empathize!"
Maybe we've all been reading Into the Woods ungenerously this whole time too, as it has historically been always read as Sondheim Lite. (Tellingly, it has been read as the most appropriate Sondheim musical for high school productions.) This is also where we can't blame Hollywood entirely, for it's exactly this notion that Into The Woods and its source material of fairy tales are easy that threatens to misrepresent the basic conceit in Sondheim: which is that things are often more complicated and messy than they first appear, and that this is no less true for children.
Maybe that's obvious. Just like how it's obvious to most how that life guarantees no happy endings. For the record: haters of Into the Woods (Sondheim's or Marshall's) can stop pointing out this obviousness like it somehow negates the point of the musical. Because, despite it all, no one raises a child without telling them a story or two of happily ever after; no one willingly brings a child into this world without some faith in them either. It's not that happily ever after is a sham—it's that we know this already, we have known so for a long time, and yet we continue to act as though otherwise. Expectations are important, but so too is optimism.
For the children of Sondheim, maybe this is all obvious too.
Maybe that's okay.