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Encore: 'Into the Woods' returns to Broadway

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Many fans of the musical "Into The Woods" just got their wish. The show is a mash-up of Grimm's Fairy Tales that is both silly and serious. A limited run of the production in New York last spring has now been moved to Broadway where it's been playing to sold-out houses. And today the Broadway revival was officially extended through mid-October. Here's more from reporter Jeff Lunden.

JEFF LUNDEN, BYLINE: Fresh off their Pulitzer Prize-winning musical "Sunday In The Park With George," composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim and librettist James Lapine wanted to write a new show together and landed on the idea of taking various fairy tales - "Cinderella," "Little Red Riding Hood," "Jack And The Beanstalk" among them - and mixing them all together with their own story of a childless baker and his wife.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PROLOGUE: INTO THE WOODS")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Once upon a time...

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) I wish...

LUNDEN: That's from the original 1987 cast album. Sondheim explained the importance of that moment in a video he recorded for Music Theatre International, the company that licenses productions of the show.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

STEPHEN SONDHEIM: The show opens with the words I wish and closes with the words I wish. And this isn't just because they're fairy tale languages, but in fact, what the show is about is about a group of people who have various wishes. And during the course of the show, they get their wishes but, in so doing, upset the natural order of things and have to pay for it in the second act, become a community, submerge their individual wishes into a community wish and, thereby, save the world, so to speak.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "INTO THE WOODS")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) You go into the woods, where nothing's clear, where witches, ghosts and wolves appear. Into the woods and through the fear, you have to take the journey.

LUNDEN: The show is probably Sondheim's most popular musical. It ran for two years originally, was taped for PBS, has been revived on Broadway, is performed in professional and community theaters and schools around the world and was turned into a Disney film.

LEAR DEBESSONET: Part of what is glorious about it is you can come to it at many different stages in your life and enjoy it - right? - and also notice different things about it based on where you are.

LUNDEN: That's Lear Debessonet, who's directed the revival. She says she listened to the cast album as a kid growing up in Baton Rouge, La., and in the darkest days of the pandemic, she found herself thinking about one particular lyric after she put her 3-year-old son to bed.

DEBESSONET: How do you ignore all the wolves, all the lies, the false hopes, the goodbyes, the reverses, all the wondering what even worse is still in store? And the precision of the emotional and spiritual insight of that question...

LUNDEN: So she reached out to Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine with her own question.

DEBESSONET: And basically, I said, whenever theater is back, whether we come back in six months or in five years, the first thing I want to do when we're back in a theater is direct "Into The Woods." And they said, yes.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "INTO THE WOODS")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Cinderella, singing) It's your first big decision. The choice isn't easy to make. To arrive at a ball is exciting and all. Once you're there, though, it's scary.

LUNDEN: Rob Berman is music director of the production, which was initially presented just five months after Sondheim's death.

ROB BERMAN: It really feels like we're doing an American classic. And to do it, you know, so soon after Steve passed away feels so meaningful.

LUNDEN: It began as part of the Encores! series at City Center, which puts on concert versions of musicals. The orchestra is on stage, and there are very few scenic elements, something director Lear Debessonet has retained for Broadway.

DEBESSONET: And in a sense, the gift of stripping away fancy stage mechanics and making it just about these words, these people and their communion with the audience, you know, that's the center of our production, and I think it's part of what people have loved about it.

LUNDEN: Pop star Sara Bareilles, who plays the Baker's Wife, says she feels the love coming from the audience.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "INTO THE WOODS")

SARA BAREILLES: (As the Baker's Wife, singing) You've changed. You're thriving. There's something about the woods.

Our audiences are chock-full every performance. It's like a rock concert every night. We really get the sense that we're giving these audiences something they really, really want and they really need right now.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "INTO THE WOODS")

BAREILLES: (As the Baker's Wife, singing) And then out here, you're passionate, charming, considerate, clever.

BRIAN D'ARCY JAMES: (As the Baker, singing) It takes one...

LUNDEN: Joshua Henry, who plays Rapunzel's prince and has starred on Broadway in "Carousel" and "Hamilton," says some members of the audience know every lyric and line. But more important, they relate to the characters.

JOSHUA HENRY: I think a show like this that has so many complex characters that talk about the human experience - I mean, I don't feel like there's one emotion or one experience that humans don't experience that is not in the show.

LUNDEN: Like the comical agony he and his brother, Cinderella's prince, feel over their hard-to-get loves.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "INTO THE WOODS")

HENRY: (As Rapunzel's prince, singing) Agony far more painful than yours, when you know she would go with you if there only were doors.

LUNDEN: In the second act of the show, the characters face the existential threat of a giant who creates chaos in the kingdom, and several main characters die. In 1987, it was a metaphor for AIDS. The 2002 revival opened shortly after 9/11. And now this revival comes after more than a million Americans have died of COVID. Music director Rob Berman says part of what makes the show continue to work is how, like fairy tales with their archetypal characters, it's all about interpretation.

BERMAN: In the show, the giant is just the giant. But us as an audience and as humans, we take it to these other places that make it meaningful, and we connect to it the things that are going on in real life.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "INTO THE WOODS")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) Careful the wish you make. Wishes are children. Careful the path you take. Wishes come true.

LUNDEN: Joshua Henry says even though Stephen Sondheim isn't around, his spirit is. And his collaborator, James Lapine, wrote the cast a letter for opening night.

HENRY: And put it backstage and said that this version of the production specifically is one that Steve would be immensely, immensely proud of. He would be so surprised and proud of it. So hearing him say that was like, woof (ph) - you know, really hits you.

LUNDEN: And for those who can't catch the limited run of "Into The Woods" on Broadway, a new cast recording was made this week and will be available to stream in September. Wishes do come true. For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jeff Lunden is a freelance arts reporter and producer whose stories have been heard on NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered and Weekend Edition, as well as on other public radio programs.
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