Unlike most fairy tales, Stephen Sondheim’s Into The Woods does not offer its audiences the comfort of a happily ever after.
“Be careful what you wish for” is the ongoing theme in the Brothers Grimm-inspired musical, which combines the stories of Jack and the Beanstalk, Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel, and a childless baker and his wife in a twisted story of death, adultery, witchcraft, broken dreams and deception.
The show, which made its debut on Broadway in 1986, sees well-known characters become blighted by conflict and tragedy as they head into the woods in pursuit of their dreams.
“Into The Woods takes these stories that we tell children and deconstructs them,” says James Brining, who is directing the production in a collaboration between West Yorkshire Playhouse and Opera North. “It looks at whether happy endings really exist and takes them apart. It takes stories that are quite familiar to us and it explores them more deeply.”
The musical follows each character as they seek out their wishes. Cinderella sings of her longing to attend the king’s festival, Jack and his mother wish for milk from their cow, and the baker and his wife long for a child. Each character is granted their wish, but their actions have devastating consequences.
“These four stories play out at the same time and the different characters bump into each other, and at the end of act one it’s like everything ends happily ever after, but of course real life isn’t actually like that,” says Brining.
“The second act starts to take that apart and shows that there are consequences to things that happen in the fairy stories, but when you follow those things through and relate them to real life, there are different consequences from which you imagine. I suppose it is like a metaphor for growing up; for adulthood.”
But despite its dark message, Brining says Sondheim’s production still retains elements of humour.
“Parts of it are quite sad and quite moving,” he says. “People lose people in the course of it. We are trying to play that authentically and truthfully, but I also think it is funny and witty and it moves fast. Because it is [a] Sondheim, it has brilliant wit.
“I think it’s quite an adult story. Its themes are about adults, and even though it is about characters that children are familiar with, I don’t think it’s really for children. It’s about quite complex and textured things. It is quite a powerful piece.”
Brining’s cast is made up of 23 Opera North chorus members along with a number of local children, and the artistic collaboration is set to be a major event in Leeds’ cultural calendar.
“In terms of the cultural life of the city it makes sense,” he says. “It’s a way for us to put on a show which is big, and bigger than we might otherwise be able to do – working alongside each other.
“Working on Sondheim’s work is a bit like working on a Shakespeare; it stretches you in lots of different ways. It sharpens you and makes you pay real attention to detail.
“I’m hoping that we’re being quite ambitious with this. It’s a real pleasure and privilege to work on Sondheim with brilliant resources at our disposal.”
Into The Woods is at West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds until 25 June
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