When the Department of Musical Theatre begins its run of “Into the Woods” tonight, it will mark the first time in five years that the School of Music, Theatre & Dance has taken on the work of famed composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim — a peculiar fact given Sondheim’s enormous influence on the scene. Numbering into the teens, Sondheim’s Broadway shows run the gamut from the creepy and cannibalistic “Sweeney Todd” to the pun-filled Roman farce “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.” He’s one of the darkest and most unconventional personalities along the Great White Way, and “Into the Woods” is certainly out there.

“Into the Woods”

Through Oct. 24, Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 2 p.m.
Mendelssohn Theatre
Tickets from $10

For “Into the Woods” Director Mark Madama, an associate professor of music, this production marks only his third staging of a Sondheim show in more than 10 years directing musical theater at the University.

“Sondheim musicals, except for ‘Into The Woods,’ are just not that accessible,” he explained in an interview with the Daily.

But “Into the Woods,” which ties together some quite mature themes a fairytale motif, manages to bridge age gaps for a wider appeal. The show premiered on Broadway in 1987 and soon became a favorite of community theater companies and youth drama programs.

“If you do it in a grammar school or a high school, it just means that the kids are just watching these fairytales,” he said. “If you do it with a college-aged group in their twenties, you’re watching people making decisions that are going to affect their lives. And then if you do it on a more adult level, you’re watching people who are living the ramifications of the choices they made when they were in college or when they were in their early twenties.”

The plot of “Into the Woods” follows Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel, and Jack of “Jack and the Beanstalk” as they all try to make their wishes come true while stumbling through a physical and metaphorical forest. The characters’ familiar storylines all cross paths, but ultimately they’re tied together by Sondheim’s original tale of a baker and his wife who, in order to have a child, must reverse a curse of infertility.

“I think that my favorite character is probably the baker’s wife, because she holds everything together, and she’s probably the most human and has the most human wants and flaws,” Madama said. “They all do, but Baker’s Wife is the most easily recognizable, because she’s not a character from a story, from a fairytale — although she seems like she would be.”

“She deals with the problems she’s having with her marriage, looking for more adventure, and then the ramifications of finding that adventure,” he continued.

It’s these problems that twist the show from fantasy into a story of true-to-life people stuck in a fantasy world.

“When you get really familiar with the script, you realize that it’s not just about the fairytales … it is about how sometimes wishes don’t come true, and life doesn’t turn out like you hope it does,” said Music, Theatre & Dance junior Sam Lips. “I think it’s a really profound message that a lot of people can relate and connect with.”

Lips plays Rapunzel’s Prince, the younger of two royal brothers whose spoiled-rotten lifestyle is challenged when he’s faced with a girl he can’t simply own.

“He can’t get (Rapunzel) down to be his wife, so it becomes that one thing you can’t have that you want more than anything,” Lips said. “And I think because you can’t have it, you want it that much more.”

“Into the Woods” also delves into Rapunzel’s storyline from another, less explored perspective: that of the witch who has imprisoned her in the tower. The Witch of “Into the Woods” is a complex woman in many ways bound up by her overprotective feelings and love for Rapunzel.

“(To cast) the Witch, you try to find somebody who is going to allow themselves to be free and allow themselves to find something they love more than anything in the world, which would be Rapunzel,” Madama said, “even if that means their dog, even if it means their parents, even if it means anything, just trying to find something they can relate to.”

At the end of July, all musical theater students who wished to participate in “Into the Woods” were sent a casting breakdown and list of requirements for auditions, which included singing a song in the style of a character from the show.

“If you’re doing Sondheim, Broadway style is the best — except for the Witch, who can come in with a rap song,” Madama explained. One of the Witch’s early musical numbers is a spoken-word piece about — what else? — beans.

Rachel Bahler, the Music, Theatre & Dance senior who won the part, had the advantage of already being familiar with her rap.

“I saw this show in community theater when I was eight, and I was obsessed with the Witch bean rap, so … I hearkened it back to my memory,” Bahler said. “And once you’ve learned it, it really just rolls off your tongue.”

Though she was ready for the rapping, Bahler found other aspects of the score difficult — a charge often levied at Sondheim.

“(Singing Sondheim) takes a lot of work, and a lot of concentration, because everything needs to be very precise in order to get those words out, and the tempos change — it can be very tricky,” Madama said.

“Into the Woods” has its fair share of timing-dependent duets and sudden musical changes. Bahler pointed specifically to the quick emotional turns in her songs as being tough to master.

“In ‘Stay With Me,’ I start out furious with Rapunzel and I have to demonstrate that feeling,” she said. “Then I have this huge swell of motherly tendency toward Rapunzel even though I was mad at her. So you have to be really attuned to those emotional changes. But (Sondheim) is brilliant; once you get it, then you’re set.”

Before the musical theater department’s production, Bahler and Lips had never performed in “Into the Woods,” though both were already fans. Madama is more familiar with the show, having directed several regional theater productions in the ’90s.

“I’m looking at it from that other perspective of being an adult, as opposed to when I was just starting to direct shows, and I was more in the mindset of somebody who’s setting out on a new life,” he said.

Madama doesn’t try to impose his own views on his cast — a 16-person ensemble composed entirely of musical theater majors. Instead, he stresses the importance of each actor relating to the characters and the show from his or her own standpoint.

“Really, what they need to all do is become children, and play as their age,” he said.

And in portraying their characters from a college student’s perspective, the cast members open up means through which all audience members can connect to this dark and twisted fairytale.

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