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“Into the Woods” on stage & screen: a Sondheim showdown!

Well, I’m back from a wonderful Block Island vacation with my family, and anticipating many good things to come during the exciting fall/winter season. And one of the most intriguing is an unusual battle for dominance(at least in the New York City area!), involving one of Stephen Sondheim’s most celebrated and challenging works. Which will be the better adaptation of “Into the Woods”?

In the red corner, weighing in with loads of Disney dollars and a massive all-star cast, Rob Marshall’s film version of “Into the Woods” starring Meryl Streep, Johnny Depp, Anna Kendrick and Emily Blunt. What a roster! Marshall, of course, is the renowned stage and screen adapter who brought New York the thrilling Broadway presentation of “Cabaret” in 1998, starring Alan Cumming. Rob went on to direct the wonderful film revision of Kander and Ebb’s “Chicago”, which managed to garner SIX Oscars—including Best Picture. There’s already been controversy over just how much Marshall and Disney Studios have changed with “Into the Woods”, and we’ll all be able to find out what they’ve done come Christmas Day 2014.

And in the blue corner, sporting a whittled down cast and orchestra(just 10 performers, and a single piano!), Fiasco Theater Company’s off-Broadway offering of “Into the Woods”, arriving at the Laura Pels Theatre on December 19th(in previews), with an official opening on January 15, 2015. This Roundabout Theatre Company presentation is slated for about a 3-month total run, housed in a 46th Street venue that seats 424. It’s apparently a radical, new interpretation, that wowed audiences at New Jersey’s McCarter Theater back in the spring of 2013. It’s to be co-directed by that run’s original team of Noah Brody and Ben Steinfeld.

I was lucky enough to experience the first Broadway offering of “Into the Woods” back in 1988, soon after it arrived on the Great White Way. That production starred Bernadette Peters, Joanna Gleason and the late Tom Aldredge. It was directed by musical GIANT, James Lapine, and it grabbed three Tony Awards(losing Best Musical to a little show called “The Phantom of the Opera”—maybe you’ve heard of it?). And although I’m not certain what either new presentation will bring in terms of artistry and quality, I can tell you this: don’t mistake “Into the Woods” for some light-hearted fairly tale romance. It is a dark work, with a sexual undercurrent, and beautifully nuanced metaphors—as well as an astonishing musical score. I wasn’t totally prepared for what I saw almost 27 years ago, but “Into the Woods” has become one of my most cherished examples of Sondheim’s genius. Here’s to hoping that both upcoming imaginings do it justice—and may the best adaptation “win”!

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