For an entire season, Skylight Music Theatre has been building a strong foundation of fairy tales, where Cinderellas and Dorothys can set out on an adventure with pure hearts and return having unequivocally vanquished the evil in their midst.
With their final show, “Into the Woods,” things aren’t so simple anymore. The musical, composed by Stephen Sondheim with James Lapine writing the book, depicts a variety of characters from classic fairy tales — Cinderella, Red Riding Hood, the archetypal Witch and Jack (of beanstalk fame) to name a few — as they work to make their wishes come true. Then it shows what happens next.
“The first act is seeing the traditional fairy tale characters pursuing their wishes selfishly,” says director Edwin Cahill, making his first appearance with the company since serving as the associate director with Skylight artistic director Viswa Subwaraman on “Fidelio” in 2013. “The second act is actually what happens after ‘ever after,’ and discovering that if you only focus on yourself, catastrophic results arrive.”
If the story sounds familiar despite you not being a Sondheim buff, that’s probably thanks to the Disney film adaptation that hit movie theaters at the end of 2014, starring major actors like Anna Kendrick, Emily Blunt and Meryl Streep.
But don’t think having seen that means you should avoid the Skylight’s production. Cahill says the cinematic adaptation, while good, takes notable liberties with its source material — jettisoning important characters and songs while abandoning the binary, two-act structure that makes the musical so effective on comic and dramatic levels. “If you haven’t seen the movie, and it’s just brand recognition, that’s great for getting people to see us. But if you did see the movie and you thought, ‘It was good, but I don’t know if I want to revisit that movie again,’ I would highly suggest (you) come and see this. So much was distilled.”
More to the point, Cahill had his vision for the piece in place long before Sondheim’s score spilled forth from projectors nationwide. A longtime fan of Sondheim who was fortunate enough to work with him as an actor in the 2005 revival of”Sweeney Todd,” Cahill has had his eye on “Into the Woods” for a long time, and is directing it for the first time with the mostly local Skylight cast.
He says his production could be seen as centering around the message of “No One Is Alone,” one of the show’s songs. “For me, (that’s) the thesis of this whole show … and not in the traditional, mawkish sense, of reassurance. But in the sense of, ‘Your actions have direct effect on your neighbors, your family and your community.’ And that’s a really powerful message.”
Community was at the forefront of Cahill’s decision about how to present the only non-fairy tale characters in “Into the Woods”: the Baker and Baker’s Wife. In the original Broadway production, he says, the couple was presented as an urban couple of the time — aka: New Yorkers, Upper West Siders perhaps, very much unlike 21st century Midwesterners. His duo (Jonathan Altman and Karen Estrada) are much more like the Milwaukeeans of today, complete with stand mixers, a touch of emphasis on their Middle American accents and visual callouts to co-ops like Outpost in their costumes.
Also important to Cahill was exploring exactly what fairy tales mean to a community, and why they’ve persisted over hundreds, even thousands of years. “I think the magic that both fairy tales and musicals hold for an audience is understanding oneself better, both by laughing at oneself and also seeing some of the faults that we all have, the weaknesses,” he says.
The problem, he says, is in most modern fairy tales, which sanitize the dark, violent elements in favor of the happy moments — in Disney’s classic “Cinderella,” for instance, there’s a handsome prince and a beautiful gown, but no sawing off of toes in the effort to squeeze wicked stepsisters’ feet into slippers. He sees it as a particularly American instinct to protect children, but one that ironically leaves them unexposed to the evils of the real world and unable to act morally as adults.
“I would argue,” he says, “that to have fully integrated children, it’s better for them to see how people can go awry, but if you make good choices, you can get yourself back on track. It’s not all over.”
That’s part of the reason he believes any child who can sit through the two-and-a-half hour musical is well-equipped to see the dark, serious second act as well as the happier first act, the only one included in the so-called “Junior” version often performed by high schools or amateur theaters.
Without its second half, “Into the Woods” has no moral core — and everyone knows it’s the lesson you learn that’s the important part of any fairy tale.
Skylight Music Theatre’s production of “Into the Woods” runs through June 14 at the Broadway Theatre Center, 158 N. Broadway. Tickets start at $23 and can be purchased at 414-291-7800 or