As Wacky as You Wanna Be

James Lapine gets Into the Woods

Mar 30, 2005 at 4:00 am
The student cast at Washington University should not be daunted by the prospect of performing Into the Woods this weekend for James Lapine, the show's author and original director. Lapine has never seen a production of the fairy-tale musical that he didn't like.

"I tend to enjoy them all," the writer says by phone from New York. "I saw two in Germany that were bizarre. One was in a 3,000-seat opera house. Little Red Riding Hood wore spiked heels and a miniskirt. She was like a complete slut. In the other, the show opened with the Baker and his wife sitting on lawn chairs with beers in their hands. The funny thing is, both productions worked. Into the Woods is like a Teflon musical. You can get as wacky as you want and somehow it still comes together. I think that's because it has a strong plot."

Into the Woods was the second of Lapine's three collaborations with composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim. No sooner did their Pulitzer Prize-winning Sunday in the Park with George open in 1984 than they got to work on a second show. "It took three years," Lapine recalls. "Steve and I bounced around a lot of ideas and came up with the notion of telling a fairy tale. Then when I sat down to write a fairy tale, I realized that the nature of fairy tales is that they're actually quite short. And when you try to expand them, they lose a lot. That's why I got the idea of weaving together an original fairy tale [the Baker and his Wife] with existing ones."

Into the Woods plays so seamlessly, it's as if book, music and lyrics were all written by the same person. "I can't take credit for that," Lapine demurs. "That's the brilliance of Stephen Sondheim. He's a master at understanding what should be musicalized, what should be spoken, what should visualized. He is the genius of our art form."

And when these shows get produced (Passion was their third collaboration), they become known as Sondheim musicals. "Yes, they do," Lapine concurs after a pause. Is that a source of irritation? "If he weren't so generous, it might be a tough thing to live with. But Steve is very apologetic that they're called Sondheim musicals. It embarrasses him. At the same time, I have to remember that people go to musicals to hear performers sing; they don't go to hear them talk."

Four years ago Lapine directed the Broadway revival of Into the Woods. "I somehow thought that I could make it better the second time," he says. "You make so many decisions under the gun when you're doing a Broadway show, and that first production was so rushed. I wanted to go back and look at some of what we had cut. The irony is that on the revival I had all the time I needed, and I ended up basically doing the same show.

"We opened right after 9/11, which was a trying time. But the show was quite resonant, because it spoke to the moment. I think parents liked bringing their kids, because it provided an opening to have a discussion about good and evil, and the lengths to which people go to get what they want."

As Lapine prepares to fly out to St. Louis, does he have any advice for the student actors at Wash. U. -- or for the Webster Conservatory students who will stage the musical in late April?

"It's a tricky show to do," he acknowledges. "If it's not paced well, with alacrity, it can be way too long. My only advice for the cast would be what I say to the casts of every show I direct, which is that you want to make your characters as real and empathetic as possible. It doesn't matter that they're fairy-tale characters; find the humanity in what you're doing."