Stephen Sondheim is my favorite lyricist, ever since I saw movies of West Side Story and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum as a child; but the first professional show of his I saw I disliked. At 14, I found Merrily We Roll Along just a bit too sophisticated and disenchanted. I’m sorry I missed its London revival a few years back, because I might see it differently now. But I’ve had a similar feeling as a grownup about a few of his shows: Road Trip, Passion…there are clever lyrics, but he didn’t engage me in the stories. And I must not have been the only who felt that way about Merrily We Roll Along, since according to Wikipedia that Broadway production closed after 14 performances.
This is where Into the Woods is perfect for him. Basing the musical on fairy tales ensures a certain level of accessibility and universality. Then, building on that base, Sondheim can be Sondheim, playing with language and surprising us. The higher voltage lyrics you want to write, the more you need to ground yourself in human experience. (Metaphor courtesy of the bathroom extractor fan I replaced yesterday.)
The students at the ADC did a good job with it. No budget for impressive giants (the London production I saw in the early 90s was a much better spectacle, as you would expect); but solid staging and good performances. Cinderella, the baker, Rapunzel and the princes stood out in particular, but the whole ensemble was very strong. It’s no mean feat to deliver those clever lyrics so as to be both understood and funny, but they managed it. I’ve been humming all week.