Fairytale Characters Personify the Human Experience in ‘Into the Woods’

Fairytale Characters Personify the Human Experience in ‘Into the Woods’

With every fairy tale, there is always a moral to the story

The fairy tale stories and characters you have come to know and adore will be depicted in a different light in the BYU Music Dance Theatre program’s production of “Into the Woods.” Opening on Nov. 17 with a “once upon a time…’, the musical will run for three weeks and show what truly happens after “happily ever after.”

Before winning a Tony Award and becoming a Hollywood blockbuster, “Into the Woods” was a 1986 collaboration of music and lyrics created by Stephen Sondheim and a book written by James Lapine.

As Sondheim said in “Look, I Made a Hat,” the musical tells the story of “a childless baker and his wife [who are] told by a witch that they will be able to conceive if they can find and bring four objects to her: a cow as white as milk, a cape as red as blood, hair as yellow as corn, and a slipper as pure as gold.

“In the course of their quest, the baker and his wife encounter Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood and Jack (of ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’), and become part of their stories. At the end of the first act, they achieve their goal. The second act deals with the consequences of what they did to get there.”

“Into the Woods” Director Dallyn Vail Bayles warns audiences to remember not to leave after act one of the production because it is act two that really digs deep into what the heart of the musical is about.

At the end of act one, Cinderella and Rapunzel both get their prince, Jack becomes rich after killing and stealing from the giant, the baker and his wife have their child and the witch regains her youth and beauty. Everything seems well.

“But what Lapine and Sondheim wanted to say was, ‘Well, happily ever after is a wonderful idea, but it’s usually not that easy,’” said Bayles. “Especially because these characters are a little dishonest in getting what they want. They tell a little lie, they have to steal something, Jack kills the giant and there are other deceitful actions made in order to get what they want. Those choices have consequences. The creators wanted to show what happens after happily ever after or as Sondheim put it, ‘Act 1 is the happily; Act 2 is the ever after.’ ”

In Act Two, the characters must deal with the consequences of their actions and come face-to-face with reality. Their fantastical fun beginning turns into a conundrum of decisions as they deal with their choices while continuing to pursue a happily ever after.

Joseph Swain, the actor portraying “The Baker,” said, “This musical takes characters that children have idolized and makes them human. Not to dash a child’s dream of who they want to be when they grow up, but to show that these are people. They are just like you and you may already be like them. This show validates the human experience and shows that anything you want or wish is achievable. However, the happy ending won’t be what you expect.”

Swain’s motivation behind auditioning for the musical was due to his love of “Into the Woods,” naming it one of his favorite musicals. He watched it first in junior high school then went on to play “The Baker” during his junior year of high school. Swain said he is excited to portray “The Baker” again, after some time apart from the character.

“I think my favorite thing about this character is the humbling journey he takes to realize that he can’t do this alone,” said Swain, “which is something I think a lot of us not only forget, but fight. In my opinion, if you were meant to figure out everything on your own; God, Allah, Zeus, the narrator or whatever you do or don’t believe in, would have placed you on an earth all by yourself. We need each other.”

When asked what their favorite “Into the Woods” rehearsal moment has been, both Swain and Madison Dennis, who plays “The Witch,” said it was the first time the cast read and sang through the script.

“By the end of the run most us were crying,” said Dennis, “and not just because there is tragedy in the second act. There was a sense of wholeness and truth – this joining of artists that poured their entire souls into the story – that filled the room. It was a beautiful thing to be surrounded in. There was a unity within the cast and production team and an understanding of the power and importance of this story. That spirit has never left us. I’m incredibly grateful and honored to be a part of something so profound.”

Dennis said getting cast as “The Witch” as a non-MDT major was exciting and unprecedented, explaining that her confidence and preparedness paid off in leading her to live her childhood dream. She thinks of “The Witch” as complex and human, describing her as contradictory to the typical archetypal portrayal of witches in stories.

“I love the dichotomy of her being the most human in the show when she isn’t technically human,” said Dennis. “I love how she’s completely honest all the time and I love her heart. To me, she is a tremendously loving person that has become horrifically bitter from life’s trials. She’s not a villain in my eyes, just a weary soul who wants a family.”

Dennis shared that rehearsing “The Witch” has been the most exhausting and difficult process she has ever had with a role, rightfully so, for “The Witch” is known as one of the greatest roles written for women in Musical Theatre.

“I’m having to use everything I’ve ever learned mentally, emotionally, physically and musically,” said Dennis. “I have to be ‘on’ 100 percent of the time to play the role properly, which makes it that much more thrilling to play. It’s incredibly important to me to play her as fully realized as many of the greats have– like Bernadette Peters, Meryl Streep, Hannah Waddingham or Donna Murphy. It’s important to me not to just copy performances of the greats, but really make it my own.”

Along with Dennis, Swain agreed that everyone in the cast gives everything they have to bring important truth to the story. “This is a star cast,” said Swain. “A lot of audiences have hangups about the second act due to the dark turn it takes. Many believe it’s just for the shock factor. But this cast works so hard and humbly to show that this story is about humans and that there isn’t just a happily ever after. The world continues to spin and we topple over as that happens. We have to learn to get back up. And when we make selfish choices, they will have bitter consequences.”

In anticipation of “Into the Woods,” audiences should expect to see some familiar faces, but in a new light as their worlds collide and are turned upside down. The fairy tales in this production go beyond the Brothers Grimm fables.

“Beyond the immense entertainment value of the production, this show delves into themes relevant to every person that has walked the earth,” said Dennis. “There are important morals and values brought to light in this show about the real world. It’s not just about making sure you don’t stray from the path on the way to grandma’s cottage. This production is truly one for the books, for the performers and audience alike. You’ve never seen ‘Into the Woods’ quite like this – it’s truly a masterpiece.”

An ASL-interpreted performance will be held on Nov. 30, as well as post-performance discussions going on Nov. 30 and Dec. 7.


Ticket and Show Details

Performance Dates and Times: Nov. 17–18, Nov. 29–Dec. 2, Dec. 5–9 | 7:30 p.m and Nov. 18, Dec. 2, 9 | 2:00 p.m.

Location: Pardoe Theatre, Harris Fine Arts Center, BYU

Price: $14-26 ($6-7 off with BYU or student ID, $2 off for senior citizens or BYU alumni, $14 Tuesday evening)

Tickets: Available in person at the BYU Ticket Office in the Harris Fine Arts Center or Marriott Center, by phone at 801-422-2981 or at byuarts.com