Sondheim, Into the Woods, Artistic Flexibility & Compromise

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Last week, a Talk of the Town column in The New Yorker reported on a masterclass given by Stephen Sondheim, during which he mentioned a number of script and score changes he expected in the upcoming Into the Woods movie. The Twitterverse reaction was immediate, and – among faithful fans, at least – full of woe. “How could he let it happen?” was the summary judgment.

My own response was surprise over the surprise. Surely nobody expected that a Disney-produced film of Into the Woods would retain all the show’s more violent elements, or the sense of middle-aged regret that permeates the original?

But it’s also been the case that Sondheim has been unusually open to adaptations and alterations of many kinds in his works. One can see this as a positive or negative quality – for me, it’s a little of both – but it’s notable.

Here are a few examples (with my own personal comments about some of the changes):

  • Follies – The 1987 London production incorporated alterations of both the script (done by the original writer, James Goldman) and score (several songs were swapped out and replaced by new ones). This is perhaps the most infamous example of a revised Sondheim show, and most or all of the changes were at the behest of producer Cameron Mackintosh. Sondheim has since distanced himself from this version, which is not published nor available for production.
  • Company – Two notable changes that are now part of the published script and incorporated in the major revivals I’ve seen: 1) the addition of “Marry Me a Little” for Bobby to sing as the first act finale; and 2) some new dialogue toward the end of the show that reveals Bobby’s bisexual experiences. (I don’t like either change. “Marry Me” is an unnecessary star turn and a more conventional end for act I, and in term of Bobby’s sexual history, I prefer the original script’s intriguing ambiguity.)
  • John Doyle’s revival productions of Sweeney Todd and Company – I’m lumping these together because the major changes involve a novelty both productions shared – using the cast as the orchestra, with each actor also playing a musical instrument. In the case of Sweeney, Doyle’s production also had a very different visual style – more German expressionist than English Victorian. (The Sweeney designs appealed to me, but otherwise I’m no fan of Doyle’s productions – the compromises to the orchestral fabric alone are seriously debilitating.)
  • Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd film – This might be the closest analogue to the Into the Woods situation, since film adaptations almost inevitably call for sweeping changes. Here, the original score, through-composed and of operatic scale, is heavily cut and simplified, probably both for the sake of quickening the narrative, and to suit Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter. (It’s best to approach the film of Sweeney as its own thing, and even then I know many people who hate it, but I’m a fan. I find it very effective, and Depp and Bonham Carter are terrific within this framework. Also, it was a brilliant theatrical stroke to cast Tobias with an actual child actor.)

Reading through comments on the Talk of the Town article (and other reports of this story), the most common assumption seems to be that Sondheim is willing to compromise because a movie version will offer unprecedented exposure. But I doubt that’s the whole story. No one in musical theater is more celebrated than Sondheim – his future is assured.

What I’d like to think is that he views his works as flexible and open to reinterpretation. On principle, I believe in this, too, and Sondheim’s reputation for mentoring young artists would go hand-in-hand with this approach. But I also think his taste is quirky, and his judgments often perplexing.

Still, Sondheim’s willingness to change and compromise is infinitely preferable to the kind of rigidity that often is a hallmark of writers “safeguarding” their own works. Last week also brought news that David Mamet ordered a Milwaukee theater to shut down a production of Oleanna because it involved reverse gender casting.

Mamet is an extreme example of a writer who exerts control – licensing agreements for his shows even prohibit post-performance talkbacks. It will serve him right when his dwindling reputation as a playwright is replaced by one as a reactionary old crank.

But he’s by no means alone. Samuel Beckett was noted for requiring strict adherence to the text. So was Richard Rodgers (and, more recently, the organization that licenses his works). Also Edward Albee, who on several occasions has also directed his own plays. That’s one way to get what you want, I suppose. But I saw a Los Angeles production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? that Albee directed, and it was so lifelessly literal it felt more like a lecture than a performance.

Is there a take-away in all this? There is for me – a reminder that writers, for all their creative gifts, are often oddly capricious custodians of their own legacies.


5 replies »

  1. My friend Peter Papazoglou writes: “To be fair to Mamet, hasn’t Sondheim quashed gender- or sexuality-bending productions of Company?” Peter, there may be other examples involving Sondheim and COMPANY, but the one I’m thinking of was in October 2013, and involved director John Tiffany and the Roundabout (see link below). In this case, I think the idea was floated for a substantially reworked version of the show — “the gay COMPANY” was the phrase I kept seeing — which involved a private reading, though as the NY TIMES story below shows, it as certainly public knowledge. I believe it took place, and it was subsequently abandoned, though I’m not clear on whether this was specifically at Sondheim’s insistence, or was more generally looked on as not-for-prime-time.

    I see this as a different case, first because it was not shutting down and actual production, and second because the process was specifically a private experiment. In fact, this seems to me an almost ideal way to proceed in a case like this.

    There may be other examples of Sondheim intervening in actual COMPANY productions, but I’m not aware of them.

    On this topic, though, Edward Albee has famously gone on record decrying the idea that the George and Martha relationship in VIRGINIA WOOLF is in any sense a coded gay relationship, and has indicated that he wouldn’t tolerate a same-sex production. (Whether this was a general advance warning or involved shutting down an actual production I don’t know.)

  2. Wanted to share Peter’s other comment: “Also [SPOILERS], while some people might be upset by any change made in the course of adaptation, I think a strong case can be made that eliminating the death of Rapunzel seriously undermines the Witch’s character development and fundamentally alters the fabric of the musical in a way that reducing the Wolf’s overt sexuality or altering the nature of the Baker’s Wife’s encounter with the Prince don’t.”

  3. UPDATE: Just hours after I posted this, Sondheim went on the record with additional comments (see link below). I certainly intend to see the movie, and will be interested to see how they deal with the various issues.

    For me, the show has always involved a disconnect between fairy tale whimsy and something much harsher and more adult — even in the original, those elements were not persuasively reconciled.

  4. I really like “Marry Me a Little” as an Act I finale; I think using the song and putting it in that position sets up a really interesting dialogue between it and “Being Alive”.

    • Fair enough. I *do* like the song a lot, and in Raul Esparza’s performance, I was *almost* persuaded about it’s positioning in Act I. (I also love “Multitude of Amys,” but don’t see it working in the show…)

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