Director Lear deBessonet on "Into the Woods"

  • by Jim Gladstone
  • Tuesday June 13, 2023
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Stephanie J. Block, Sebastian Arcelus, and Katy Geraghty in 'Into the Woods' (photo: Matthew Murphy for MurphyMade)
Stephanie J. Block, Sebastian Arcelus, and Katy Geraghty in 'Into the Woods' (photo: Matthew Murphy for MurphyMade)

"You need to use your time machine to understand why we chose to do 'Into the Woods,'" explained Lear deBessonet, who directed the new production of the 1987 musical by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine that will play a limited engagement at the Curran Theater next week.

"The decision was made in the very early days of the pandemic," said deBessonet, 42. In 2019, she was named Artistic Director of the Encores! series at New York's City Center, which over three decades has built a reputation for presenting short runs of infrequently (or never) revived Broadway musicals.

Often, these older, lesser known shows have admirable scores but dated scripts that feel disconnected from contemporary attitudes about gender, race or class. ("L'il Abner," "Big River," "Grand Hotel").

But "Into the Woods" not only has a book that avoids those issues, it's also hardly obscure, with a fairly prominent place in public consciousness as far as musicals go. It's been revived on Broadway, at the Hollywood Bowl and Central Park; adapted for a Disney movie; and is widely produced by schools and regional theaters. A touring production played the Golden Gate Theater in 2017.

For deBessonet, though, turning to "Into the Woods" was not just about the revival of a particular show, but of a spirit and a belief system.

Montego Glover as the Witch in 'Into the Woods' (photo: Matthew Murphy for MurphyMade)  

"We were just two months into the pandemic and it was killing people in the theater community," she recalled in an interview with the Bay Area Reporter. "The very act of gathering, which is part of theater's essence, had become toxic. People weren't able to be together and we really didn't know when that might resume."

Grimm times
'Into the Woods'— which cleverly interweaves and reframes the plots of several Brothers Grimm fairy tales — is often discussed as an examination of parent-child relationships (in no small part due to its bedtime story source material). But deBessonet was also attracted to the way the show reaches beyond the dynamics of individual families to address the family of mankind.

"Thematically," deBessonet explained, "the story is about a group of people who go from wanting things for themselves individually to realizing that our very survival as a species is about figuring out how to become a 'We,' about how we are inseparably tied to each other through all of our hopes and fears."

The company of 'Into the Woods' (photo: Matthew Murphy for MurphyMade)  

The musical opens with self-centered characters individually singing the words, "I wish..." but concludes with a harmonized one-two emotional punch of collective realization in the present "No One Is Alone," and generational admonition for the future in "Children Will Listen."

"I just felt like whenever people were able to be together again this was the show we should do," said deBessonet.

Indeed, when the show arrived to mark the post-pandemic return of City Center Encores last May, it was rapturously received by both audiences and critics. It quickly transferred to Broadway and now comes to the Curran as part of a ten-city national tour.

More than a year after deBessonet's "Into the Woods" debuted, the pandemic may have receded in public consciousness. But I'd contest her explanation that one needs to travel backwards in a time machine to appreciate her decision to once again present this oft-revived show.

While we seem to have pandemic variants under control for the moment, so many strains of social unrest that have emerged over the past tumultuous decade remain with us.

In the wake of the murder of George Floyd, the rampant sexism laid bare by the #MeToo movement, the resurgence of White Supremacy and the war in Ukraine, deBessonet's take on this particular show remains utterly of the moment.

Beneath its fairy tale accessibility and musical charms, it delivers an urgent plea for selflessness and community. We're not out of the woods yet.

'Into the Woods,' June 20-25. $60-$329 at the Curran Theatre. 445 Geary St. (415) 358-1220.

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