Into_the_Woods_cast_recording_(London,_1990)It took me until the late 1980s to discover Stephen Sondheim. The first time I remember taking real notice was on hearing “These Are My Friends” from Sweeney Todd on the radio. A cross-purposes but incredibly powerful love song between Mrs Lovett, Sweeney Todd and some barber shop razors? This was interesting! Then I heard a radio review of the 1990-91 production of Into the Woods at the Phoenix Theatre, with Nicholas Parsons as the narrator. We went to see it and it was splendid – I think I went back three or four times with different sets of people. It’s almost invidious to pick out any particular songs, because everything fits together so closely – but “Any Moment” illustrates some of the things I love about the show and about Sondheim in general. For a start there’s that beautiful musical underlay of richly harmonic, rippling piano chords. Ostinato passages of this sort permeate the whole musical. They are both practical, providing room for dramatic space that a fully structured song sometimes doesn’t, and utterly integral to musical mood, often appearing to indicate meaning that otherwise goes unsaid. (One of the reasons I like to go to a production multiple times is to hear more of this “incidental” music, because it’s invariably cut out for the recordings). The song itself might seem insubstantial, with just a short verse repeated three times with variations, and a bridge passage. There are frequent interruptions for spoken dialog and action – the drama and music can’t be separated in Sondheim.

But the subject matter is multi-layered. Cinderella’s Prince is out to seduce the Baker’s Wife and she is going along with the fantasy, in a kind of dream. The sweetness of the music tries to convince us of his sincerity – and almost succeeds, it’s gorgeous. But this is undercut by humour, and by the self-awareness of the characters that they are acting out a fairy tale. “This is ridiculous, I’m in the wrong story” sings the Baker’s Wife. The prince points out that they will have to hurry their love-making due to the imminent danger of a rampaging giantess. “May I kiss you/Any moment we could be crushed/Don’t feel rushed”. Unconsciously, he also reveals his true attitude towards the Baker’s Wife “Life is often so unpleasant/You must know that, as a peasant”. And of course there’s a perhaps more conventional theme coming through here as well, about living for the moment. The motto when it comes – “Best to take the moment present, as a present for the moment” is both funny (coming straight after the “peasant” line and continuing on in a quick fire of internal rhymes) and utterly memorable. Finally the Prince leaves, but the song lingers on into the following number “Moments in the Woods”, linked by the dreamy ostinato until abruptly dispelled by the words “Wake up”.

There’s plenty more to say about even this short passage. As a whole though, Into the Woods can be an intense dramatic experience, especially the last sequence of four songs (including “Children Will Listen”, on one level a successor to Philip Larkin’s famous “This Be the Verse”), simultaneously bleak, redemptive and humane, but without an ounce of the usual sentimentality that (for me) kills off most musicals stone dead. The 2010 production at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre was one of the best I’ve ever seen. But I only saw it twice – not nearly enough times.