Without doubt, Stephen Sondheim is the most important artist in the history of the American Musical Theatre. He has made his career by repeatedly reinventing the traditions of the genre into something entirely new.
Sondheim was essentially raised by Oscar Hammerstein (composer of South Pacific, Oklahoma, Carousel, and The King and I, to name but a few), who was a family friend and neighbor. He studied, literally, at the feet of the master. His earliest work came towards the end of Broadway’s golden age as a lyricist on West Side Story and Gypsy at the end of the 1950’s. These laid the foundation for his first production as both composer and lyricist, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, a bawdy, vaudeville-style show with cleverly crafted rhymes and a deceptively sophisticated score. From that point on came a murderer’s row of shows that belong on everybody’s list of the greatest pieces of musical theatre from the second half of the 20th century: Company, which took a frank look at modern dating and relationships; A Little Night Music, which merged a story from an Ingmar Bergman film with operetta and created a lush and sensual tragi-comedy; Pacific Overtures, a daring kabuki-influenced commentary on western imperial capitalism told through the eyes of feudal Japan; and his master-work Sweeney Todd, the story of revenge and bloody justice with a rollicking showstopper about the joys of cannibalism. In all of these, the music is unique and challenging, the subject matter is audacious, and the lyrics are dazzling in their complexity.
Into the Woods debuted on Broadway in 1987, a time when many in our country were impatient and insecure. Institutions that Americans had relied upon had proven less trustworthy. President Reagan had just been rebuked by Congress for Iran-Contra, leaders on both sides of the progressive/conservative divide were undone by scandals of infidelity (Gary Hart and Jim Bakker) and we were heading into the early stages of the culture wars that would come to a head in the early 1990’s (the NEA’s funding of Mapplethorpe and Serrano, Pat Robertson’s “There is a religious war going on in our country for the soul of America.” speech, and more). And HIV had just spent six years carving a path of death and destruction through the gay community. Heated debates raged over reproductive rights and immigration, racial tensions remained high, and questions about the social safety net dominated our national conversations. You are to be forgiven if any of this sounds familiar.
In this context then, the musical theatre world waited with great curiosity to see what Mr. Sondheim would do with, of all things, Grimm’s Fairy Tales. We all know how fairy tales end – everyone lives “happily ever after.” But, yet again, he took our expectations and flipped them on their heads. Together with Mr. Lapine, Mr. Sondheim asked then what? They dared to suggest that life is infinitely more complicated, that good people aren’t always good, that bad people aren’t always wrong, and that truly terrible things can happen to anyone for seemingly no reason at all. Life is chaotic and messy.
However, Mr. Sondheim also shows us that through all the hardship, through pain and death, that good can emerge. After betrayal, there can be forgiveness. Regardless of loss there can be love. Despite fear and uncertainty about the future, there can be, indeed there must be, hope. And that hope begins with the children. Fairy tales are written as parables to teach our children, but, Mr. Sondheim reminds us, we are the most important teachers of our children. They watch us. They listen to us. They look to us for how to act in the world. Will they treat each other with compassion or will they only look out for themselves? Will they accept people who are different or turn them away out of fear? Will they stay closed off from the world or will they summon the courage to open their arms and their hearts with love? With Into the Woods, Sondheim once again took a thing we thought we knew and turned it inside out to show us something about ourselves, something deeper, more challenging, perhaps, if we have the courage to listen.
Matthew Hallock, MFA
Professor of Dramatic Arts
Chair of Dramatic Arts Program
“Children Will Listen” from the Broadway Musical Into the Woods. Audience members will get to hear the song at Into the Woods on the Norton Center stage on February 8. It won’t be performed by Mrs. Peters, however.
Matthew R. Hallock is professor of dramatic arts at Centre College where he has taught since 1997. He was named a Centre Scholar in 2013. He is actively involved in the College’s three major productions each year, serving (variously) as scenic, costume, and lighting designer as well as teaching portions of the dramatic arts curriculum. All productions are mounted in the College’s Norton Center for the Arts, a major performance venue.
Hallock has extensive experience in theater design, working professionally in the field in Milwaukee, Chicago, and Kansas City as well as numerous stock locations across the country. Some of the companies he has worked for are the Skylight Opera Theatre, Milwaukee Chamber Theatre, First Stage Children’s Theater (Milwaukee), and The Missouri Repertory Theatre. Locally, his designs have been seen at the Actor’s Guild of Lexington (for which he has received three audience appreciation awards), Lexington Children’s Theatre, and the Lexington Shakespeare Festival.
Hallock holds a B.S. in theater arts from the State University of New York at New Paltz, and received his M.F.A. in scenic design and technology from Western Illinois University.
For more information and to purchase tickets to Into the Woods on Thursday, February 9 at 7:30 PM, Click Here.