The Amherst Musical Revives with Sondheim’s “Into the Woods”

The Amherst Musical Revives with Sondheim’s “Into the Woods”

Three weeks away from the show’s grand opening, I talked with the directors and producer of “Into the Woods” which will be performed at Orr Rink, May 4-7. Producer Jayson Paul ’16, director A. Scott Parry, musical director Mark Swanson and orchestra liaison Sam Rosenblum ’16 were eager to discuss what this musical means to them and why they hope to revive the college’s tradition of putting on an annual musical.

Q: What does “Into the Woods” mean to you and what effect do you hope it has on this campus?

Scott Parry: Well I would say that “Into the Woods” is probably the most ubiquitous Stephen Sondheim show, and it’s seen in all levels of theatre. And people grow up with this show. It starts off speaking to the child in all of us and ends up affecting the adult in all of us. I think of it as Sondheim’s most successful/popular show.

Mark Swanson: I think “Into the Woods” is uniquely applicable to Amherst this year. It’s always applicable to Amherst because it’s a coming of age story — a story about assessing what your parents taught you and deciding what you want to take with you and how to make your own judgments and decisions. But it’s especially unique for this year with Amherst Uprising because, while Amherst has always been searching for community, the issues came to a head in a special way this year. So this show brings people together to talk about these issues of community in terms of being in a “chosen” place, but not necessarily choosing whom you’re with. Ultimately, the end of the story is about a community that finds itself after discovering a common goal and sharing a bond due to the trauma they’ve gone through to reach their goals. And that’s what we have here, students from different backgrounds who have all chosen Amherst, but they haven’t necessarily chosen to be together, so they learn how to forge relationships. And Amherst students have common experiences of achievement and the hard work and sacrifice that it takes to get here. So, they all have a common base of intellectual capacity and academic achievement, but the differences in backgrounds — socioeconomic, cultural, racial and geographical — are what challenge this bond.

Jayson Paul: I encountered “ITW” on Amherst campus during my sophomore year. I had never listened to any of the music before, and when I watched it with all my friends, it got me thinking about community and what a musical could do for Amherst. There’s something about the chaos of it that’s really appealing because you come to Amherst and you’re a high-achieving, very intellectual, very driven individual. But, you didn’t choose your peers, and now you have to create a community out of what you’re presented with.

MS: The cool thing about musicals, specifically this one, is that a variety of people with different interests can all find something to like about the show. There are many artistic points of reference. A classical person, like me, can be attracted to this kind of music because of the integrity and the organic nature of its composition. A poet can be attracted to the intricate rhymes and cleverness of the script. Someone in the German department or in folklore might be attracted to it for the plot and setting. There are many different points of reference, and musicals — especially the ones that Scott and I usually did — were all shows that could pull people in from all corners of campus. I think that’s great because it’s hard to get people excited about art a lot of the time.

SP: Art is about education, learning and developing. It’s about experience, elevation and communal catharsis. That’s ultimately what all theatrical endeavors are trying to achieve: a community coming together and having an experience or having a confusion of experience where we relate ourselves to the characters on the stage and feel the emotions they go through by proxy. As we walk away, we’ve all had an individual experience as well as a communal experience as the audience.

Q: Musicals used to be an annual thing here, correct?

MS: During my first two years, a lot of student demanded that there be a musical, which lead to the very first musical: “How to Succeed in Business.” It was an honors thesis that the theatre department produced, and I directed the music for it. The response to the play was so phenomenal. And then the next year the theatre department wasn’t interested in doing it again, but I realized there was nothing going on in the music department during January, so I decided to put a musical together during interterm and opened the show once all the students got back to campus. First, we did an easy one: “Funny thing happened on the way to” by Sondheim, a surefire hilarious play. It turned out pretty well and from there musicals became an annual thing. The next year I chose “La Cage,” knowing it would be a big popular success.

SP: Well the reason we chose “La Cage” was because of the gay marriage debate going on in Massachusetts.

MS: And we always did that kind of thing because the next one was “Candide,” which is about freedom of expression, and this was when the patriot act discussion was going on.

SP: And I set the play in Crawford, Texas, with Dick Chenney getting prisoners of Arab descent … it was really politically charged.

MS: We tried to choose the play based on relevant themes going on at that time.

SP: We agonized every year over what was applicable and what had substance.

MS: And “Into the Woods” fits into that right now with the theme of community that is huge on our campus. While the community thing goes far beyond this one show; the show also forms a foundation to keep building community.

JP: And we will be talking about how to keep the musical going, hopefully as an annual thing. It’s a way for the community to decide on a project for a year — on something we want to talk about.

MS: It’s just such a great opportunity for the community to come together and work on a communal project. During our interterm musicals, we would put on three shows and 800 Amherst students would come see it — with another 60-80 students in it. That’s a huge percentage of the population all being a part of one thing. It’s one of the few times that the whole campus can unite around something artistic and intellectual, and do so completely voluntarily.

Q: So Jayson, what prompted you to be the one to bring this back?

JP: It was Mark that planted the seed last year we saw the production of “Sweeney Todd” at the end of spring semester, and then last semester there was the semi-staged “Les Mis” show that we got to be a part of. It was really heartening to see the musical theatre but, afterwards, everyone seemed disappointed that they didn’t have a connection to the people on the stage. They weren’t current members of the community.

MS: Yeah, I was so sad after the “Les Mis” show, not that it wasn’t good, it was great seeing a lot of musical alumni, but I felt so bad for all the kids who didn’t get to experience a musical on campus. That’s why, when you came to me with the idea for “Into the Woods,” the timing was perfect because I was thinking about the friendships we made during our on-campus projects. It’s so easy to have fun and build connections with other people in a musical theatre production.

SP: Over the nine years we did the musical we grew a bond with the kids, and they kept coming back. It became this widening community that everyone wanted to be a part of. And even if they weren’t in the main cast, they were in the chorus or on the tech crew or they were in some way involved.

SR: I’m a tour guide, and every time I mention that we’re bringing back the annual musical and putting on “Into the Woods” in May, I see their eyes light up. Why? Because so many other liberal arts colleges do something like this every year.

Q: What has working with a cast with varying levels of experience been like?

JP: The blessing and curse of a school like Amherst is that everyone here is involved in so many different things. We have cast members from all ends of campus, which is great, but it’s hard to get them all in one place at once. A lot of cast members have been in theatre and choir, but a good number of them have never sung before. There are so many people that went out on a limb for this play, and everyone is going above and beyond to be involved and make sure it’s a success. Not only is there everything you see in front of the curtain, but people don’t quite realize the incredible amount of work that goes on behind the scenes — this is the work that really matters to me and really shows the quality of people we have in the group. That’s why I love our group so much.

MS: That’s another point I’d never thought of before, but these types of environments create an opportunity for kindness and generosity that you don’t always see. All of these things have ripples and repercussions in people’s lives that you don’t even see. It’s such a rich experience.

Q: Scott, how did you come up with your vision of the musical?

JP: We’re not recreating “Into the Woods,” we’re creating our own Amherst version of “Into the Woods.” And part of that is because we’re working within constraints, but that is also what allows us to create something new.

SP: In my opinion, restraints and parameters always cause greater creativity. When the sky’s the limit your creativity can sometimes be a little bit myopic. But, when you have restraints and try to get the communication of the piece through the constraints that you have, you are forced to be creative in a very unique and individual way. And that creates the fun of having to do the work in the most efficient way possible given the constraints that you have — it always makes for a better piece.

To decide on how to present a piece, I always familiarize myself with it and then ask: what’s the performance venue, what are the restrictions and parameters, who are we performing for, and who are we performing with? Constituency, resources and venue. Those things drive the decisions — always. So, I took all those things into account and thought of the culture of Amherst as being in this transitional point between youth and adulthood, which is what college is generally about. Thinking in this context, I wanted to play into the idea of the childlike nature of storytelling, and of these fairy tales in particular. When are these fairy tales usually told? At bedtime when a child is going to sleep. Taking that as a jumping-off point and thinking of the environment that we’re performing in and the resources that we have, I thought the best way to approach this is with a childlike imagination. That’s why I went with the idea of “pajama-party/bedtime story-telling,” with a narrator actually reading a book to children who then, throughout the process of the play, grow up as they their childhood wishes are granted and they deal with the ramifications of those wishes. It’s a lot about the idea of loss and coming to terms with the difference between idealism and realism.

This interview has been edited for clarity.