The Trees Are Just Wood

'Into the Woods' Prepares for Tonight's Opening

The scene: a shadowy place, with looming 20 ft. trees. A deep pit in the ground. People speaking quickly, rushing by, intent on completing their tasks. A cross between a sinister mystery and an office scene? No. This is the Loeb Mainstage, a week and a half before opening night of Into the Woods, a musical by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine.

Into the Woods, perhaps Sondheim’s best-known and loved musical, involves the development of many familiar fairy tale characters as they journey into the woods “to get their wish.” The story centers around a childless Baker and his Wife, who must obtain four items to reverse a curse set upon them by the Witch. Along the way, they meet Cinderella, Jack (as in “and the Beanstalk”), Little Red Riding Hood and a whole host of characters, each bent on obtaining his or her own particular desire. The first act ends brightly, with the characters obtaining their goals and settling down to live “happily ever after.” The second act of the musical, however, brings a palpable change in mood. An avenging giant appears on the scene, and the characters again go off into the woods, this time to “see what’s wrong.” Right and wrong intermingle as the characters become uncertain about what they really should do. Conventional fates are turned upside-down: good characters lie, others die and the Witch tells the truth. Characters eventually become aware of their interdependence.

Sara B. Heller ’02, the director of this production, chose the musical because it contains unusual richness and complexity beneath the veneer of simple (though often hilarious) entertainment. Into the Woods explores many relationships: between siblings, between lovers, between friends, between parents and children. As such, it is highly accessible to a wide audience. Especially relevant for the Harvard student community, however, is the message that all lives are interconnected, and that actions will have residual effects on others. Into the Woods also contains the poignant message that fleeting parent-child relations should be treasured while still available.


Into the Woods is a production of enormous scope, enormous challenges and, hopefully, enormous rewards. It’s a task that requires dedication, teamwork, coordination and countless hours of, if not blood, then certainly toil, sweat and tears. The performance is a large-scale endeavor that requires that all the details be in place, so that the ultimate “big picture” is as powerful as it can be. Furthermore, not only is Sondheim’s music notoriously difficult for performers to master, but the audience may come in with pre-formed expectations from the widely distributed video of the original Broadway production. Innovation, then, is essential, lest the production sink into the pit of slavish imitation. The Loeb Mainstage is a cavernous space that has swallowed up many a smaller production and, like all student shows in the venue, Into the Woods must attempt to fill it with a budget of only five thousand dollars, a figure that has not been adjusted since the 1980s. It’s a tall order, but one which has been tackled enthusiastically by Jenny I. Marsh ’03, Adrien C. Finlay ’03 and K. Babi Das ’03, who is also a Crimson editor, three first-time producers and their staff.

Now, back to the theater, slightly more than a week before tonight’s opening. The hole in the ground? Merely the orchestra pit. The 20 ft. trees? They’re made of painted slats of wood attached to wires. According to Marsh, set designs went into production in November so they would be ready for Mainstage applications in December. Building the set officially started around February, though the task was complicated by the fact that all productions performing in the Loeb Drama Center share shop space. Schedules had to be coordinated. The production began setting up in the stage space a mere two weeks before opening.

The people rushing about? Ah, now that’s the study. The atmosphere is that of organized frenzy, for there is an incredible amount of work to be done. The team must be dedicated, for things may come crashing down if even one person falters. No one has the time to take over someone else’s job too. Trees, ramps and escape stairs must be put up. Wagons must be decorated, the floor must be cleared, Rapunzel’s tower and Jack’s house must be put together. The floor covering has just been assembled from pieces of wood pasted over with pages from fairy tales, then spray-sealed with a hard coating. The staff seeks a run crew to move the set during scene changes. Costumes must be fitted in the next two days so the costume crew will have enough time to complete alterations. Lighting cannot be entirely worked out until all the set pieces are on stage. The staff works in the Loeb as often as possible, sometimes going from nine in the morning to midnight. It almost sounds like a siege, especially when one staff member suggests gradually amassing a stockpile of Fly-By food in the refrigerator.

Body microphones have just been borrowed from Hasty Pudding Theatricals, saving a precious $400 of the budget. Props, including two fencing swords and a real sword, have also been borrowed, again to cut costs. Costumes are borrowed from stock around the city. Deals are arranged in which programs are printed in return for ad space within the program. The budget leaves very little to be spent on costumes, sound, props, lights and all the other aspects of putting on a show. The production doesn’t receive any of the proceeds from ticket sales. Losses or gains are absorbed by the Loeb. If the production goes over the budget, the three producers will have to pay out of pocket.

Into the Woods has already generated much interest in the Boston and Cambridge communities. The Saturday matinee is geared towards school groups, and will be followed by a milk and cookies reception at which children can mingle with the cast. On the Harvard campus, Into the Woods posters vie for space with those of other student organizations. Some enticements for the audience, however, include a wine, beer and champagne reception following the opening night performance.

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