The Arlington High School production of Into the Woods this spring was the first time that the AHS Gilbert and Sullivan Club had ever presented a musical with both music and lyrics by the late Stephen Sondheim. Sondheim is considered one of the most important figures in 20th-century musical theater, and AHS drama teacher Michael Byrne chose this work because he “...wanted to present his challenging and insightful work to the community and to have the student-actors, and musicians–dig deep into this wonderful show with complicated, challenging, and profound music and lyrics.”
From the moment the production began it was clear to the audience that everyone involved was up to the challenge. Led by the creative team of Director Michael Byrne, Music Director Mara Walker, and orchestra Conductor Sabatino D’Agostino, the 21 cast members and 27 pit musicians mesmerized the attendees with their acting, vocal, and instrumental skills. Together the ensemble had full command of Sondheim’s challenging melodies and theatrical intent.
The production was backed up by a talented group of students and staff who worked hard to help make the magic happen. AHS Music Technology teacher John DiTomaso was on hand to handle sound and AHS alum Nancy McCarthy (2011) served as costume designer. Twenty-nine current AHS students served as stage managers and crew, handled the costumes, operated the light and sound boards, props, and spotlights. Set construction was coordinated by AHS MakerSpace teacher Nathan Muehleisen and AHS Visual Art teacher Nikki McCulloch supervised the set painters.
Into the Woods intertwines several fairy tales in order to explore relationships and dramatic themes. The first act finds the characters moving through life centered on their individual hopes and dreams and the outcomes reflect those. In the second act, Sondheim and book writer James Lapine tell the story of what happens after “happily ever after.” The characters then discover that they need to come together in order to accomplish something.
The theme of interdependence is another element of Into the Woods that led Mr. Byrne to choose it for this spring. Given what we have lived through the last few years, Mr. Byrne finds this theme particularly relevant for exploration today. Additionally, the combination of the familiar shown through a new lens, and the new interpretation of well-known fairy tales in the second act, creates a compelling and exciting story. As Mr. Byrne describes, “Actors aren’t hemmed-in by the popular telling of any of the fairy tales because the creative team hasn’t relied on Disney’s telling of the stories. We were able to make it our own and bring real personalities to what are sometimes presented as cartoon characters.”
Mr. Byrne reports that the students worked hard, on stage and off, to “...honor the genius of the music and the lyrics.” He goes on to say that “It is a sophisticated story with sophisticated music and that leads to some wonderful opportunities to raise the bar of what we can do as a performing department. It was the first musical in the new auditorium, and it was exciting to invite the community into the space with this popular and very relevant story of the strength of the community.”
Thanks go to AHS parent Kim Kapner for the beautiful photographs that accompany this article.
Additional information about Into the Woods
Considered by many as among the top ten musicals written by Stephen Sondheim, Into the Woods premiered in San Diego at the Old Globe Theatre in 1986. It premiered on Broadway in 1987 where it won three Tony Awards–Best Score, Best Book, and Best Actress in a Musical (Joanna Gleason).
The musical has been popular ever since, and was most recently revived on Broadway in 2022, closing in January 2023. A Disney film adaptation was released in 2014. It remains a favorite choice for high schools as illustrated by the map below that shows upcoming student production.
Stephen Sondheim died on November 29, 2021 at the age of 91.