Into the Woods (1987)
Built on familiar tropes and repeated melodic motifs, “Into the Woods” is deceptively welcoming; thanks to the 2014 movie and innumerable school performances, it is probably Sondheim’s best-known work. But Lapine’s story about a witch’s curse, a couple’s quest, a girl’s gluttony and a giant’s revenge (among other elements of the densely woven plot) is far darker than its jaunty title song indicates. Act I, which sends the characters working toward their wishes, is followed in Act II by the dark consequences of their achievement: discord, separation, death. Likewise, the songs, many built from musical cells Sondheim flips and shuffles, darken into warnings, laments and lullabies. So don’t let the fairy-tale ending fool you: This is a sophisticated musical about sophistication — about the dangers, for both parents and children, of growing up. “Isn’t it nice to know a lot?” Red Riding Hood sings. “And a little bit not.” J.G.
Resounding proof that Sondheim, at 60, had lost none of his artistic daring or precision, or his willingness to defy convention. Set in a sort of purgatorial shooting gallery, “Assassins” presented an assortment of men and women who had killed — or attempted to kill — American presidents, including John Wilkes Booth, Lee Harvey Oswald and John Hinckley. Weidman wrote the connective, poker-faced script. But it was Sondheim’s score, inflected with regional accents of the American songbook through the ages, that gave the show its radiant chill, as its dispossessed characters sang longingly of a hunger for glory. “Assassins” opened Off Broadway at Playwrights Horizons just as the Persian Gulf war was beginning, and critics recoiled at its perceived glibness in a moment of national crisis. But when it finally arrived on Broadway in 2004, its depiction of the rabid lust of celebrity felt scaldingly relevant. A forthcoming Off-Broadway incarnation, directed by Doyle, may well reveal it to be a sobering mirror for our own age of resentful populism. B.B.
Why did audiences at the Plymouth Theater giggle and groan during previews of “Passion”? Certainly, it was an uncomfortable story: A sickly, unattractive woman named Fosca (actually the beautiful Donna Murphy, with a mole) falls in love with a handsome young captain — then makes him fall in love with her. And though Lapine’s book neatly theatricalized the film “Passione d’Amore” — as well as “Fosca,” the epistolary novel it was based on — his staging could not solve the problem of the crazy lady popping up everywhere to torment that nice soldier. This was the audience’s loss, as revivals, especially in smaller spaces, have since proved. “Passion,” kept close to the eyes and ears, is overwhelmingly beautiful, filled with rhapsodic inquiries into the impossibility and ultimate necessity of love. If it contains some of Sondheim’s most moving music and probing lyrics, perhaps that’s because it was, unusually, his idea to do it. Very much like Fosca, he knew what he wanted. J.G.
Wise Guys (1999)/Bounce (2003)/Road Show (2008)
Since its buzz-generating inception as a starry workshop production in 1999, this endlessly evolving collaboration with Weidman has undergone repeated changes of casts, dialogue, song lists and directors. It has remained Sondheim’s most picaresque piece, a tale of two itinerant brothers, at odds with and reliant on each other (one of whom is the only gay leading character in a Sondheim musical). Inspired by the real-life entrepreneurs (and flim-flammers) extraordinaire Addison and Wilson Mizner, the show is a country-crossing map of fortunes lost and made, in which unbounded success always looms as a tantalizing chimera. The brothers, like many Sondheim characters, may be casualties of unfulfilled American dreams. But he, and we, can’t help admiring their determination in reinventing themselves. The show’s last line: “Sooner or later, we’re bound to get it right.” B.B.