Thankfully, this work had enough melodic shape and presence to be listenable and understandable from a listener’s perspective. In general, that was its only positive. Lots of trying and failing in terms of the form and usage of melodies took place in Into The Woods. Sondheim tried so hard to get some very distracting, odd, and ridiculous melodic lines stuck in the listener’s head. Doing so is certainly important, because music needs identity and relatable qualities, especially when tied to a story. In this case, getting them stuck in your head is quite a burden, because these motifs are directionless, prolonged, and rather empty. Right at the start, the prologue gives listeners a taste of the whirlwind of craziness they can expect. These themes relentlessly carried on throughout the work in untimely and unwanted places. They do have shape and energy to them, which means they were at least recognizable. It also means that legitimate musical tactics were used to tell the story. Melody was the most important element within the storytelling, and its presence did provide some nice consolation. Mostly, though, they were too wild and extravagant, and with the exception of “I Know Things Now”, the shapes provided no real delight. The slower and more thoughtful songs, such as “Stay With Me”, have a little more intrigue in their lines, since they weren’t given free reign to run all over the music and actually followed strong patterns and harmonic implications. They too, however, failed to capture any real important emotion. As is the case with many musicals, this is a very performer-driven work, with the melodies written mainly so performers can enjoy singing them. That may be the case, but this extravagance also greatly diminished the overall musical direction and substance for the listener. There are many ways to have both, but these melodies were too ingenuous and cute to achieve that. There’s only so much salt you can put on your food until all you taste is salt. The same principal applies here.
Despite it not being the worst scored category, I was personally the most disappointed with the way Sondheim constructed harmony throughout this work. How this got a Tony award for Best Score is an anomaly to me. The harmonic language used throughout was actually pretty broad and had depth to it. Depth without anything to fill it, though, is not very useful, and in fact quite uncreative. There were many points in the work where a chord would simply be repeated over and over for a while, and at the same time alter a couple of notes here and there to give the effect that change and progression was happening. Nothing really progresses when that happens, though, and what’s left is a conglomerate of tones without focus or fulfillment. The songs “Maybe They’re Magic” and “Moments In the Woods” are examples of that. While rhythmic shifts were abundant in the melody, the harmony mostly consisted of straightforward rhythmic presentations that were dominated by the beat and the tempo. That is simply not the tactic that this work needed in order to come alive. Also, while the melody may have seemed directionless at times, perhaps that is also due to the harmonies not giving them a direction in the first place. Melody and harmony were on completely different wavelengths for some songs, especially “A Very Nice Prince” and “Ever After”. It’s as if this work wouldn’t be much different if the instruments played whatever they wanted within the key in the background. That is interesting, because in such a performer-driven work, that could possibly be seen as an advantage to the performer, since this work can reach a certain amount of potential without a strong pianist or orchestra backing the singer. That isn’t an advantage to me. That is a sign that harmony played a detrimental role in the work and needed to either be stripped-down and more direct, or much more robust and fearless in changing the course of the music. Instead, it was quite forgettable.
Timbre is a downfall for most modern musicals. Its distinctive in-your-face imbalance between the singer and the rest of the texture is something that only those who work in the world can consistently appreciate. For the most part, no one goes to see a musical for its sound. Into the Woods is merely another example amidst a long line of modern musicals that fail to capture a truly worthwhile timbre for its story. Nothing in the instrumentation is very unique, and aside from a few short keyboard interludes, it never really settled down and felt stable. Even in the slower and more drawn out songs, there was always something unsettling about the additions that some instrumental families made to the timbre. Some additions seemed forced, as if Sondheim had a certain quota he needed to meet with the percentage of use from certain instruments. The song “On the Steps of the Palace” truly exemplifies everything wrong with this entire work, from its confusing melody, unhelpful harmony, and topping it off with a timbre that adds new sounds with no good purpose. Into the Woods sounded like it was trying to be very genuine and complex with its sound. The sound always tried to capture and illicit true emotions from song to song. This normally isn’t a negative, but there are a few things wrong about doing that here. First, the wackiness and oddities of the melodies already prevent a lot of genuineness from being felt, especially given its dominance within the texture (just a side note: that specifically was not a negative to the melody; it does not always need to be genuine). Second, if the timbre was not going to upend the melody as being the most dominant force at times, which it didn’t, there was no way it could actually achieve portraying strong moods such as love and fear. And lastly, for crying out loud, it’s make believe. This is literally one big fairy tale. The sound was way too serious at times, trying to come off as a magnum opus and less like the setting that the characters were actually in. Similar to the harmony, the timbre is stuck in a limbo that should have been more towards one of the two extremes: either being very small, light, and being completely driven by the actual characters, or very momentous and powerful within the texture to lead the listener on a better sonic journey. One can write a spectacle to also be an enriching, substantial sound. Into the Woods is a spectacle without much musical substance, and therefore a rather annoying piece of music.
I raised the question earlier about what draws people into seeing musicals. If not for the sound, then what? In most cases, and especially this case, it’s for the story and the overall visual display it creates. This story combines the worlds of multiple well-known fairy tales to tell a narrative that revolves around themes of relationships, coming of age, and morality. These are important lessons to show through art, and the innocence of this specific work makes it understandable for children. Sure, there have been much more effective and hefty ways to use these themes in art, but children need these lessons too, and this work was a very clever way to get these messages across to younger ones. This is why Disney is so successful. That alone makes Into the Woods quite influential. However, it is easily outgrown. At some point in our lives, tacky melodies and Little Red Riding Hood don’t have the same effect. This work has the ability to charm, but the charm has an expiration date. The overall failed attempt at musical complexity leaves this work to only be truly appreciated by a small window of people, perhaps around ages 10-16, and those with a true affinity for the art of theater perhaps up to age 22. If complexity wasn’t attempted, the work may have actually widened its appreciative audience. Nonetheless, this is a unique story, well-told themes, and has a solid demographic it can influence regardless of how it sounds.
Final Score: 76/180