THE NATIONAL SONDHEIM THEATER COMPANY
I actually invested in the original production of Into the Woods. My memory of this has long since faded (along with my dough), but the memory, at least, came back to me recently watching the superb new Encores!-derived production at the St. James Theatre.
The affection, if not adoration, with which Into the Woods has for a while now been embraced was not at all how the original was received. As I’ve written here before, one of that production’s original producers was also one of the original investors behind my bookstore, Chartwell Booksellers, and he very casually invited me to join him at a workshop for Into the Woods at Michael Bennett’s 890 Broadway rehearsal studios in the summer of 1987. These workshops really were backers’ auditions, he also quietly conceded to me; the show was under-capitalized and still looking for more cash in order to open, as scheduled, on Broadway that Fall.
Crazy as it may sound today, investing in a Stephen Sondheim musical in 1987 (or ever, really, right up to that time) was no way to get rich. Even Steve said so, repeatedly, for as long as I knew him — and we met, as I’ve said, at this workshop. I emerged that day dazzled, nonetheless, by this especially delightful new Sondheim concoction, and asked my producer friend if I could possibly kick in a small amount and become an investor alongside him. He said sure, if I wanted to, advised me against it, then took my check for, I believe, 5,000 smackers.
The only real perk this bought me— the only one I was really interested in anyhow — was admittance to as many preview performances of Into the Woods as I could stand, plus a single Opening Night ticket (8th Row Orchestra, beside my producer pal). I thus witnessed the struggles Steve and Jim Lapine grappled with trying to corral the Second Act into something coherent for the, at times, impatient preview audiences, who squirmed and even giggled through this act, with its overpowering Giant problems. Sondheim and Lapine prevailed, in the end, and the act was much improved, if not outright saved.
I found all of this absolutely enthralling. It did not, however, add up to a hit. In a season subjugated by an actual, all-comers stomping giant, the newly-arrived Phantom of the Opera, Into the Woods did snag Tony Awards for Steve’s superb score and James Lapine’s ingenious book, as well as a Best Actress in a Musical statue for the sublime Joanna Gleason as the Baker’s Wife, but the show did not quite last two years on Broadway, a relatively paltry 765 performances, and its entire original investment, including my 5Gs, were lost.
My producer friend was a gent and a sport and insisted on handing me back my money anyway, which I thought exceedingly decent of him. Today, in the wake of the 2014 Disney film that grossed over $200 million, I’m not so sure that I came out ahead in the end, but I would still not trade that whole enchanting experience for bucks of any quantity.
What I do find myself thinking, as I savor Into the Woods’ success right now, is a thought I once shared with Mr. S. himself, who blithely swatted it away, as was his wont. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have a National Sondheim Theater Company, akin to the Royal Shakespeare Company? Wouldn’t it be grand to assemble a stellar crew of Sondheim-skilled actors (the cast of this Into The Woods or the recent gender-swapping Company revival would easily do), and hand them two or four or six, or more, Sondheim musicals a year, in revolving repertory — experimental productions, traditional productions, all shapes and sizes? Wouldn’t it be amazing to also employ these actors (at a fine supplemental salary) as master teachers in a National Sondheim Theater conservatory for the study of the musical theater arts?
Our national theater.
‘Nobody will care,’ Steve said to me then. I still disagree.