I have always been proud to say that I hate musicals - their terrible plots, worse music, corny dialogue, artificial sentiment, manipulative emotional content - that is, until a few weeks ago. Kings Musical Theatre did a run of performances of Sondheim's musical Into The Woods, and I can honestly say it was superlative in every way. As a comedy it's superb - consistently laugh out loud funny (though the comic acting in this particular production was excellent, it has to be said). Dramatically it is also very strong, characters mostly brilliantly drawn, story arcs polished and logical, plot logical, cogent and gripping. And musically - the whole thing uses an almost obsessively small range of motives which add a real structural unity and integrity to the piece, very similar to that found in the musically more generous, but similarly tightly constructed score of Westside Story. If there aren't many hummable tunes, the score is all the more impressive for being so compelling musically and never flagging in interest - above all, what's needed is always provided (in this last way he has not a little in common with Strauss!). The orchestration (and by extention, the harmony) is always inventive, sometimes dazzling, occasionally extremely beautiful, and all done with such care and economy of means, though I can't work out if this is the handywork of Sondheim or his long time collaborator Jonathan Tunick. What really surprised me was that it treated and explored its themes in such an intellectually and morally engaging and adult way (far more honest and in depth than the much standard operatic repertory) - morality and conscience, responsibility, the relationship between the individual and society, good consequences from bad actions, bad consequences from good intentions - all standard theatrical material, but here somehow made fresh and interesting.
I have to say that as an evening's entertainment I have not been so transported for a long while, and (I can't believe I'm writing this!) it was certainly more enjoyable, thought provoking and moving than much of what I have seen at the Royal Opera House this year. A student production of a musical! I am a bigot no longer.
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