I first came across Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods when my girlfriend at that time (now my wife) was a student at the University of Bristol. The University’s musical society was putting it on in the student union building. The whole experience was new to me, from the venue to the musical to the composer. This made the whole experience all the stranger but all the more appropriate because the show itself takes the audience and characters alike off the path and into the woods.
What I discovered that night was a mix of well-known fairy tales characters and plots combining with songs full of clever lyrics appropriate to those characters. Although all seemed wrapped up by the interval, the show then began to evolve into something quite different and unexpected from the usual storybook ending. To quote the musical:
Into the woods, it’s always when You think, at last, you’re through and then, Into the woods you go again, To take another journey.
I was very excited when I heard that one of my regular groups, The Invitation Theatre Company (TITCo), was planning on producing Into the Woods and I was thrilled to be chosen to take on the role of the Baker. It is a wonderful ensemble piece, with layers of meaning and character development that makes is quite unlike my previous projects of Bizet’s Carmen and Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds.
So what is needed in preparing for the role of the Baker?
The Baker and the Baker’s Wife is a fable created by James Lapine for this musical. They are a typical suburban couple wanting to have a child of their own. It’s through them that we meet the well-known characters of stories, such as Little Red Ridinghood, Jack (of beanstalk fame), Rapunzel and Cinderella. Unlike these fairy tale characters, the Baker and his wife are relatable, as are their wishes of starting a family.
Character note number 1 – Do not make the character too eccentric; there are wolves, witches and princes for that! The Baker is the antithesis of these strange surroundings.
As a lead character, he has issues but is not so very flawed as the likes of Sweeney Todd or to a lesser extent Billy Bigelow from Carousel. The Baker’s issues are to do with having lost his parents when he was young. From a broken past he is trying to do the best he can. Unfortunately he has become over-protective when it comes to his wife and very afraid when his immediate world is under threat.
Character note number 2 – The Baker has a lot of pride and control issues.
Perhaps because of his fear of the unknown and things outside of his control, the idea of being a father not only excites but also terrifies him. This is surely in part due to his fragile family upbringing. There is also a major argument where he and the other characters blame each other for an unfortunate string of events.
Character note number 3 – The Baker does not deal well with new responsibilities.
The potential difficulty with the Baker is that he is in danger of not being very likeable and risks alienating himself from the audience. Happily he does have redeeming qualities, such as his determination to do what’s right and some very caring moments with his wife and other characters.
Character note number 4 – Don’t forget to make him amiable and to smile now and again. He is human, after all.
So in summary, the Baker is the Everyman character in a fantasy world. He has issues, as we all do. He has too much pride, is overly protective and shirks responsibility. But he also has a good heart and loves his family dearly. His journeys into the woods change him and those around him and he grows as a person because of them.
Rehearsing the scenes with the TITCo crew has been great fun and I can’t wait to go into the woods in June.
TITCo’s production of Into the Woods is on at Devizes Wharf Theatre from 5-10th June 2017.