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Now hear this: How ‘Into the Woods’ makes the noise so joyful

The hit revival, starring Sara Bareilles, Gavin Creel, Phillipa Soo, Joshua Henry, Patina Miller and Brian d’Arcy James, applies clarion sound to Sondheim’s score

The cast of the new Broadway revival of “Into the Woods.” Conductor Rob Berman and the 15-member orchestra are visible upstage. (Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade)
7 min

NEW YORK — As the band strikes up and the singers open their throats in the hit Broadway revival of “Into the Woods,” the audience realizes it is immersed in a blessed event. Saints (and sound designers) be praised: You can hear every word of the show.

It should be a regular occurrence, not the singular happenstance represented by this latest incarnation of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s 1987 musical about storybook characters desperately seeking happy endings. The notes and vocals converge in ideal balance on the stage of the St. James Theatre, where the production has just been extended through Oct. 16. A listener neither strains to understand what’s being conveyed, nor feels defeated by overamplified instrumentality or inadequately interpreted lyrics. Far too frequently, these lesser results subtract from the pleasures of musical theater, in an age that wants to make an unfortunate virtue of volume.

With a perfect cast, Broadway has an 'Into the Woods' for the ages

Sondheim, arguably the greatest Broadway lyricist of all time, wrote cleverly and evocatively, but also dramaturgically: His words drive plot, situation, character. They cry out to be heard. And no one laid out the strictures of the art better than Sondheim himself. In the preface to “Finishing the Hat,” the book of his lyrics published in 2010, he cited his influences and listed the writer’s credo he lived by: “Content dictates form; less is more; God is in the details, all in the service of clarity, without which nothing else matters.”

It strikes me how much work “clarity” does in this set of instructions. Clarity for lyricists has to refer not just to scansion and word choice, but also how their songs are communicated. And it is on this latter point that the sound designers, actors, director and conductor of “Into the Woods” seem to be so rewardingly in sync. What I learned in talking to several of them recently was the intensity of the commitment to bringing aural clarity to the vision of Sondheim and Lapine and “Into the Woods” orchestrator Jonathan Tunick. And how much that required each of them to be listening at all times to the show and to one another. And how, too, they wanted audiences to listen.

“The way people approach doing sound, it’s not just turn up the faders and get the voices out there and get the music out there,” observed Scott Lehrer, sound designer of the production, partnering with Alex Neumann. “It is kind of how you want to deliver it to an audience. And it involves a lot of different things.”

Those things demand a collaboration on the part of the music makers and the audio designers over how subtly to get listeners to lean in to the sound. “My approach with Sondheim in general and particularly this piece is, text is first and foremost,” explained Rob Berman, the veteran music director who conducts the show’s onstage 15-member orchestra. “It should sound like talking on the notes. I’m always encouraging singers to smooth it out. The intention takes care of the detail.”

That encouragement has been taken to heart. “You work so hard so that every word is heard — not just heard, but felt,” said Joshua Henry, the magnetic baritone who plays Rapunzel’s Prince.

The art of sound design is one of the least understood of the theater crafts, even among theater professionals: In 2014, the Tony Awards eliminated the sound design categories, in part because many nominators and voters confessed to not knowing how to judge them. (After years of protest, they were reinstated for the 2017-2018 Broadway season.) In fairness, sound designers themselves sometimes find it hard to describe the technical demands of their art — how they “solve” the problem of optimizing sound delivery in a theater.

“There are so many good designers out there, and they solve it totally differently,” said Neumann, in a Zoom interview with Lehrer. “One of the things that I find really interesting is going and seeing other designers’ shows and listening to how they did it. Even if it’s not how I would have solved it — I would have done this amplification, I would have done this reinforcement — I’m always interested in hearing other people’s work and how they explored the ways to get the sound out there.”

In a show such as “Into the Woods,” which moved to Broadway after a short, critically embraced run in the Encores series of musicals-in-concert off-Broadway at City Center, amplification is de rigueur. Not only are the actors miked, but each of the instruments is as well. It’s the job of the person at the sound board — the “mixer” — to calibrate what is coming out of those microphones and into the speakers placed strategically around the St. James Theatre.

Gavin Creel, who plays both Cinderella’s Prince and Little Red Ridinghood’s Wolf, attested to the mixer’s pivotal role. “I remember saying to Carin, ‘I sing better when you are at the board,’ ” he said, referring to Carin M. Ford, a beloved engineer who mixed the sound for the 2017 revival of “Hello, Dolly!,” for which Creel won a Tony as best supporting actor. (Creel and the sound team heaped similar praise on “Into the Woods” sound mixer Elizabeth Coleman.)

The staging formula at Encores, which began in 1994 and two years later birthed the enduring revival of “Chicago,” has always centered on appreciation of the score. Sets and props are minimal. “Into the Woods” director Lear deBessonet runs the series, with which Lehrer and Berman have long been associated, and they all subscribe to the notion that in the beginning, and the end, there is the word — and the song.

“I have an audio monitor that just has the vocals. I can hear the actors when they’re going to breathe,” Berman said of his process of multiple auditory focuses. “I’m really accustomed to accompanying singers just by listening. Then I’m listening to the orchestra, just acoustically.”

What makes his job on “Into the Woods” all the more satisfying is the template Sondheim and Tunick laid out.

“He conceived the show as a chamber orchestration,” Berman said of Tunick, citing an example of the intricacy of Cinderella’s first act number, “On the Steps of the Palace.” “There’s an eight-, 10-bar passage — just flute, clarinet and viola. The thing that Jonathan is always brilliant at is he holds back, so that when finally all 15 players play, it sounds like 60. It’s all about proportion.”

Added deBessonet: “The way Rob directs music and conducts is just glorious. It’s always text and intention first. You might think it’s about diction, but it’s actually about the clarity of the thought — if there isn’t clarity of thought, no amount of enunciation will make that clear.”

It’s also clear how dear the cast holds this concept. Singer-songwriter Sara Bareilles, composer of the Broadway musical “Waitress,” and who plays the Baker’s Wife, knows from performing her own work how crucial it is that the lyrics land. “Into the Woods” intensified that understanding.

“As a lyricist, I know words really matter. It really, really matters to me what I’m saying. And I’ve always been that way,” Bareilles said. “But I was not someone who came in and knew the show very well. I was familiar with it — ish. I definitely thought I knew it better than I did. And I gained a deep appreciation for the complexity, of the mechanics, the scaffolding of the show. And from a craft perspective, it’s just a marvel.

“That’s the beautiful thing about theater pieces,” she added. “The whole thing, it’s an orchestra.”

Into the Woods, music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by James Lapine. Directed by Lear deBessonet. Through Oct. 16 at St. James Theatre, 246 W. 44th St., New York.