What does a community theater group do when a nearby professional company decides to stage the same show at the same time? Stowe Theatre Guild’s current run of the musical Into the Woods was announced a year ago — long before the spring revelation that St. Michael’s Playhouse was opening its summer 2007 season with the same twisted take on fairy tales by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine.
Stowe’s opening night last Wednesday was preempted by a month: St. Mike’s premiered the show June 19 in Colchester. [See review.] Stowe director and choreographer Johanna Boyce had actually been working on her pre-production process for two years, including taking research trips to New York City to look at archival material.
Her reaction when she heard about the Woods double? “I was taken aback,” Boyce admits. “It can create publicity confusion. And sometimes you worry about the audience base — whether there’s enough people in the whole environs to support two shows.”
Producer Jo Sabel Courtney agrees that the overlap was “a little bit disconcerting at first.” But she quickly allayed Boyce’s audience fears. One key distinction between Stowe and St. Mike’s: “Even though we’re only 35 or 36 miles apart, we draw from quite a strong tourism base,” Sabel Courtney notes. Solid attendance so far underscores the importance of another enthusiastic group of ticket buyers: local community-theater vets, from whom the three-county cast is drawn. “They all come to see each other; they all support each other,” she says.
Still, Sabel Courtney was surprised to learn that Music Theater International — the organization controlling performance rights — imposes no restrictions on productions taking place so close together. “What they told me was that if somebody right next door wanted to present the same show, they could,” she says. Theatrical mini-epidemics occur periodically in Vermont. “There is a need for some sort of consortium,” the producer believes, to promote better communication and coordination between companies.
Boyce’s initial disappointment at the St. Mike’s decision was tempered by a family casting coup: Her daughter, Charlotte Munson, landed the role of Rapunzel in the pro show. “So that helped lessen the rivalry for me personally,” Boyce notes. And after seeing the Playhouse production, she realized her own Woods offered audiences a substantially different experience.
Stowe is mounting a newer version of Into the Woods, significantly revised by Sondheim and Lapine for the 2002 Broadway revival starring Vanessa Williams. The tighter book heightens dramatic elements and adds new comic characters — The Three Little Pigs and a second Wolf. St. Mike’s staged the more familiar 1987 Bernadette Peters original, which Boyce believes is “a little more ponderous and not quite as entertaining as the revival.” When the original creators “go back and revive something, I prick up my ears, because you know that they have been paying attention to how the show works and what the nuances are that can be improved,” she notes.
Boyce’s artistic additions include bringing her audience physically “into the woods” — an almost animistic forest — by staging the show in the round. She wanted to get away from Disney-fied fairy-tale imagery by setting it “in a medieval time where . . . you could imagine trees coming alive and speaking to you,” she explains.
With the audience on risers facing one another, in the middle of the action, Boyce has witnessed an unanticipated bonus: a “participatory connection” between audience members, much greater than when attendees face a proscenium stage. “It feels like a collective experience,” she says. “You are seeing the other people laugh and cry and be moved. And I think there is something about the feeling that we are all in this together, and we all share this together. It’s been quite remarkable.”