I recently went to see the film adaptation of Into the Woods.
As a child of the late eighties and early nineties, I was raised on Into the Woods. The stage production premiered on Broadway in 1987; in 1991, most of the original Broadway cast reunited for a filmed performance that aired on PBS and, if my own experience is any indication, found its way into the hands of public school teachers everywhere. I first saw it in Mr. Johnson’s fifth-grade music class: after another inexplicable acting-out of Gustav Holst’s “Mars, the Bringer of War,” that hot new musical went straight into the VCR. By the end of middle school, I’d seen it at least three or four more times and internalized it as That Musical I Like.
This is how you get kids into musical theater: put it in front of their eyeballs. I loved Into the Woods, particularly Danielle Ferland’s performance as Little Red Riding Hood—incidentally, a sassy adolescent girl at a time when I was interested in how being a sassy adolescent girl might work. I didn’t really get the second act, but it didn’t matter; I was hooked enough to grow into it later. I’ve wondered many times why more popular musicals don’t end up on public television—because there’s almost no other way to get them.
Tickets to professional musical theater are incredibly expensive from a per-hour perspective, assuming people have geographical access to them at all. From the perspective of ticket sellers, maybe that’s the point. Releasing Broadway productions on television upsets the supply-and-demand equation in the short term. But hey, that’s the short term. In the long term, public access to good theater only spawns more theater fans. For me, the line from the 1991 PBS version of Into the Woods and the Disney adaptation is simple and direct: love it as a kid in 1991, attend numerous stage productions in the intervening years, buy a ticket to the movie at my local theater in 2015. In terms of sales, that free viewing turned me into the gift that keeps on giving.
This is why the Tony Awards telecast is so important, and why it’s exciting that it’s been so great in recent years. Once a year, Broadway arrives in American living rooms, for free, and shows people what it’s got—whether or not the viewers are able to make it to New York. (The Tony people are notoriously self-aware about this: in recent years, both the hosts and a number of award winners have reminisced about watching the show as kids and called out the telecast as an inspiration to future generations of Tony winners.) Of all the major arts award shows, the Tonys are the most joyful and the most immediate, because they’re packed with great live performances: the talent and hard work and magic that’s up for celebration are right there. For many, many people, that annual show-off is, realistically, the entire theater year. It’s great for New York ticket sales, but it isn’t only great for ticket sales: it’s great for the future of theater.
Incidentally, the televised-musical hole in the market may actually be filling in a bit, essentially due to a harebrained ratings grab from a struggling TV network: the recent NBC productions of The Sound of Music and Peter Pan feel like the Into the Woods TV production for the twenty-first century. They’re more like TV specials than actual live theater—but if the ratings are any indication, a generation of kids is growing up with them and getting to know classic musicals because of them. (Next up, NBC: pick something less awkward and racist than Peter Pan?) Neither seems to be available for streaming on major platforms (the true metric for having made it), but for now, maybe this is the beginning of something: a portal to musical theater for people without access to musical theater. Maybe one day, they’ll even do Into the Woods. When they do, I’ll be watching.