Stephen Sondheim has brought conniving Romans, unhappy New Yorkers, bitter former chorus girls, lustful Swedes, cannibalistic barbers and confused artists to the musical stage.
Then, in 1987, he and collaborator James Lapine added witches, giants, heros, heroines and folktales to his cast of characters, in the musical "Into the Woods."
Now "Into the Woods" comes to Lawrence, in a touring production to be performed at 8 p.m. Friday at Hoch Auditorium, presented as a special event by the Kansas University Concert Series.
Based in Chicago, the production inclueds a 22-member ensemble under the direction of of Victoria Bussert.
Sondheim, of course, is the composer and lyricist who has contributed to some of the most significant musicals of the past 34 years. Tutored as a young man by neighbor Oscar Hammerstein II, Sondheim began writing musicals at Williams College in Williamstown, Mass.
HE MADE his Broadway debut in 1957 as the lyricist for "West Side Story," with a score by Leonard Bernstein.
As a lyricist, he also worked with composers Jule Styne in "Gypsy" and Richard Rodgers in "Do I Hear a Waltz?" But it was as a composer and a lyricist that he wanted to make his mark. And he did starting with "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" in 1961. In 1964, he wrote the music and lyrics for a show called "Anyone Can Whistle" starring Angela Lansbury; it ran four performances but lived on as a popular original cast album.
Then, beginning in 1970, he wrote a string of innovate musicals that were directed Harold Prince: They included "Company," "Follies," "A Little Night Music," "Pacific Overtures," "Sweeney Todd" and "Merrily We Roll Along." After the latter show was a flop, Sondheim began working with Lapine, and together they produced "Sunday in the Park with George" and "Woods." Sondheim's new show, a musical called and about "Assassins," opened last month off-Broadway.
SONDHEIM AND Lapine crafted "Woods" from a number of fairy tales, including "Jack and the Beanstalk" and "Rapunzel." It was produced at a time when the American public turned attention to ancient myths and folktales, thanks to the renewed popularity of the works of Joseph Campbell and others.
All the characters have wishes and dreams, and during the musical the folktale figures see their wishes fulfilled at the end of the first act. But in the second, reality sinks in.
At the core of this musical is the Witch, originally played on Broadway by Bernadette Peters and now played in the touring production by Kelly Ellenwood, a Nebraska native. In a tale invented by Sondheim and Lapine, the witch leaves a baker and his wife without children.
"THIS WITCH is very interesting," Ellenwood said in a recent telephone interview. "It's the role that's really at the heart of the piece. She gets the ball rolling. . . . The show starts out with everyone saying `I wish,' but she's the only one who doesn't say what she wishes for until much later.''
Ellenwood earned theater degrees from the University of Nebraska and the University of Illinois. She worked with theater companies in Omaha, and she said she is now based in Chicago.
The current tour is making more than 140 stops over the course of nine months, Ellenwood said.
"The show is a pleasure to be in," she said. "I can be in it for 150 performances and still not be bored.''