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OU musical theater reimagines 'Into the Woods' in modern context

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Into the Woods

OU musical theater students rehearse on Jan. 24 for their upcoming performance of "Into the Woods" at Main Street Event Center.

OU’s Weitzenhoffer School of Musical Theater will take on Stephen Sondheim’s classic “Into the Woods” with a contemporary twist — far from the fairytale world of the original production. 

The show will be performed in the heart of downtown Norman’s historic district at Main Street Event Center as the inaugural show in the Weitzenhoffer School of Musical Theater's Downtown Series. Separate from University Theatre productions, this series will give musical theater students additional performance opportunities, said Shawn Churchman, director and associate professor of musical theater performance. 

“Into The Woods” is a musical based on "Grimm's Fairy Tales" with lyrics and music by Stephen Sondheim and book by James Lapine. The Tony Award-winning show was first performed in 1986 in the Old Globe Theatre and has since been considered a musical theater classic.

OU’s production reimagines the show’s well-known characters like Little Red Riding Hood and Cinderella in a modern context. Through the incorporation of cellphones, influencer culture and casual costuming, the original message is illuminated for a 21st-century audience, Churchman said. 

Like many performers in his generation, Churchman said he grew into his musical theater career against the backdrop of this classic show. He said he auditioned for the original Broadway production in 1987 and later guest directed a production of the show in 2009 at Columbus State University. 

“There's not a word or a note of the show that I don't know,” Churchman said. “I still hear Bernadette Peters in my head from the original.”

Although the show hit its prime in the late '80s, OU’s contemporary take is proof a classic show can still resonate with young performers, because it is all about the future, Churchman said.

The youngest character in the musical is Little Red Riding Hood, played by musical theater sophomore Anna McGuire. In OU’s rendition of the show, Little Red takes on a more cynical attitude compared to the original production. McGuire plays Little Red as a pessimistic pre-teen looking for independence. 

When she was 15, McGuire worked backstage in a production of “Into the Woods.” Her job was to shake the prop trees, but she spent the performances each night taking in the show. 

“Growing up, I think that like Little Red, I always wanted to do things on my own and strive to be independent,” McGuire said. “I was able to see how, although she puts up a front, she really is just scared and vulnerable, which is why she reverts to her childlike ways when (that front) is taken away from her.” 

OU’s production of “Into the Woods” will take place “in the round,” which means the audience will surround the stage on all sides, said Evie Lawson, musical theater junior. 

This unconventional staging requires actors to be in constant motion as they play in all directions. Although a challenge, learning to perform in this setting has been an educational experience for the cast members, Lawson said. 

Along with this unique staging, OU’s production of “Into the Woods” also emphasizes the importance of moving beyond familiar fairytale characters and their stories. Churchman said he encouraged his actors to explore how these characters can take on relevance when placed in a modern context. 

“Actors have come in with a pre-constructed view of the show — one that they got when they were seven years old and playing ‘Into the Woods’ in their living room,” Churchman said. “Now we are giving the cast an opportunity to release themselves from these past expectations as they have free rein to create.” 

Lawson’s character, the baker’s wife, is just one example of how the cast was invited to reimagine their roles. 

“We talked a lot about the role of a mother and a woman in this show, but putting it in a contemporary context makes it so different,” Lawson said. “I have just been trying to lean into her intelligence and learn how to portray a strong woman when male characters like the baker are trying to hold her back.” 

While the modernized characters make OU’s version of  “Into the Woods” different than previous productions, Churchman said the show maintains the same plot and central themes of optimism and community. 

“You can take something that is considered a classic and do something fresh with it, and it's still a classic,” Churchman said. “I hope audiences see this work of art that they thought they knew differently and that it is illuminating to them.” 

Ultimately, this transformation of a well-worn piece of theater has allowed the cast to grow and create something unique together, Churchman said. 

“I think that’s the driving point of the show — that no one is alone,” McGuire said. “Nobody really knows what they're doing, so we might as well do it together.”

“Into the Woods” opens at 8 p.m. Feb. 7, with additional performances at 8 p.m. Feb. 8 and at 3 p.m. Feb. 9 in the Main Street Event Center at 300 E. Main St. 

Tickets are $20 and are available online, by phone at (405)-325-4101 and at the OU Fine Arts Box Office. Discounted tickets are available for senior citizens, military personnel, students and faculty for $10.

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