Is preserving a production good for theater?
By Shoshana Greenberg (lyricist/bookwriter)
The Public Theater's production of Into the Woods opened last night in Central Park. I'm not going to review it (I enjoyed it) but I do want to address a concern I had as the lights dimmed and the narrator uttered, "Once upon a time": Does growing up watching a video of a musical affect how one experiences other productions of it?
I watched the original production of Into the Woods numerous times as a child, first on the VHS my parents taped from TV and then on DVD. I watched it so often that the rhythms and cadences of that production are ingrained in my head. The costumes, the staging, where the audience laughs, the camera angles. Everything.
Inevitably, I found myself comparing this new production to the original, but the new concept was so different and I hadn't watched the original in quite a while that I was able to enjoy this one on its own terms... for the most part. Biases creeped into my thoughts: that's not how that line should be said! The emphasis is on the other word!, etc.
Maybe others don't hang on to these video recordings as I do, but, for me, a filmed production seen too many times eventually turns it into a film. And a film, even with a remake, is immutable.
Don't get me wrong, I'm glad these recordings exist. I would have had a very different childhood without Into the Woods and Sunday in the Park With George in my VHS collection. Not everyone can get to the theater to see a show, especially if a person was too young at the time or not even born. These recorded versions are treasures. And yet...
Theater is ephemeral. There is that moment in the theater, or, in this case, in the woods, and that's it. When we preserve a production, are we, in a small way, ruining that magic?
I'll never know what it's like for my first experience seeing Into the Woods to be live. I'll always have the original production in my head and I'll always be able to watch it. I do, however, have many joyous years watching that VHS. I'm not sure which experience is better, but I do know that a good live production, especially one in the woods, trumps watching any show in my living room.
1I have not watched the recorded version of this production from Regent's Park.