MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD FOR THOSE UNFAMILIAR WITH THE SHOW
Written by Alina Mae Wilson
It has been confirmed. That spark of electricity that made the original Broadway cast of Into the Woods so unutterably unique still remains. I can say this with absolute certainty, because I just attended the Into the Woods reunion performance this past weekend at Segerstrom Center of Performing Art in Costa Mesa. It was so beautiful, I fell in love again.
It began with Mo Rocca, who acted as the interviewer for the duration of the performance. Rocca brought out Stephen Sondheim (composer) and James Lapine (script writer) for a little Q&A to kick things off. They shared some interesting information, like the origins of the Into the Woods story. Not talking about the fairy tales here-turns out the writing of the musical was born of a desire to write a story that was a “mashup” of 1960’s sitcoms. Luckily for the theatre world, James Lapine stated that he was way too lazy and just wanted to sell the idea–he didn’t want to do any writing! No, he wanted the stories to be written already. So the sitcom idea was scrapped, and they decided to start working on the fairy tale based musical instead, paving the way for a generation of “what REALLY happened” like Wicked, Oz, and even ABC’s Once Upon a Time. They covered different reasons why the show is so special, so different from pieces before it–for starters it changed up the way people view(ed) fairy tales. These are classic stories that people have grown up knowing, they are clear cut and “black and white”. He went on further to state that this story of classic tales is written to be what “life is really like”. This musical is so unlike what people have come to expect from fairy tales that during some of the earlier previews people were leaving the show during intermission because they thought it was already over–a busload of women were chased down by an usher right before they left! Hence the addition of the phrase “To Be Continued” before the mid-show break.
Complimenting Lapine, Sondheim stated “James is one of the few people I know who can direct his own work, he is unique”. In that it would seem that Lapine managed to find his equal, for Sondheim’s work here sets him apart from any other composer. When Joanna Gleason (the Baker’s Wife) and Chip Zien (the Baker) came out, they were asked about her experience singing Sondheim’s songs. Rocca: “What was it like, singing this score every night?” Gleason: “Singing the songs from this show was the most satisfying experience that I have ever had onstage. There is no change between the dialogue and the singing, there is no mental switch that must be flipped”. Here Gleason highlighted one of the reasons this score is so strange, so worthwhile, and so different from even the most beloved fairytale depictions. In an era when every song is firmly rooted in choruses to bail the singer out of any jeopardy, this could also make performing more challenging. The songs here are thought processes, emotional responses to certain situations and working one’s way through the adventures that so many in the audience are familiar with. But although familiar, these stories are changed to make the characters more identifiable to modern day viewers. Lapine and Sondheim likened the Baker and the Baker’s Wife to a couple from the Bronx, a couple so ordinary that one can immediately understand and appreciate their struggles. Gleason revealed that she was the one who suggested that the Baker’s Wife be an ordinary woman trapped in the wrong story. Sondheim laughed at this but confirmed that this was the only time he has ever taken a line for a song from a performer that he was working with. This revelation of Gleason and Sondheim’s comprehension and agreement towards the character’s intentions can be taken as further evidence of how synchronized this coalition of individuals seems to be with the piece they were charged with bringing to life.
Speaking of synchronicity, Gleason and Zien did a rendition of “It Takes Two” as endearing as if they were still in the midst of performing the show. Most people will agree that experiencing a song live is better than listening/watching a recording, but allowing for the passage of over twenty years might fill one with doubts. In the case of Zien and Gleason those doubts are unfounded. The maturity of their voices and the affection between them both was more enjoyable for me than their performance on the dvd recording. They still have that chemistry that convinces the viewer that they are a married couple on an adventure, and they did not seem shy about confessing their tenser moments. When Rocca wondered what their friendship was like they laughed and said it was “up and down, up and down”, Zien gestured as though mimicking a roller coaster. Gleason announced “Chip is the only cast member I have ever worked with that I have actually hit!” I could not help but feel the casual degree, with which Gleason and Zien regarded one another added to the skill that they had/have in portraying a married couple (it could also just be that they are both professionals that know how to act, but it is nice to see long lasting friendships regardless of the context).
Gleason and Zien went further in volunteering a few more facts for the trivia section. These include things like the baker and wife having a name. It turns out that there was a woman named Mary Baker Eddy. It was therefore deemed fitting for Gleason to name the Baker’s Wife, Mary, and the Baker, Eddy. Another tidbit, Lapine stated that Snow White (actually he said Sleeping Beauty but she has nothing to do with an apple so let’s assume he meant Snow White) originally had a large enough part in the show that they decided to have an apple roll onstage immediately after the song Moments In the Woods. The Baker’s Wife would see it and take a bite while continuing on her path. It would then be revealed by Jack that he had discovered her body in a footprint, but that death was deemed unnecessary for purposes of the plot.
Kim Crosby (Cinderella) made her entrance and fulfilled every expectation one might have for On the Steps of the Palace. She was joined by Robert Westenberg (Cinderella’s Prince) and Rocca joked about their relationship. “So,” he laughed “you two still see each other?” “Oh, from time to time,” was the jovial response. For those who do not know, Crosby and Westenberg actually married each other in real life. Rocca asked whether their lives more closely resembled the “pre” or “post” intermission portion of the show. More laughs all around, and after a few seconds it was decided that it was definitely more post. “Seriously, we are two of the most boring people you will ever meet,” said Crosby. “I mean, some people think it’s cool they we are on youtube but that is about it”. “Yeah,” joins Westenberg, “You can find us on Google, that’s about as cool as it gets”. They continued to talk about their early experiences with the show, including the audition process. Crosby’s comments on her own audition speaks to every actor who has ever experienced any kind of anxiety. “I used to have a blue dress I really liked. I wore it to my first audition and when I got the call back I figured, you know, that dress had something to do with it. I wore it to the second call back, and the third, and the fourth. When I walked in they [Sondheim and Lapine] just started laughing. I think they had a bet going on whether or not I would wear it again.” Lapine chuckled and said that he asked her if she actually had another dress. Westenberg mentioned that the first time he saw Crosby he leaned over and asked someone “Who is that?” “Dude,” they whispered “that’s your WIFE!” Meaning of course that she would be playing his wife in the show. But as fate would have it… Rocca mentioned that Crosby had played Cinderella in the Rodgers and Hammerstein production when she was in high school. He asked her if she could outline some of the differences between R&H production’s version and the ITW version of the character. Crosby paused. “Well, they are completely different. In Into the Woods she is much more fleshed out, she has some control, she goes out and does things, she doesn’t just ride this wave of life and let things happen to her”. She is of course absolutely correct. In ITW Cinderella has agency and control that defines her in all of the other versions of her story. However at the same time, Cinderella continues to embody the qualities that make her her. Watching the story unfold, there is no disconnect between the Cinderella onstage and the Cinderella that is so near and dear to everyone’s hearts. One of the lines that resonated with me personally is right after the prologue when a weeping Cinderella begs her mother’s spirit for advice. “What is wrong with me mother? Something must be wrong…” This type of self-blaming is not unusual to see in victims of abuse or neglect. Cinderella’s thoughts and actions here define her as a real person, setting her apart as a real person experiencing real things as opposed to some paragon of virtue who is relentlessly cheerful without rhyme or reason–here Cinderella’s actions before and after the ball are justified. As Crosby says, she ultimately “learns that she has a choice”. And although Cinderella here has her instances of frustration, confusion, and even pain, Lapine and Sondheim still manage to make her retain that goodness she is so well known for. Cinderella is not unique in this instance, for this solid character development is pretty evenly distributed throughout the cast.
Westenberg performed as both Cinderella’s Prince and the Wolf that pursued Little Red Riding Hood. He stepped forward to perform “Hello Little Girl” withRocca pointing out that we can’t have the Wolf without the little girl–out steps Danielle Ferland (Red) nearly skipping all the way into the spotlight. Once again, I was very surprised at the quality of the performances. Westenberg hit every note and was incredibly predatory, no wolf mask or…um…other costume parts required. Ferland’s acting was on par with her performance from years ago, her Little Red identity visible to everyone present. In a later segment of the night they mentioned things like the Wolf’s development in regards to his costume–apparently his nether member used to be so prominent that it swayed like a pendulum. Was it inappropriate? Rejected by the public? No, but the gales of laughter coming from audience were so overwhelming that Westenberg and Ferland got lost in the scene because they weren’t able to hear their own lines. The Wolf’s costume shrank six times. Although they did not specifically discuss the issue that night, I feel that the sexualization of the Wolf forms a connection between the dangers in fairy tale land and the real life dangers facing children of today. Of course, this parallel is only apparent to adults in the audience and there is the other side of the coin that finds it unnecessary–wouldn’t the message about “nice” being different than “good” still hold if the Wolf was done up in a suit? This is the only issue for which I could take or leave any answer.
When asked how he keeps in shape for singing, Ben Wright (Jack) mentioned a few things. He said he tries to sing every now and again, he does fundraisers, takes every chance he’s offered to sing songs from ITW, and also, he’s just blessed with a set of vocal cords. That last explanation cannot be denied because his rendition of “Giants in the Sky” was not one note off. His clear voice and emotional charge rang through every word. He and Ferland were interviewed together. The very first question was what it was like for them being in the show as teenagers and Wright informed us that he was 32 when he was in ITW. Now that is something I did not know and would never have guessed–maybe mid-20s at the most. They discussed things like their educational experiences, Ferland mentioned that Lapine wrote her college letter of recommendation and Wright talked about how he has left and reentered the performance industry three times. “I started performing when I was seven. Even though I loved it and I did it for years, it didn’t pack the punch I needed in order to make it my life’s work, Wright explained.” Despite this he has had some pretty cool experience, involving him meeting a younger man who exclaimed “You’re the guy everyone was trying to sound like when I was in high school!” Wright is now married with four children and according to his biography is an advocate for the acceptance and inclusion of people living with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Ferland discussed her continued acting career as well as her stint as the Baker’s Wife in a regional theatre production of “Into the Woods”.
And then she was introduced. The incomparable Bernadette Peters–is that her new legal name? It works. Bernadette Peters is just in her own category. Her voice’s eery quality coupled with an openly blunt approach to the character perfectly solidified the Witch’s identity as “not good, not nice…just right”. In Peters’ own words, the witch is just
pragmatic. She is that person we all know who does not mince words, she does not worry about sparing people’s feelings, she simply calls it as she sees it. And that makes her unpopular. Peters told Rocca that she had always been sworn to secrecy about the details of the Witch’s transformation sequence…until now. Originally Lapine and Sondheim went to a magician who proposed an elaborate set up that would involve the spending of millions of dollars for excessive equipment. They took his suggestions under advisement and ultimately solved the problem of the Witch’s transformation scene themselves. All they really needed was a body double. They recorded Peters’ dialogue for the scene and had an actress of similar size with identical makeup come onstage. Peters would walk behind a tree and go down a trapdoor while the double came out and mouthed the words to the scene. Peters would then go down, change into the beautiful Witch, and the two actors would switch again after the double took the potion. Peters came out hunched in her old cloak, only to cast it off to reveal the end of her curse. When asked about her costume Peters told Rocca that she actually brought it with her–and she presented him with a very large pointed witch nose. “I’ve kept it for 28 years!,” she exclaimed. Positioning it perfectly, she then did the Witch’s Rap for the audience-of course it was a hit. We actually found out that Pamela Winslow (Rapunzel) and Chuck Wagner (Rapunzel’s Prince) were in the audience that night. I turned around and they were actually about 8 feet away which was a cool little moment for me. Peters moved on to sing “Stay With Me” to the audience. The tremulous tone in her voice as she implores her adopted daughter to remain safe and by her side speaks not only to parents, but to anyone who has ever known love in a harsh world. “Stay a child while you can be a child” makes the heart ache with desire for innocence lost. Her desperation, love, fears, and angers are not simply seen but felt. The cast joined Peters to perform “Your Fault”, “Last Midnight”,”Children Will Listen”, and “the Finale”. The songs are exemplary and Peters’ eerie voice stood out as the harbinger of doom in “Last Midnight” and the ominous yet almost soothing warning that is delivered in “Children Will Listen”.
Into the Woods is a story about people, in a way that so few stories these days are about people. The morals of the original tales remain present while delving deeper into the characters. This allows for the introduction of new morals that are also applicable to the modern day. These people from different walks of life venture into the woods, facing the dangers that are ever present in the world, and deal with them as best they can. The music is beautiful, the singing from the original cast is on point, and their personalities suit the whole piece perfectly. The energy from the cast was exactly the same as it was over twenty years ago. They make the show hilarious and heartbreaking.
Slideshow of the original props & costumes.
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