'Into the Woods': Stephen Sondheim, Original Stars Reunite for First Time in 27 Years

Doug Gifford

“I don’t think the term 'mash-up' existed then," playwright/director James Lapine said of the origins of the 1987 Broadway hit

When you think Stephen Sondheim, you don’t automatically think Costa Mesa. So how did Orange County manage to land a reunion of the creators and original Broadway cast of Into the Woods — a one-night-only event most New York theater denizens would have slain a small giant to attend? It’s not clear why Southern Californians merited such favor over their East Coast counterparts, but after experiencing the ebullience of this combination concert/chatfest, we weren’t about to look a gift Milky White in the mouth.

Sunday night’s show at the Segerstrom Center proved such a quick sellout that a matinee was added, where Sondheim and writer/director James Lapine were joined for the first time in 27 years by Bernadette Peters, Joanna Gleason and five other original Woods cast members. Fascinatingly, over the course of nearly two and a half hours, the impending movie adaptation never came up once. Perhaps it was a deliberate choice by quick-witted host Mo Rocca to avoid that topic, or maybe it really was just the sheer force of nostalgic joy that made a hundred other things seem more urgent and fun to talk (and operatically sing) about.

In addition to the conversation, the actors reprised a dozen key numbers from the show as if they’d never stepped out of their demanding roles, including some slightly lascivious choreography that will definitely not be making its way into the Disney film.

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“An interesting fact,” said the emcee. “According to Music Theater International, 600,000 people have been involved in a production of Into the Woods.”

“And that was just one production,” quipped Sondheim.

“Yes, the Chinese production,” added Rocca. That joke didn’t come completely out of nowhere: On Monday, Lapine was set to travel to Beijing for a production of Into the Woods that is set to inaugurate a $350 million theater, even though historically, “it’s very unusual for them to do American musicals.”

Sondheim and Lapine were asked about the origins of the show, which began its Broadway run in November 1987 after debuting at San Diego’s Old Globe the year before. It turns out it wasn’t their first time thinking about doing a mash-up, even though, as Lapine noted, “I don’t think the term 'mash-up' existed then.”

Sondheim told the tale: “A couple years earlier, we wanted to make a buck, so we came up with an idea, or James did. We wanted to sell something to TV, and we thought, wouldn’t it be nice to take all the sitcoms of the 1960s and mash ‘em all together? There would be a car accident, and in the hospital there would be Marcus Welby and Dr. Kildare…and of course among the couples there would be Archie Bunker and his wife involved in the wreck, and Desi and Lucille Ball.... We thought, all right, we’ll take it to Norman Lear, who was the most adventurous and artsy producer in those days; we thought, we’ll sell him the idea.” A meeting was arranged. “He said, ‘It’s a great idea! I’d love to read the script.’ I said, ‘No, we don’t want to write the script…. So we gave it up. We didn’t want to put the effort in,” Sondheim said, laughing. “But suddenly, the [mash-up] notion appeared to James about Into the Woods” — which immediately appealed to Sondheim, who’d "always wanted to write a quest musical like The Wizard of Oz.”

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Lapine was about to become a father for the first time, and “the terror of being a parent is something that weighed heavily on me. It’s interesting, because fairy tales are a lot about getting kids to not worry, and also to paint a rosy picture of what life can be for them in some instances….  And having a child, I was thinking, is it always wise to tell people everything’s gonna turn out right at the end? I think that was what made the project exciting, to create the first act with the traditional fairy tale and in the second act tell a little bit of a lesson about the real life of life…. The first act is about personal fulfillment, and the second act is about realizing what you want may not be good for other people.”

As fans of the show know, the first act is a fairly complete work unto itself, and sometimes student productions leave out the downbeat second act entirely. Sondheim acknowledged that there were worried investors who thought the show should only consist of its first act. And there was initial confusion among some audiences, until the creators stumbled upon the need to make it clear to crowds that they needed to stick around.

“When we tried the show out in San Diego,” Sondheim said, “there was a matinee where a ladies’ club came, about 25 strong on a bus, and at the end of the first act they applauded wildly and left the auditorium and put on their coats and headed across the parking lot. A stage manager or one of the ushers ran out and said, ‘There’s more, ladies, there’s more!’ ” Added Lapine: “That’s when we stuck in the ‘To be continued.’ ”

The introduction of cast members produced some memorable anecdotes. “We had a feisty relationship,” admitted Chip Zien, the Baker, of his offstage dynamics with co-star Gleason, the Baker’s Wife. “It was Tony season. I had a Drama-Logue; she had a Tony,” he joked. Gleason broke in: “Let’s start by saying we’ve been very close friends for lo these 28 years, and…it was great. But he had the distinction of being the only actor I’ve ever worked with that I ever hit.”

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A closer relationship still for 28 years has been had by Kim Crosby (Cinderella) and Robert Westenberg (who played both Cinderella’s Prince and the Wolf), who have “stayed in touch,” as Rocca put it before reminding non-superfans that the two are married. Asking younger attendees to cover their ears, Rocca asked Westenberg about the “evolution” of the wolf costume. “At the beginning it was extraordinarily anatomically correct. In the first previews, I came out from behind the latticework, and there was…extra movement,” he said, describing it as “pendulous.” For six successive nights, the costumers gradually made the offending part of the costume smaller and smaller, until it was finally modest enough that laughter did not drown out exposition.

Also participating in the Segerstrom reunion were Danielle Ferland (Little Red Riding Hood), the then-teenaged actress initially confronted with that intimidating, wolfen sight, and Ben Wright (Jack), who quit acting in the late '90s to go into investment banking, both still charming naïfs in middle age.

The biggest ovations, naturally, went to Peters, whose witch character prefigured Wicked as the center of a bad-for-good allegory. “I didn’t have to worry about how I looked for a matinee,” she said — not quite totally true, since the witch does experience a moment of power-losing beautification. Peters brought along her original witch nose, which Sondheim and Lapine seemed surprised to see had survived the years, and put it on just long enough to recite the breathless rant that Rocca described as “Broadway’s first rap.”

Sondheim recalled the moment when Lapine explained to him that “the witch is the outsider, the one who always tells the truth, and therefore not very popular…I’d always thought of the witch as obviously like Margaret Hamilton going ‘cackle-cackle.’ But James said, no, that’s not who the witch is. She’s a truth teller, and the only one. In that sense, the witch is the heroine of the show. She just happens to be ugly, unpleasant, and aggressive…. It’s a hard lesson to learn, in life, because if you don’t like somebody, you tend not to believe them.”

Speaking of unbelievable: seven cast members, either extraordinarily well-rehearsed for a one-day gig or relying on uncanny sense memory, all sounding ready to step right back into their original Broadway roles, as Sondheim and Lapine looked on (and, in Lapine’s case, occasionally shot smartphone video) like proud papas. When they finally got to “No One Is Alone,” the sense of undying community was enough to make you believe that titular sentiment, even if the show’s closing chirp of “I wish” can be taken either as an inspirational capper or a slightly cynical anticlimax. If the movie turns out to be even one-fourth as fun and emotionally heightened as the Segerstrom’s theatrical reunion, that will be a fairy tale ending.

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