Monday, June 22, 2015

Back Into the Woods

Impossibly, it starts with Tom Aldredge. Aldredge, who originated the role of the Narrator and the Mysterious Old Man, died four years ago. But here his voice is, as the lights dim, booming over the speakers, "Once upon a time!" I immediately start crying.

I'm transported back to 1991, to the couch in my dad's apartment, when he first showed us the VHS tape, recorded off TV, of Sondheim and Lapine's Into the Woods. It's hard to explain what this show means to me, in part because I don't think I quite realized what it means to me until the reunion starts. This was it. This was the first role I wanted to play. The first musical I deliberately memorized. The first story I actively analyzed. I was only in first grade the first time I saw it, but this was it. My first Sondheim. I learned all the songs (including the intricate arguments of "Your Fault"). I wanted to be the Witch (maybe I just wanted to be Bernadette Peters - who wouldn't?). Into the Woods is so indelibly a part of my childhood, a part of my growing up, of my love of theater, musicals, Sondheim, of complex deconstructions of narratives. It's the kind of show that, due to my many many rewatchings of the VHS and then DVD, if you speak a line of dialogue or lyric to me, I'll almost certainly spit back the next line on reflex.

This is probably true for nearly everyone in the audience at the Into the Woods Original Cast Reunion, which had two performances yesterday at BAM Howard Gilman Opera House. It's also almost definitely true for Mo Rocca, who not only did a terrific job moderating the reunion, but was clearly just so kicked to be onstage watching these people recreate the songs in front of us.

The Q&A discussions, which alternated throughout the reunion with songs, were generally quite sweet and charming, if - for the most part - not necessarily offering much new information if you've read Sondheim's Hat books (I'm calling them that and you can't stop me) or other related retrospective articles and interviews with the cast. Highlights here included:

  • Joanna Gleason casually referring to Sondheim as "Zeus" when describing her audition
  • Chip Zien remembering originally playing Cinderella's Prince in an early reading
  • James Lapine and Stephen Sondheim disagreeing vehemently about which one of them offered the role of the Witch to Bernadette Peters (when she told the story, it was Lapine who offered; when Sondheim interjected with his version, she said she liked his better)
  • Several cast members asked which of their lines got the biggest responses
    • Robert Westenberg: "I was raised to be charming, not sincere."
    • Danielle Ferland: "You can talk to birds?"
  • Chip Zien's favorite line of his that got cut: "I don't like her," re: Little Red (rude!)
  • Westenberg discussing the genesis of the lower half of the Wolf's costume, which started off rather pendulous and was subsequently "nipped and tucked" more with each performance. Ferland, a self-described late bloomer, remembers being stunned into speechlessness when he first bounded onstage.
  • Mo Rocca, interviewing married couple Kim Crosby and Robert Westenberg (Cinderella and her Prince), "You two now live in the same town now, right? ... Same street? ... Same house?" They've just celebrated their 24th wedding anniversary.
    • And on that note, Westenberg remembering seeing Crosby on the first day of rehearsal and asking Tom Aldredge who that beautiful woman was. "Bob, that's your wife." D'awwwwwwwwwwwwwwwww.
  • We finally find out how they managed the Witch's transformation (elevator, body double, and a dainty application of lipstick as reenacted by Peters)
  • Mo Rocca reading a card from Edmund Lyndeck's nephew (Lyndeck played Cinderella's Father but, at 92, is unable to travel to New York for the reunion)
  • Lapine being asked to give the set up for "Any Moment"/"Moments in the Woods" and having no idea which songs they are. Sondheim: "I'm great at titles."
  • Lapine explaining the Witch's importance as the person you don't like - the person who isn't nice - but who tells you the truth, in a community all too full with nice people who lie
Bonus highlight: Mo Rocca opened the show with an Into the Woods-themed Father's Day card:
Dear Dad, You disappoint, you disappear, you die but you don't. Happy Father's Day.
But of course the real highlight, and I'm sure the reason we were all there, was to hear these people sing to us again. I kept getting chills. Sure, I've gotten to see a few of these performers over the years in other roles. But this is where I first met them all. This is who they were first. And they were singing the first story they ever told me. Everyone was in generally good voice (THEY ALL SOUNDED LIKE THEMSELVES. I know that sounds super obvious but it's still this weird revelation we all had together. Similar to getting to see John Cameron Mitchell in his recent return performance as Hedwig), though high notes in general were a bit of a reach. Except for Ben Wright (Jack) who sounds freaking amazing holy crap you guys seriously.

I'll try to get the whole song list below:

Act One

  • "It Takes Two" - Joanna Gleason and Chip Zien (complete with Rapunzel's hair, a flower, and the kiss at the end)
  • "No More" - Chip Zien and Chip Zien (a bit of a weird solo duet, with him singing to an empty stool and repeating a lyric by accident, but that final verse just absolutely killed)
  • "On the Steps of the Palace" - Kim Crosby (she still sounds perfect)
  • "Hello, Little Girl" - Robert Westenberg and Danielle Ferland (they did their best to replicate the old staging sans moving ramp, which led to some adorable backwards skipping. also he's hilarious in this role and I haven't seen another actor match his Wolf)
  • "I Know Things Now" - Danielle Ferland (she sounds EXACTLY the same)
  • "Giants in the Sky" - Ben Wright (he ran out just as Ferland's applause faded and just belted it out. I got chills)
  • "Any Moment"/"Moments in the Woods" - Robert Westenberg and Joanna Gleason (they're both such precise and funny performers - I saw Sondheim chortling at Gleason's reaction to Westenberg's first "May I kiss you?")

Mo Rocca: "I hope you all enjoyed Act One, and that you're happy, because in Act Two it all falls apart."

Act Two (aka The Bernadette Peters Hour)

  • "Witch's Rap" - Bernadette Peters (delivered with putty nose attached, still sitting between Sondheim and Lapine. I knew better than to hope she'd do it and then she did it. Dreams Do Come True)
  • "Stay With Me" - Bernadette Peters (perfection. I may have my issues with her as a performer in shows, as I think she's rather ungenerous with how she shares her scenes, but no one can contest her ability to perform these songs)
  • "Your Fault"/"Last Midnight" - Ben Wright, Chip Zien, Danielle Ferland, Kim Crosby, and Bernadette Peters (I gasped when they announced this number was next. "Your Fault" is one of my favorite songs, both dramatically and for its craft. So fucking thrilling to see them perform it live. And my god, Bernadette's screech at the end)
  • "No One Is Alone" - Kim Crosby, Danielle Ferland, Chip Zien, Ben Wright (Lovely)
  • "No One Is Alone (Reprise)"/"Children Will Listen"/"Finale" - Joanna Gleason, Chip Zien, Bernadette Peters, and everybody else. (as soon as they all joined Peters for the finale, I started crying and didn't stop)

I'm so beyond grateful I got to witness this, to be able to see and hear them sing these songs live. It was an incredible experience, and one I'll not soon forget.

As they were: Danielle Ferland, Ben Wright, Kim Crosby, Chip Zien,
and Bernadette Peters as Little Red Riding Hood, Jack, Cinderella, the Baker,
and the Witch. Photo by Martha Swope.


  1. That sounds amazing. I was getting feels reading this.

    1. Me too. Someone must be cutting onions somewhere...excuse me.