Roundabout Theatre Company is currently presenting Fiasco Theater's acclaimed production of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's Tony-winning Into the Woods, a thrilling endeavor that utilizes only 10 actors to tell the tales of, among others, Cinderella, Jack (of "Beanstalk" fame), a Baker and his Wife and Little Red Riding Hood as well as a Witch, who loses her powers once her wishes are granted. The cleverly staged production at the Laura Pels Theatre — the finest mounting of the musical this writer has seen since the superb 1987 original — casts Jennifer Mudge as the Witch, the part created on Broadway by three-time Tony winner Bernadette Peters. Mudge, whose Main Stem credits include Rocky, The Philanthropist and Reckless, is a captivating presence, whose performance culminates in a sensational, full-voiced delivery of Sondheim's "Last Midnight." A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of chatting with the multi-talented singing actress, who spoke about the creation of this unique, must-see Into the Woods and her work as the ill-fated Witch; that interview follows.
Question: When and how did you get involved with Fiasco Theater and this production?
Jennifer Mudge: I've known them for a while — we all went to the same grad school, and I knew [director and Baker] Ben [Steinfeld]. I'd also been in the company there, so I knew Ben from workshops and as an alumni of the school, Brown Trinity Rep., in Providence. So I had known Ben specifically, and I kind of knew everybody else because I was there a little bit before he was.
We were actually supposed to do another musical together. We did a workshop and then I couldn't do that musical, and then when [Fiasco] got to the city, I was here ahead of them, and they were doing [productions of] Cymbeline and Twelfth Night. I kept going, and I actually was just like, "Ben, when can I play with you guys?!" I think I bullied — in other words! [Laughs.] I think I maybe bullied my way in, but in a nice way I hope. I just loved what they were doing. It's very much what we were taught as far as how to build theatre and what theatre can be and storytelling.
Also, I loved them all, and I really wanted to play with them, and they said, "Guess what? We have something. We're looking at maybe doing a musical." And I was like, "Oh my God, I haven't done a musical since you and I did that workshop of a musical in 2004." So this was four years ago that we sat down and [tried to figure out] how could we do [Into the Woods] like this, how many people [we would need]. At first I think we were at eight or nine [actors], and then we added another track or two. They knew they needed more than their core six, so they asked a couple of other people from school, and then they kept adding a couple of tracks and then they were like, "I think we have it." So that was four years ago that we had that first workshop, then we did a couple of other smaller workshops and then some bigger ones, and then we got set up at the McCarter [Theatre in New Jersey] for 2013, and that was our first full production.
Question: What was the rehearsal process like at that point, deciding how you were going to tackle the musical?
Jennifer Mudge: In the workshop phase we knew that Patrick [Mulryan] was Jack, and I knew I was the Witch and Claire [Karpen] was Cinderella, but then it was like, "Well, okay, so somebody has to be Granny, so would it work for [Claire] to do Granny? So Cinderella is going to play Granny." It was kind of like, "Who's available and where does it fit in the track, and is there interesting doubling?" For Jack to be the Steward is great doubling because he says things like, "The lad is not here," and then as Jack he says, "I'll kill him because he killed my mother." It's fun, and even if the audience doesn't notice that much - they wouldn't have to - there's a cool resonance to have people referencing themselves in another character.
I think Rapunzel and Little Red were doubles from the beginning. We knew that one was going to be right and work pretty early on, same with the Princes, the Stepsisters, then the Cow and Wolf. ...
I remember when the Narrator got divided amongst all of us, and I think that was pretty early on, too. We knew that that one would not be a separate actor playing the Narrator. Then the decisions were, "Who's the Narrator when?" In the first act, we narrate stuff that we're not in ourselves or have anything to do with, and then as it rolls into the end of the first act, we start taking our own narration, which was a deliberate choice. And then, of course, we had to adjust some lines in the Giant scene because we don't feed him to the Narrator because we're all the Narrator. [Laughs.]
Musically, too...[Music director/pianist] Matt [Castle] was so amazing, and he came to it a little bit later but still within those workshops. We knew there'd be one piano, and Paul [Coffey] is an amazing cello player, and Liz [Hayes] plays the bassoon, which is incredible, and Ben plays the guitar. So they knew they were going to have a sound for Jack, slightly blue-grassy with the banjo and guitar. When I'm up there, when I'm singing, Liz always plays with me, with the bassoon, so that's the Witch's sound. Little Red always has the toy piano coming in following her a little bit. We knew there would be pieces of instruments attached to characters.
Question: How about the Witch? How was it decided whether you would or wouldn't play someone else?
Jennifer Mudge: Ben and Jessie [Austrian] and I, besides playing our main roles as Baker, Baker's Wife and Witch, we're the ones with the least [additional material]. Ben, he plays the guitar, obviously, which is a lot, and Jessie does narration and does the Giant's voice at one point, and I just do birds and a baby's cry. We took the smaller pieces of things, so I don't have another solid character. I do one of the first narrations actually, maybe the second one. I have birds to play, and I'm a doorbell ringer and cymbals and things like that, which are honestly the things that make you more nervous sometimes. [Laughs.] Like playing the cymbal when you're not perhaps a cymbal player first.
Question: Were you a fan of the musical? Were you familiar with it before this started?
Jennifer Mudge: I was. I had been in another production while I was in grad school, like many people who did the show in school, and I played Cinderella, and I loved this musical, like loved it, loved, loved, loved it. So I was excited to play a different part. I didn't want to play the same part because it's so great you want to move around, and there's so many great women's roles, which is nice and unusual.
Question: How did you go about approaching the Witch when you knew you were going to do that role, especially with all the people who have done it before?
Jennifer Mudge: I know. You can't unsee Bernadette Peters! I thought, "I'll totally forget about that," except that it's memorized because I watched it as a kid. I loved that recording, and I love her, and she's amazing! So it is a little hard. … I did Maggie in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and I actually had never seen that movie, so I didn't have Elizabeth Taylor in my head or anything, and that movie is very different from the play. I really tried to not see [the PBS Into the Woods] for a while. I saw the other one in the Park, which was in the middle of us doing our workshops, with Donna Murphy, but that was just one night and that's live, so it was a little bit different. I literally did just try to be like, "Just try and stay away from it for a while." [Laughs.]
And, being a "grown-up actor" now, I [thought], "How do you approach being a somewhat mystical character but have it be grounded, because she's going through a real thing?" I actually talked to our favorite acting teachers. We have two favorite acting teachers that taught us at school, and I called them and was like, "I don't know how to play this, I don't know where to begin..." And one of them said to me, which was really great, he said, "You know what, she's a mother. She's a mother." It was an obvious statement but a nice one to begin with because I have a mother, I know what this relationship is like. Now I'm like, "Okay, I'm playing a single mother. I play a single mother every night." A single mother who loses her child and all the wrath and the terrifying things she can be or goes through. I don't know if there's anything more terrible or frightening than that, than someone who's lost the thing that's most important to them, especially a mother. And maybe she kidnapped her child - that was pointed out to me at a talkback, and I don't know what they're talking about because she is my baby, but I feel like when you lose the thing that's the most important to you, that's a very human, relatable thing that was really my go-to.
I worked a little backwards, which we all kind of did in terms of Act Two and Act One and how different they are in tone and events, and we really were very conscious of marrying the two pieces together. You can walk out after Act One and feel like you've seen a complete play and be like, "That was great, let's have a drink." [Laughs.] But they wrote this beautiful second act, this beautiful heartbreaking companion act, that really grounds it and breaks your heart. So I think we were all very conscious of how the main pieces of Act Two are threaded through Act One. That was a really big dramaturgical and structural element that we worked very hard to always remember when we were playing scenes and when we were putting things together. So we could have those two halves - that they're real people and they're getting what they want, and they don't know what's going to happen in the second act, but they're the same people but with these horrible things that are going to be visited on them. So they definitely exist in the world. They're fairy-tale people, but they have very human needs.
Question: Is there a difference for you when you're playing the Witch when your face is mostly covered versus when you're the beautiful, glamorous Witch? Do you feel any change with the audience?
Jennifer Mudge: Because of all the things I'm doing in the first act as far as casting spells and the heartfelt feelings of Rapunzel, there's something very safe [about the costume]. It's weird but with the blanket and the hat, I'm so obscured as an actor, although there are parts of me that you can see. We talked a lot about how much you can see my face and how much you can't, and we didn't want to cover too much up because part of the story is the scene [Rapunzel and I have] together. It's hard to sing "Stay With Me" with your face completely covered or with prosthetics because the song is really a scene, and it's really about trying to convince her that I'm trying to get her to see my point of view, and when you're just making noise within - we tried a lot of different things - some kind of contraption, the job feels harder, and it feels like it's not quite getting out to them. It's almost as much about posture. I'm able to stand a little straighter. It's freeing to take it all off and be like, "Okay, this feels good." I don't know if this is true, but I feel like the audience is a little surprised. They have seen me all of the first act and it's not a big disguise, but I feel like it's still a fun thing to change. It's obviously not a high-tech thing.
Question: I didn't really know what you looked like underneath, and I think it does draw you closer to the character once that transformation is made.
Jennifer Mudge: I feel like it's part of her journey within the story as well...I liked the way we were telling the story - but at first I was like, "Oh my God, if I'm totally myself at the beginning, am I going to be able to be convincing as someone else?" It is fun to feel people go, "What the hell?" with the first act. "What's she wearing a blanket for?" [Laughs.] It's so different from everyone else. It's much less accessible, and it's weird, and it's good because I feel like that's how the world sees her, and she's trying to explain that to Rapunzel. I feel like when Emily [Young] looks at me, she sees her as a different thing. Although I say, "I'm old, I'm ugly. You see me as this way, too," but I don't think she actually does so much. Of course, the tragedy is that when she gets to how she really wants to be, Rapunzel is like, "No, it's okay. It was better when you were old and ugly and I didn't know what the world was like." That's the first tragedy of hers, right? "Well, here I am, exactly as I wanted to be, and I have nothing that I wanted." ...The heftiest part of my acting stuff is actually after my transformation. Before that, it's really in and out, with the two main numbers, a lot of exposition. In "Stay with Me" I'm trying to put across a certain point of view, and then Act Two is really where sh*t gets real for the Witch. It's awful.
Question: Has Sondheim been a part of the production at all? Has he come to see it?
Jennifer Mudge: Yes, he has. He came when we did it at the McCarter, and we had heard that he might be there, and there he was, in the fifth row one night, sitting next to a few friends. You know how we mill about at the beginning? We're able to see who's out there, and I was waving to my friend, and my other friend, and then my friend mouthed, "Stephen Sondheim," and I was like, "Oh my God." [Laughs.] "Okay, let me get my lyrics right [in the opening number], just let me get that and then fine, I'll be okay."
And you know, he kept laughing. He was laughing so loudly, and he was having such a good time. At intermission, Liz and I and everybody, we were rolling down the stairs, and Andy, who plays the Cow, was like, "Man, that one guy is having such a good time," and we turned, and we were like, "Do you know who that is? Do you know him?" We were like, "Maybe he's teasing us." And he said, "No, I don't know, but he's just having a great time." He had no idea, and then I realized that Liz knew, we had this eye-lock and were like, "Ok, we both know. The master is in the house." So we finished, and he wanted to meet us in the Green Room, and it was very emotional actually. He was very emotional, and we were emotional because he was there. He played a big part in it being brought to New York, he played a big part in that. He was instrumental in making all that happen, which was very generous, and he responded to the things we were doing with our story, which was really lovely. They knew we were changing a few things. They gave us permission, but they didn't know exactly, like, "What are you doing?"
So then he was at the first preview here, and then he was at opening, and in between he did a work session with us, with the score. Again you're like, "I know he's seen it, I know he knows..." but then to have him out there and then have it just be him sitting there ten feet away is - it's like you would literally go to a higher plane or something, I swear. You go, "Oh my God, I don't know if I can actually do this." And he was so lovely, and it was so generous of him. He had really great things to say. It was really one of the best days of my career in terms of just feeling really lucky. I'll never, ever, ever forget this. It was extraordinary.
Question: What has it been like performing the show for New York audiences? Probably a lot of people have seen different productions and with the movie, too.
Jennifer Mudge: McCarter, two years ago, was in a different place. We were figuring out the staging for the first time, and we worked very collaboratively and slowly. We're all chiming in and going, "Let's try this," and we'd go down a path for a few days, and no one says, "No, that's terrible." We might say at the end of it, "Oh, that was terrible," but we gave everyone a chance. There was a lot in figuring it out. We really approached it like it was a new piece. We were like, "We all know this so well, we've all seen it, we all love it, but what if we do it like we don't know it?" That's really how we tried to approach it, like, "How do we do it for people that don't know it at all?" ... It's been refined since then, and then when we got here, it was like, "Oh gosh, we feel like we have a thing that we know works, and we hope people will respond, especially all our friends now that we're bringing it to our home town." I think we were just nervous of feeling, "Oh gosh, now the movie's out and we're so different from the movie." I have not seen it yet, but I look forward to seeing it. I think I'm really gonna love it. How do we meet people's expectations, which we hope we meet, but also work around the side of them? Because we are doing something a little bizarre, but there are little Easter eggs in there for people who really know it really well. There are some really good Easter eggs in there. If you know the show really well, we do have stuff planted...it's little stuff, and you don't miss it if you haven't seen it, but if you know it really well, there's some fun stuff in there that I think people are like, "Oh!" That is also fun - you can hear that reaction...
Question: For me it was my favorite production of it since the original. … It really focused so much on the score and the book and just showed that if you have a good cast, a good book, a good score, you don't need a huge production to have an amazing night out.
Jennifer Mudge: Thank you. We were obviously aware of our low-techness...
Question: But it worked so well.
Jennifer Mudge: Thanks. Fiasco approaches all of their pieces like...when you're working with a master work...you could stand at a stand and it would work, really, truly because it's that wonderful. So we were like, "How do we stay true to it and have our own fun with it and be who we are as performers but also make it really clear and really hearable?" Our directors are in it, and our amazing assistant director, Michael Perlman, was so invaluable because our directors were in it as well, and, as you see, so much of it is ensemble, like creating the Giant, and we're all doing something teeny in there so it makes the bigger piece and it makes it fun.
Question: What do you think the message of the show is and how do you think it's affected your own life or own view?
Jennifer Mudge: Because we have been working on it a while and people have known each other for a long time, a lot of things have happened to each of us, bad things and great things and it definitely adds to the richness, I think, of being on stage together with a piece like this that I think is really about the big questions of life. I really think it is. As fun as it is, as playful and light-hearted as it can be, I think it's actually really simple and deep. I think it's speaking to the things that I care about the most in life and in art, and I think we're all aware of that and not trying to be heavy-handed with that and to try and be like, life is sublime and ridiculous. I think that's one of the things we all treasure, and I don't mean to speak for everyone, but I think they'll be okay with me saying this. One of the things we treasure a lot about doing this story the way we're doing it is that because we're a little community of actors putting on a show and telling this story about life, which is a story about how you need a community to live life, and you have to lean on each other, and after shi**y things happen, you find you rebuild your life and your family. You find your family where they are, and you hold on to the people that you don't want to forget, that you have to keep going until you don't, kind of thing...As all messy as it is, I think that idea that we all have each other's backs in this play, where it's all about having each other's backs, is something that's very profound. It's proven that way that through performances and through the life we've all gone through, because everybody is in their early to late thirties or early forties. We're all within a decade of where all this sh*t happens...so all the decisions that are being made in our lives are very much reflected in this.
[The Laura Pels Theatre in the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre is located at 111 West 46th Street. For more information, visit RoundaboutTheatre.org.]
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Diva Talk runs every other week on Playbill.com. Senior editor Andrew Gans also pens the weekly columns Their Favorite Things and Stage Views.