"I wish –"
Those two simple, yet complex words kick off the 1987 Stephen Sondheim-James Lapine fairytale musical, Into the Woods, on its way back to Broadway a mere 15 years after its debut. This time, Vanessa Williams embodies the ugly-and-powerful, then beautiful-but-ordinary Witch; 2000 Tony Award nominee Laura Benanti is the put-upon Cinderella with Gregg Edelman as her philandering Prince; Stephen DeRosa and Kerry O'Malley are the cursed Baker and his Wife; MaryLouise Burke is Jack's Mother (this is her first musical); and John McMartin is the hyper-kinetic Narrator.
Hyper-kinetic? The Narrator’s role is only one of several that benefit from changes Lapine has made to the book and the show’s structure. Instead of keeping the storyteller off to the side, as in the original, McMartin will be actually making the action happen, dangling birds from a fishing pole to help Cinderella pick lentils from the ashes or to pluck the Wicked Stepsisters' eyes out.
Asked if the production keeps him busy, McMartin said, "Oh, yes. It's more panic, because I also play the Mysterious Man. You're constantly going off stage and changing and coming back as another character. Because I'm usually in the more precarious elements of the show, I come out saying, `Where the hell am I?' That's where the panic comes in. It's a very complicated musical. It's Sondheim, you know."
The immobile, inanimate cow has also been replaced by an actress (Kate Reinders) who walks about on all fours, using Lion King-like stilts to support herself. Londoners have already heard one of the song additions: a number for the Witch and Rapunzel entitled "Our Little World." In other changes, there are two wolves (Edelman, Christopher Sieber), not one, howling "Hello, Little Girl," where the carnivores fight over their chance to eat Little Red Riding Hood (15 year-old Molly Ephraim). They are distracted from their quarry, however, by the entrance of the Three Little Pigs (personal favorites of Lapine, who were cut from the original staging). After playing Rock-Paper-Scissors for prey priveledges, Sieber’s wolf goes after the Pigs, while Edelman’s continues on to Grandmother’s House.
But the biggest surprise for theatregoers who caught the original Into the Woods or have seen the video is the amount of dancing in the new production. The original had almost no movement, but for the revival, Lapine tapped Urinetown’s John Carrafa to choreograph. The opening number and "Ever After," which includes a May Pole dance, are based on English country dancing, as is the rest of the show.
"What’s great about English country dancing is the figures and the patterns. There’s a whole vocabulary of steps in English country dancing that are perfect for this because anybody can do them. They’re based on walking patterns, skipping patterns, but very interesting, intricate figures — geometric patterns — on the floor," Carrafa said.
Carrafa said he wasn't altogether sure he wanted the job when Lapine first approached him. "At first, I wanted to think about it, because I had never done a revival. I saw the original. I always swore that I wouldn't do revivals, I'd only do new musicals. But with this one I felt like there was such an opportunity to put movement into it and there wasn't something that had been done before that I had to get out of my head. It wasn't like West Side Story where the choreography drove the show so much."
The set design is based around the pop-up book. "When you walk into the theatre, you’re going to see an empty stage with three big books — one that says` Jack and the Beanstalk,' one that says 'The Baker and His Wife' and one that says 'Cinderella,'" Lapine said. "Then the actual center book opens up and the set pops out of it. I wanted books to be the central theme of it. Kids today are into video and TV, but books are central to this musical." (So are kids: 15-year-old Ephraim is still a sophmore in high school, and 17-year-old Adam Wylie, who plays Jack, just graduated.)
Despite the changes, Lapine insisted the revival "is not a radical overhaul. We just wanted to make the show more user-friendly."
Into the Woods opens at Broadway's Broadhurst Theatre April 25, following previews beginning April 13. Prior to New York, the show run at L.A.'s Ahmanson Theatre Feb. 1-March 26, officially opening there Feb. 10.