One Saturday afternoon during rehearsals of Into the Woods, Vanessa Williams brought her son to watch the cast at work in the studio. James Lapine, the show's director and author, responded with delight to the young visitor. "James decided to make every Saturday kids' day," says Williams.
Children were very much on Lapine's mind when he and composer Stephen Sondheim first discussed the possibility of mounting a revival of their funny, moving, contemporary parable, which originally opened on Broadway in 1987. "Over the years," says Lapine, "so many people have said to me, 'I wish I could see the show with my kids.' That's why we wanted to do it. It really touches me to become part of something that adults can experience again, together with their children."
The appeal of Into the Woods is multi-generational, as it presents familiar, simple fairy-tale characters and takes them on a complex journey of growth and self-discovery. The fates of Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Jack (of beanstalk fame) and Rapunzel become entwined as they pursue their wishes. They are brought together by the plight of a Baker and his Wife — Lapine creations — a couple that must break a Witch's spell in order to have the child they so desperately desire. In the spirited first act the characters go into the woods and get everything they wish for; in the sobering second act they must face the consequences of their wishes, and return to the woods to battle a giant capable of annihilating them.
Preparation for the revival began long before the world changed on September 11, but the show now resonates in profound, new ways. "I suppose people will make that connection," says Lapine, "but that wasn't why we did the show. It's weird, isn't it? It's kind of like a message in a bottle. You don't know what's timely when you're writing it."
Lapine was determined to take a fresh approach to the material. "Otherwise, I wouldn't have had any interest in directing it," he says. He assembled a completely new design team that has reconceived the look of the show. Numerous special effects have been added, as has the song "Our Little World," which was written for the London production. One of the biggest changes is the role of the Narrator, who is much more integrated into the fabric of the show. John McMartin brings a sense of whimsy to the character, a very different approach than originally conceived. "I wanted the Narrator to have a larger presence, but had no idea what the results would be," says Lapine. "It had a domino effect; it changed everything. And McMartin has an amazing spirit that he brings to whatever he does." The princes are more broadly comic, and both now play wolves, each taking a bite out of "Hello, Little Girl." Perhaps the most talked about transformation is that Milky-White, the cow, is no longer an inanimate object, but a scene-stealing actor in a remarkable costume. "It's a balancing act," says Lapine. "You offer the kids Milky-White and the goofy princes to balance the people getting their toes cut off and people not getting what they want. The six-year-olds love the goofy princes and the cow, and I don't have a problem with a six-year-old having a good time."
On the other hand, the song "Last Midnight" has become more chilling, as it's sung by the Witch as an alarming lullaby to the Baker's son. "It happened one day in rehearsal," says Williams. "James said, 'Pick up the baby.' It made all the sense in the world; it gave me something to play."
Sondheim also helped Williams shape her performance. "He wasn't there on a daily basis," she says, "but when he did come he would give notes that were so concise. The first time I sang 'Stay with Me' I tried to impress him by being very lyrical. And he said, 'She's angry, and I want to hear that anger. Don't make it sound beautiful.' So I learned I had to fight against the music to make it sound bitter and powerful."
Williams was eager to be part of Into the Woods from the moment the offer came her way. "I knew that Stephen and James were going to be involved, so it was a no-brainer," she says. "I loved the idea of playing the Witch. I can be as broad and as nasty and as disgusting and threatening and powerful as possible. It's something to look forward to every performance."
Although Williams is best known as a pop singer, she made Broadway stand up and take notice when she succeeded Chita Rivera in Kiss of the Spider Woman. In 1998 she earned raves for her work in the Encores! production of St. Louis Woman. "This is what I do best, and it's where I feel most comfortable," says the mother of four. "I'm one of those people who enjoys going to the theatre eight times a week. It's a true test of whether you've got it or not. And I love it!"