Learn How Into the Woods Began, Who Got Married, the Line Sondheim Stole and How the Witch Transformed

News   Learn How Into the Woods Began, Who Got Married, the Line Sondheim Stole and How the Witch Transformed Into the woods they went again: Stephen Sondheim, James Lapine and a cast of legends theatre folk could only dream up in a fairytale (or four, in Into the Woods' case). But, this time the enchanted forest was located in Brooklyn — for one day only — June 21 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

James Lapine, Bernadette Peters, Stephen Sondheim and Mo Rocca at the <i>Into the Woods</i> reunion
James Lapine, Bernadette Peters, Stephen Sondheim and Mo Rocca at the Into the Woods reunion Photo by Richard Termine

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Journalist and actor Mo Rocca moderated the Into the Woods reunion, claiming he was both "excited and scared" for what was ahead — a joke that brought Into the Woods enthusiasts (which filled the Brooklyn music hall) to laugher, applause and a standing ovation.

Lapine and Sondheim took the stage to join Rocca and sat in chairs set Stage Left to tell their own fairytale: how the 1987 Tony Award-winning musical Into the Woods became one of the most beloved theatrical pieces of their generation.

James Lapine, Bernadette Peters, Stephen Sondheim and Mo Rocca
James Lapine, Bernadette Peters, Stephen Sondheim and Mo Rocca Photo by Richard Termine

"We wanted to do another show together," they both explained. The duo had previously collaborated on Broadway's Sunday in the Park With George, which also starred some of their Woods cast — among them were Bernadette Peters, Danielle Ferland and Robert Westenberg, who were at Sunday's reunion.

Lapine was intrigued to write a fairytale, and Sondheim longed to tell a quest story. In their "quest" to creation, Lapine found that writing a fairytale from scratch was difficult and that the individual classics were all too brief for a full-length musical. But, to weave the stories of Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and Cinderella with a childless Baker and his wife — interconnected by a Witch who told life's hard truths — provided a challenge. The concept came from a previous TV idea that was scrapped, in which Sondheim and Lapine imagined their favorite television characters meeting each other in a hospital waiting room. (When Sondheim and Lapine were asked to complete a screenplay for it, they moved on instead of moving forward). When Lapine presented the epic, interwoven fairytale saga to Sondheim, he said, "You'll never be able to musicalize this," which "naturally" prompted the songwriter to accept the challenge.

Sondheim credits Lapine with one of the greatest re-envisionings of a classic: Cinderella's conscious decision to leave behind her slipper, instead of it accidentally falling off in her haste. Sondheim explained that the concept was completely original and gave new depths to the princess-in-the-making.

The first to join in on the conversation were Chip Zien and Joanna Gleason, the show's Baker and Tony-winning Baker's Wife. Prior to Woods, Zien had been involved in the San Diego production of Sondheim and George Furth's Merrily We Roll Along, which was undergoing changes from its short-lived Broadway run, and wanted to continue its re-development.

Chip Zien and Joanna Gleason
Chip Zien and Joanna Gleason Photo by Richard Termine

When he was approached with Into the Woods, Zien said, "That's nice, but I want to do Merrily!" However, after an initial reading in which Zien claimed he read Cinderella's Prince (no else one seems to remember which role he read for, except Ferland), he had his eye on the Baker.

Gleason auditioned for her role, and during her audition she sang a ballad (although they were looking for an uptempo) because it was the only thing she could offer. When she was asked if she had something more upbeat, she said, "No, but I can sing this one faster" — which she did.

She booked it — and thankfully so! If it were not for Gleason, the line, "This is ridiculous. What am I doing here? I'm in the wrong story!" may not exist. When Gleason was consulting Sondheim about her character's tryst in the woods with the Prince over the phone, she admitted that she was confused and felt like she was in the wrong story. Sondheim stopped her and said that he was going to write that line into the show — the "only" line he ever stole from an actor.

Zien and Gleason performed "It Takes Two" before Zien offered "No More," singing both parts to honor the late Tom Aldredge, who played the Narrator. Kim Crosby, who originated the role of Cinderella, was next to take the stage; she sang "On the Steps of the Palace."

Rocca then invited Robert Westenberg, Crosby's onstage and real-life prince, to the stage. After Into the Woods, the couple were married, but Westenberg explained that from the moment he met Crosby he knew she would be his wife.

On the first day of rehearsal, Westenberg asked Aldredge who she was. Aldredge replied, "That's your wife." Although he meant "onstage" wife, Westenberg took his words literally. The couple wed years later and now live in Springfield, MO.

Westenberg remained on stage to tell stories about his Wolf costume and how it changed over the course of early performances. (It would stop the show because of its prominent "anatomical" feature that swung back and forth as he leapt on stage to confront Little Red.) An adolescent Ferland was left confused by the whole ordeal.

Kim Crosby, Robert Westenberg and Mo Rocca
Kim Crosby, Robert Westenberg and Mo Rocca Photo by Richard Termine

The two performed "Hello, Little Girl," and Ferland sang "I Know Things Now" before Ben Wright took the stage for "Giants in the Sky." Ferland and Wright then took a trip down memory lane — they've been friends for 30 years. The two met in 1985 when they performed in Paradise! at Playwrights Horizons before their time in the Woods. Both are now parents.

The show's second act was dominated by Bernadette Peters, who kicked off the next half with the conflicting story of how she was cast in Into the Woods. According to her, Lapine said the role was open and she simply replied, "I'll do it!" According to Sondheim, he approached her with the songs and the story before she signed on.

Lapine and Sondheim said they wrote the Witch as a "perpetual outsider" who tells the truth — no matter how hard it may hit. Lapine said that sometimes the people you don't like speak the truth, and Sondheim claims that outsiders such as the Witch are ones who can change the world. The trio also revealed how Peters completed her transformation nightly on Broadway. A body double (who lip-synced to a recording of Peters' voice) was hired to enter as Peters took an elevator underneath the stage to change. Dressers began the beautification process, as Peters simply applied lipstick.

Peters performed a portion of her Witch's rap in the "Prologue" followed by "Stay With Me." She was then joined on stage by the cast for "Your Fault," "Last Midnight" and "No One Is Alone" (a song that, Sondheim says, is about how every action we take has a reaction). The cast sounded exactly the way they did in the 1987 production — Sondheim agreed, saying that if he closed his eyes, he couldn't tell the difference.

At the end of the reunion, each cast member shared his or her favorite lyric from the show. "Careful the tale you tell, that is the spell," said Peters, explaining that what one puts out into the world can change the people around them and that children, in fact, will listen.

Rocca asked what Sondheim and Lapine thought as they watched the fairytale unfold in front of their eyes once more. "I liked it!" said Sondheim.

(Playbill.com features manager Michael Gioia's work appears in the news, feature and video sections of Playbill.com as well as in the pages of Playbill magazine. Follow him on Twitter at @PlaybillMichael.)

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