It's taken 30 years, but John McMartin is back doing Sondheim on Broadway. The musical theatre veteran was the original Ben in the 1971 Broadway premiere of Follies. And now he is Into the Woods' Narrator—quite a busy little bee in the James Lapine's new vision of the piece, which will play Los Angeles' Ahmanson Theatre until March 24 before beginning previews at the Broadhurst on April 25. At the start of the season, McMartin thought he'd be working in New York, but in a completely different show: The Visit. He was playing Schill in the Chicago premiere of the Kander and Ebb show when the Into the Woods offer came along. Either way, it's the first time the actor has appeared on the Broadway stage since he was the heavy favorite to win the 1998 Best Featured Actor in a Musical Tony Award for his performance as the drunken uncle in High Society (only to have it snatched away by Cabaret's Ron Rifkin). The notoriously press-shy McMartin recently surrendered a few typically brief answers to some PBOL questions.
Playbill On-Line: Did you see the original Broadway production of Into the Woods?
John McMartin: I did. But I have a vague memory of it.
PBOL: How did you become attached to this production?
JM: Now, you're making me think. They called me and asked if I would be interested. They sent me the script and I said yes. At the time, I was off doing The Visit in Chicago. I didn't think about it until I came back to New York.
PBOL: How was your experience in The Visit?
JM: Well, they're hoping to bring it in. I had a wonderful experience. I worked with Chita in the movie of Sweet Charity. Working with her in a totally different capacity was wonderful...wonderful.
PBOL: You played the role of Schill in the play The Visit. It must have been interesting to revisit the part within the context of a musical.
JM: That was so long ago. I was too young for the role back then. Now, I'm the right age for the role. [Laughs] PBOL: It sounds like James Lapine has you moving around a lot in this show.
JM: 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 you're usually in the more precarious elements of the show, you 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.
PBOL: Well, you're familiar with Sondheim. You were in the original Follies.
JM: Familiar enough to be frightened, yes!
PBOL: Did you see the 2001 revival of Follies on Broadway?
JM: I did, yes. I thought it was a wonderful production. I knew a lot of the players, so you're always pulling for everybody. Ours was so long ago. It's still one of the favorite times of my life. But it was totally different sitting up front. Back then I was always in the wings. I never saw the show.
PBOL: I remember seeing you at the Tony luncheon, when you got the nomination for High Society. Then, at the Drama League luncheon the same spring, where every honoree spoke, you kept you speech to under 10 words. You were there only a minute and then quickly escaped. Do you dislike press events.
JM: I'm rather shy anyway. I feel uncomfortable. You don't like to be confronted. You'd rather overhear good things.
—By Robert Simonson