PLAYBILL.COM'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER With Joanna Gleason; Tony Winner Makes Her Cabaret Debut at 54 Below and Talks Into the Woods

By Adam Hetrick
09 Oct 2013

Bernadette Peters, Robert Westenberg, Joanna Gleason, Chip Zien and Tom Aldredge in Into the Woods.

Will there be any moments from your theatre career? What were some of the musical touchstones that anchor your life?
JG: Of course, I will sing some Sondheim. There's a song from another show, but there's not a lot of show tunes. There are some songs from the 40s, there's some Billy Joel and James Taylor, there's a song from the Dixie Chicks, there's a few standards, too. But it's all within the context of the story I'm telling you. The music will carry you through the story. The trick is not to talk too much, then the song takes you where I'd like you to go in my life. But more often than not, the patter came first. Ironically, there are two songs that I sing, which are from the musical theatre, that have greater resonance where I place them in the story I'm telling than they did at the times I was doing the shows I was in. There's a kind of irony and symmetry in the use of the material. It becomes a bigger evening than I evening realized. But I think it was time to do this.

For Into the Woods fans, this is a real treat to see you outside a role. A moment I loved was your performance with Chip Zien during Stephen Sondheim's 80th Birthday celebration at Avery Fisher Hall. Your first line on "It Takes Two" from Into the Woods - "You've changed" was so wonderfully played.
JG: [Laughs.] It came to me at that moment! It had the added bonus for me and Chip in that we've been friends and so close for 27 years. We've watched our kids grow up together, and now we both have grandchildren. For us to go out there together – it's that feeling of not being alone, of someone knowing you so well, so there for you. I'm a big believer in partnerships; in fact, it's what I've been looking for my whole life: partners, family, belonging somewhere. With whom do I belong? It's been a search.

Fans of Into the Woods have grown up with the PBS taping with the original cast. In theatre it's rare that performances and entire shows are preserved in this way. Has it been something you've passed along with your children and grandchildren?
JG: My grandchildren are very little, but I'm sure they'll watch it. My son was able to watch it over and over again. He's now a married man - he's grown. Because of the PBS taping, it just continues to live, like "The Princess Bride" for my husband [Chris Sarandon]. It lives so that people give it to their children and it becomes a favorite of their children and then they pass it on. That's kind of a major footprint in our culture that you realize you've made sustained by technology.

What do you treasure from that experience?
JG: That show gave me so much. A sense of myself. It brought Chip into my life and all of the other kind of shiny stuff that came with it. I said to Steve [Sondheim] once, "It's as if you've stamped my passport and I could go anywhere."

It really is a special group of performers. It's been interesting to see how many original cast members continue to reappear in Sondheim's shows.
JG: I said this to Sondheim once, "You've created this family - this highly functional family of people who have a secret handshake because we've all done your shows. Though we may inhabit different kingdoms, there's a shared currency." When we did the birthday concerts for him a few years ago, it was wonderful to stand backstage with your arms around each other and remember where you were when you did those original shows.

Since you're charting new territory with 54 Below, what's next for you?
JG: I turned a little corner where I started writing. I've written a screenplay that I'll direct and I've written a novel. I wanted to tell the stories I wanted to tell. If you wait around to get the chance to be in some of this glorious stuff, it's a long wait. I didn't want to sit around waiting because the clock is ticking, and it's time to just kind of get in there and do stuff. So I took up tango a couple years ago. I do it all the time. And writing and now this show at 54 Below. I'm thinking this is not a bad way to spend my time.

For ticket to Joanna Gleason's 54 Below engagement, priced $45-$55, visit There is a $25 food and beverage minimum. 54 Below is located at 254 W. 54th Street.