THE LEADING MEN: Chip Zien, Into the Woods' Original Cast Member, Returns to the Path

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20 Jul 2012

Chip Zien
Chip Zien

In 1987 Chip Zien originated the role of the Baker in the Stephen Sondheim-James Lapine musical Into the Woods. More than two decades later he's returning to the twisting path, this time as the Mysterious Man in the Shakespeare in the Park outdoor staging, which will debut July 23 at the Delacorte Theater.


The Tony-winning musical explores the shadows of well-known fairytales. Sondheim and Lapine set the action into motion with three new stock characters, including the Baker, his wife and their neighbor, a secretive witch, who serve as the catalysts that cause the fairytales' paths to intertwine. Thrown into the mix is the freshly invented Mysterious Man, who has a few secrets of his own.

Read more about the Public Theater's Shakespeare in the Park production of Into the Woods. caught up with Zien during a rehearsal break from Into the Woods, where he was treading familiar territory, but from a new point of view as both a character and an actor. 

How have rehearsals been? How long have you been in rehearsal?
Chip Zien: I can't feel my body from the neck down. [Laughs.] It's been very physical. It's a very physical production… and lots of steps and stairs going up about 50 feet into the sky. It's very cool.

It has to be a little surreal for you to step back into the world again. 
CZ: It's really been… Surreal is a very good word, but somewhat bewildering. I know portions of the music that I keep thinking is my cue and it's not! And, it's been 25 years, so it's rather shocking how indelibly etched in my brain the score — the songs — are. I have to sort of unravel what I knew and focus on what I don't know. It's been really weird, but it's been fun. We've been telling lots of stories. This production is so different. The sensibility of it… We're all moving and dancing up a storm, and it's just a different feel.

Zien, Robert Westenberg, Bernadette Peters, Joanna Gleason and Tom Aldredge in the original 1987 production.
photo by Martha Swope

What are certain things that are coming back to you as you're going back through the material again?
CZ: Well, first of all I'm very proud of myself that I knew that whole role. [Laughs.] And, I've been thinking back to the first time we ran through the first act [in 1987] and just the amount of material that we captured — that we learned. Also, one of the interesting things was that songs like "No One Is Alone" — one of my songs that I got to sing — and "No More" were not there at the beginning of rehearsal. So I think back to wonderful memories of Sondheim coming in with a manuscript — music manuscript paper — under his arm and folding it out on the piano and banging out and singing for us. For example, "No More." And, it was, for me, such an exciting moment because it had been written in my key — essentially written for me. And, I looked at Paul Gemignani, a big bear of a guy, and he's just crying. That memory came back to me. In fact, today we're going to rehearse "No More," and I'm going to sing the other side of it. It's very emotional, and also because I was so fond of Tom Aldredge, who played that role, and I just hope I do him justice. He was a wonderful, sensitive, calming influence on this production — originally. And, our dressing rooms were next to each other. I just miss him terribly. He was just a wonderful guy. I hear his voice in my head as I'm saying my lines. It's quite different — this take on it — but I hear Tom. It's emotional. We actually read through the script on about the fourth day. We didn't do it right off the bat. And, when we got to "No More" everybody was kind of looking down. I was very moved by it. I missed Tom.

There's a beautiful connection with Into the Woods about fathers and sons, generations and the choices we make. Do you have strong feelings about returning to the work and these characters after all this time?
CZ: Part of me wishes I weren't older. I mean, to be very honest. [Laughs.] I would really like to start all over again. I'd love to be in my 40s even. That would be really fun. But it's exciting to see that all these people have grown up on this show. The younger crowd [in our production] — Sarah Stiles is playing Little Red Riding Hood and Gideon Glick is playing Jack — these people kind of grew up on it. Ivan Hernandez, who's playing Cinderella's Prince, said to me, "I can't believe [it]. I sang this all through college, at every audition I ever had." And, he's trying to get the sound of Bob Westenberg out of his head, who played Cinderella's Prince. It's just so much fun to share the experiences that I had with them because they grew up watching that video tape [of the Broadway production] on "Great Performances." There's a beautiful story about the last night that we taped that performance, I had a superstition that I never turned off the light to my dressing room until the show was over. We taped three nights in a row, and after the last taping, the light was off when I got back to my dressing room and I turned it on and Stephen Sondheim was sitting there in my dressing room. He said, "I think you'll understand. It never gets better than this. This is like the greatest night we might ever have." So I get to tell stories like that to people who are willing to listen instead of grabbing random people off the street and just blurting out! [Laughs.]


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