The Public Theater's Passion for Musicals Takes Us Into the Woods, Under the Moon
By Matt Wolf
01 Aug 2012
Patina Miller in Hair, 2008
Photo by Michal Daniel
Oskar Eustis, Stephen Sondheim and Donna Murphy celebrate the special atmosphere that is Central Park's Delacorte Theater, now home to a new production of Into the Woods.
You might think that the New York Shakespeare Festival (the predecessor to The Public Theater) existed to do only Shakespeare, but in fact that's not the case when it comes to a nonprofit institution that has spread its theatrical wings well beyond the Bard. Richard Nelson, Caryl Churchill, Sam Shepard, Larry Kramer, Suzan-Lori Parks, David Henry Hwang, and David Hare are among the many contemporary writers from whom The Public has commissioned new work, past and present, while the musical theatre remains crucial to the work of the organization that, let us not forget, first gave us A Chorus Line nearly 40 years ago and premiered the revolutionary musical Hair in 1967 at their downtown home on Lafayette Street.
So it should come as no surprise to find this summer's Shakespeare in the Park 50th anniversary at the Delacorte coupling As You Like It with Into the Woods, marking in the latter instance an opportunity for the ever-popular Stephen Sondheim/James Lapine musical from 1987 to be seen in much the same sylvan setting indicated in its title. And at this point in his altogether singular career, it doesn't seem too fanciful to mention Shakespeare and Sondheim in the same breath. The comparison, says Oskar Eustis, The Public's artistic director, is more than apt, not least in descriptive terms: "What I love about Into the Woods is that it demands a breadth of population when it comes to who gets to possess the stage; it doesn't limit itself to one class or social strata" — any more than Shakespeare has ever done. And, of course, As You Like It follows its own journey into the Forest of Arden, so the transformative milieu of the natural world is a theme shared by both pieces of work.
For a democratic venue like The Public Theater, musicals are an essential part of its ongoing repertoire, which is intended to appeal to everyone who comes to a free show at the Delacorte. With Into the Woods, Eustis saw an opportunity to expand upon and fashion anew a previous alfresco production of the same show that was seen in London's Regent's Park two summers ago. "There's no question," Eustis says, "that this production is a descendent of the earlier one but it's one that we are rehearsing, designing, and making here." Timothy Sheader and Liam Steel remain onboard as the show's directors, but the Delacorte cast constitutes an American who's who, starting with Sondheim veteran and two-time Tony-winner Donna Murphy as the Witch; three-time Oscar nominee Amy Adams as the Baker's Wife; Tony Award winner Denis O'Hare as the Baker and Chip Zien, who was the Baker in the original Broadway production, as Mysterious Man.
Holed up in a seedy motel on the edge of the Mojave Desert, two former lovers unpack the deep secrets and dark desires of their tangled relationship, passionately tearing each other apart. Led by director Daniel Aukin (Back Back Back at MTC, 4,000 Miles), Tony winner Nina Arianda (Venus in Fur at MTC, Born Yesterday) and Sam Rockwell (A Behanding in Spokane, The Way Way Back) bring an explosive intensity to Sam Shepard’s (Buried Child, True West) landmark myth of the new Wild West.