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

By Adam Hetrick
18 Jul 2012

Joanna Gleason, Bernadette Peters and Chip Zien on Broadway.
Photo by Martha Swope

This new production of Into the Woods originated in London. It's going to be a different take, both physically and in some ways structurally than audiences may be familiar with, correct?
CZ: They have a wonderful thing where they have a child playing the narrator, which is a really pretty idea. But our production much more elaborate. It's huge! It's going to be gorgeous I think. It's thrilling. It's a thrill to visit the material again. We keep analyzing all the scenes, and I realize, "Gosh, I didn't ask that question 25 years ago." It came up today in rehearsal, "Who's supposed to drink the potion? How does the Baker know…?" Denis O'Hare [who plays the Baker] asked — he was so smart — he was like, "How do I know I'm not supposed to drink the potion?" And, I felt like, "Wow. I never thought of that! That's a really good question!" So it's really fun to talk about it. This cast is just spectacular. Donna Murphy as the Witch! It's just awesome.

Did you ever consider returning to Into the Woods? Was this a role you wanted when you learned of the production?
CZ: What actually happened was that James emailed me, and he said that it might be an interesting sort of completing-a-cycle if I would be interested [playing the Mysterious Man.] He said, "Would that be something you're interested in?" And, I wrote him back and said, "I would be." I thought about it for a second, but I felt like I really had to do it and wanted to do it. So I'm actually quite honored that he had asked me.

Joanna Gleason and Chip Zien record the original cast album.
Courtesy of Sony Music Archives

Have you been in touch with James Lapine and Stephen Sondheim since jumping back in?
CZ: I wrote [Sondheim] an email and said, "There's a lot of dancing. The Mysterious Man is dancing." He wrote me back and said, "The Mysterious Man doesn't dance." I said, "He does in this production." [Laughs.]

Are there words or things that you learned from the original production that you still carry with you in your personal life or as you return to Into the Woods
CZ: On a spiritual level — the sense of group responsibility, which is what I think Into the Woods is all about. When we do something, it affects somebody else. And, at the time [of the original], we were all having children. My kids were young, and James had a child that was young, and I think that a lot of the sensibility of the show had to do with the concept of "What was our responsibility to our children?" That's always stuck with me, and the idea that there's always an argument [about] whether the path is straight — or if there is a path. The Baker says, "There is no path." Other people say, "The path is straight," and I think I've always come away thinking that everybody has to find their own path.

I also come away with it on a practical level of just [being] amazed at how difficult it is to write a show, how well Stephen and James collaborated because I watched, to a certain extent, it being written. I wasn't in the meetings, but I saw the results come in every day. And, there are always so many pressures. There's the pressure of the audiences in San Diego and then going back into workshops. And, the impressive sort of professional and focused way in which Stephen and James work and create this piece was something that... I wish I were like that a little more. [Laughs.] I strive to be as focused and stable through a really complicated process as they were. Lapine always had said to me through the years, "Just focus on the work. Forget about other things." I tend to fly off in all different directions, and I always learned from James, and I think it's such good advice — to focus on your work and hopefully it will all work out. I think on a practical level, that's my takeaway — how difficult it is to write a show, how wonderful it is when it works out and how focused and stable they were through a very complicated process. And, I aspire to that. I don't know if I'll ever be able to achieve it, but I find that really impressive.