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

By Adam Hetrick
July 18, 2012

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.



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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.

Playbill.com 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.]

Librettist James Lapine
Photo by Aubrey Reuben

I grew up watching that tape and then passed it on to the younger members of my family, who have also grown up on it. People have such strong emotional connections to that original cast because of the film — you're all synonymous with these roles. How did Into the Woods come about for you originally?
CZ: I started originally as Cinderella's Prince. The first reading I did of it, I was Cinderella's Prince. And, we were upstairs at the old Playwrights Horizons. And, I was doing sort of a Monty Python thing, and I just thought I was killing it. I just thought I was amazing, and James Lapine came up to afterwards and said, "What is wrong with you? What were you doing? It's not a spoof." He said, "No, no, no." I said, "James, look at all the laughs I got." He said, "No, no. Totally wrong." So then they went back [to] rewriting and working on it and I really wanted to play the Baker, but I thought maybe I wasn't what they would want for that role. I was out in L.A. doing a TV series, and I got a call from my old friend Ira Weitzman. He called me up and said, "I know they're thinking of you for the role of the Baker, but I think that they're going to want you to fly into town to audition, and if you do that they may change their mind." [Laughs.] He said, "Lapine's going to call you. Tell him your shooting schedule is too involved, you can't come back here." I said, "Ira, I really want to do that part. I will certainly come back and take my chances." He said, "No, don't do it!" [Laughs.] And, the rest is history. Lapine called me, and I said, "No, James. I'm just stuck." The next thing I knew, Lapine called me up and said, "We're going to offer it to you. We're just going to offer it to you." I said, "Are you kidding me?" It was like the greatest thing to ever happen. So that was it. I came back, and then we went right into rehearsal for the San Diego production, and then after San Diego, we went back into workshop mode and ended up on Broadway.

Zien and Joanna Gleason in the original Broadway production.
photo by Martha Swope

What were workshops and the original San Diego production like?
CZ: It was tense. It was wonderful. Sondheim brought in "No One Is Alone" while we were already in performance in San Diego. We were open, and that number wasn't in. And, we listened to that number in the basement of the Old Globe. There's so many wonderful things… The argument about how long the wolf's penis was going to be was one of the great early controversies! [Laughs.] But Lapine and Ann Hould-Ward were standing around saying, "It's too long. It's obscene. Should we cut it?" There were many, many discussions that were so funny…

What do you recall about that original Broadway experience?
CZ: One of the most thrilling things was that we were rehearsing at 890 Broadway, and Joanna Gleason and I took a cab up Eighth Avenue and we saw, for the first time, the [giant's] boot that was on top of the marquee [at the Martin Beck Theatre, now the Hirschfeld]. And, the marquee was up and the boot was up, and we just stopped. It was just a moment that could never be duplicated. It was like, "Oh my God. This is really happening. This great marquee!" Joanna and I were really close. We really got to be like husband and wife, and she remains one of my best and dearest friends. We talk all the time.

For an Into the Woods fan, it was a real treat to see you and Joanna Gleason reunite for the Sondheim Birthday concert at Lincoln Center and sing "It Takes Two." It was my favorite moment from that night. 
CZ: The night of the Sondheim reunion was… Well, first of all, Mandy Patinkin was there. We've been friends through the years. We were standing in the wings, going, "It's unbelievable that we're here. All of these lives... That it came together — these moments converged." And then Joanna and I walked out on stage, and the first thing we get to sing is, "You've changed…," which was funny. And, it all ended up being up there on stage. Joanna had a perfect moment, and it was so much fun, and Paul Gemignani standing behind us. I was very nervous, [but] it was just comfortable to sit there with Joanna. You could see Sondheim, who was sitting about the tenth row. You could see him reacting and waving. Then Mandy came off after he sang with Bernadette, and we just hugged each other, and both of us started to cry. I think everybody felt that way, and when all those voices came in to sing from Sunday in the Park at the end… We didn't know that backstage. We didn't know how many people were going to come out and sing that gorgeous music from Sunday in the Park. I mean, everybody… Everybody was just a mess. And, there were a lot of friends there — old friends — and people who worked together. It was really something.

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 here...is 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.