"How many of you know Into the Woods?"
The question, posed only semi-facetiously by event host Mo Rocca, whipped an already excited crowd at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts even further into a frenzy. Given the number of seats sold for a pair of Sunday reunion events featuring the musical's creators and original cast members, Rocca didn't need to cheerlead. Musical theatre fans of all ages and ethnicities arrived at the Costa Mesa, CA, venue ready to hear songs, snap a photo of an original prop or costume (on display in the lobby), tweet an appreciative review or even pre-order a Blu-Ray copy of the not-yet released Disney film version of "Into the Woods" which is due in theatres at Christmas.
If the cheers and standing ovations were any indication, they left satisfied. With an estimated 600,000 people having participated in a production of Into the Woods in the musical's 28-year history and with an already substantial fan base set to multiply once the Rob Marshall-directed film hits the multiplexes, there are plenty of people who still marvel over giants in the sky and shake their heads at children who don't listen to the wisdom within fairy tales.
But the reunion — as hosted by Rocca and written and directed by Eileen Roberts — was an occasion for reminiscing rather than for anticipating. As composer Stephen Sondheim and librettist James Lapine looked on and with accompanist Tedd Firth handling the piano duties, seven members of the original Broadway cast of Woods turned the musical theatre clock back to a time when the creators were making changes on mimeo paper. There may be some miles on the faces and figures of Bernadette Peters (who played the Witch), Chip Zien (the Baker), Joanna Gleason (The Baker's Wife), Robert Westenberg (Cinderella's Prince), Kim Crosby (Cinderella), Danielle Ferland (Little Red Riding Hood) and Ben Wright (Jack) since 1987, but the performers' voices are all in wonderful form and their perspective on the tale they helped create is as astute as ever. Peters and Gleason in particular looked like they could step back into the next Woods revival without missing a beat. (Also in the audience for the 1 PM show, but not participating: original company members Pamela Winslow (Rapunzel) and Chuck Wagner (Rapunzel's Prince). The event's first 20 minutes featured Sondheim and Lapine in conversation with Rocca discussing the play's origins and inspiration. As a follow-up project to the team's Sunday in the Park with George, Sondheim suggested a "quest musical" along the lines of "The Wizard of Oz." The subject moved from games to fairy tales with Lapine initially balking at the idea of going Grimm since fairy tales are short and have little room for expansion. But Lapine wanted a plot challenge, and the task of melding the tales of Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk, Little Red Riding Hood and Rapunzel and fusing them with an original tale of a childless baker and his wife, all of whom head into the woods on — yes, a quest — proved a welcome one.
"I'd set it up against Feydeau," Sondheim said of the book that would win Lapine a Tony Award. Given the multiple plot strands and complexities, the composer advised Lapine to graph out every story strand, but Lapine resisted, preferring to "plunge right in" and the results, Sondheim noted, were "brilliant." Those same intricacies were showcased musically in the second-act rapid-fire recap "Your Fault" which reunited Peters, Zien, Wright, Ferland and Crosby. For his part, Lapine threw kudos back at Sondheim for the herculean task of musicalizing the opening title number, a song which introduces all of the major characters.
Into the Woods was envisioned not as a straight-up homage to the Brothers Grimm, but as a "not so fast" response to Bruno Bettelheim, whose book "The Uses of Enchantment" posited that parents should find happily ever after comfort in the resolution of fairy tales. Also in the thematic mix were the creators' interest in the ways parents try to protect their children: a subject that was every bit on the mind of Lapine, whose daughter, Phoebe, was born during the run of Into the Woods.
Zien and Gleason were the first performers to take the stage. After confessing that their off-stage relationship during Woods experienced its peaks and valleys ("He was the first actor I ever worked with who I ended up hitting," said Gleason), the two launched into a quite compatible rendition of "It Takes Two" with Zien draping the snipped Rapunzel braid lovingly over his co-star's shoulders. When Rocca later asked the cast to identify Woods' cast curmudgeon, Zien was the unanimous choice. "I prefer 'curmidgeon,'" returned Zien, who is easily half a head shorter than Gleason.
Zien poured a whole bucket of anguish and fear into "No More," which he sang largely to an empty chair. The actor, who played the Narrator/Mysterious Man in the the 2012 Shakespeare in the Park revival of Woods, had developed a close bond with original Narrator/Mysterious Man portrayer Tom Aldredge during the initial run of Woods. Aldredge died in 2011, but the Segerstrom reunion paid tribute to Aldredge by having the late actor's recorded show-starting line "Once upon a time" kick off the evening.
Next to take the stage was Crosby, who moved dexterously through "On the Steps of the Palace." The actress, who has played Cinderella both in Into the Woods and in the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, said she prefers Lapine's version in large part because the Woods Cinderella is more complex and has a larger range of choices. In conversation, she confessed to wearing the same "lucky blue dress" to her audition and three callbacks, prompting Lapine to wonder whether Crosby even owned another outfit.
Crosby was joined on stage by Westenberg, her real-life husband. Rocca steered the conversation to the costume Westenberg wore in his other incarnation as the Wolf, a suit — designed by Ann Hould-Ward — that featured external genitalia so prominent that Westenberg's entrance drew roars from audience members whenever he turned from one side of the house to the other. The situation proved distracting, prompting the designers to gradually shrink the character's "junk" to dampen the reactions. And what did Crosby make of the Wolf's rakish costume? "I had him bring it home," she quipped. Now the artistic director of the theatre department at Drury University in Springfield, MO, Westenberg tapped his inner wolf both in the suggestive duet "Hello, Little Girl" with Ferland and — back in character as the feckless Prince — trysting with the Baker's Wife in "Any Moment."
Ferland and Wright, who were both teenagers during the Broadway run of Into the Woods, are now parents themselves. Although Wright left the entertainment industry for a career as a financial advisor, he still channels a young boy's sense of wonder and magic in "Giants in the Sky." The role of Jack was "like winning the lottery," said Wright, who confessed he was forced to leave his studies at New York University when he couldn't handle a full class load along with performing eight shows per week. Ferland has continued in the business, eventually playing The Baker's Wife in a run of Woods co-produced by Baltimore Center Stage and Westport County Playhouse. Gleason saw Ferland's work in that production, with Zien sending a warning to Ferland that the role's creator would be in the audience: "Don't (expletive) up!"
Post-intermission, the second act was largely ruled by Peters, who performed a trio of Woods numbers and also shared talk time with Sondheim and Lapine. Upon learning that the role of the Witch was available following the show's pre-Broadway run in San Diego (where Ellen Foley had played the role), Peters — who knew nothing about the role — volunteered herself for the part, sight unseen.
She grew to love the role. The Witch, she says, is the outsider, the pragmatist who says what everybody else is thinking and who has no problem being unpopular. Homeliness? Not a problem, said Peters who noted that she never had to worry about being dolled up for a matinee.
Peters and Lapine shared previously secret details of the Witch's transformation from hag to beauty. The effect was accomplished through the elaborate use of a body double, a drop and some strategic crossings. A magician had volunteered to design the effect at considerable expense, but Lapine and the technical team figured out how to stage the transformation on their own.
Peters donned her crone nose to bang out a portion of the Witch's opening rap song ("Greens, greens and nothing but greens…") and nearly brought the audience to tears with her version of "Stay with Me" which she followed up with a thundering rendition of "Last Midnight." Peters also noted that while she populates her solo concerts with Sondheim numbers, she often works in songs such as "No One is Alone" and "Hello, Little Girl," that were sung by characters other than the ones she played. The reunion ended, fittingly, the same way Into the Woods does with Crosby and Ferland and Zien and Wright pairing off on "No One is Alone" followed by the entire cast reassembling for "Children Will Listen." With Cinderella, Jack, Little Red and the now widowed Baker moving in together, Rocca floated the possibility of Sondheim and Lapine crafting a sequel.
"Out of the Woods?" replied Sondheim who smiled and left the question unanswered.