An extraordinary treat for musical theater buffs, celebrating the brilliance of James Lapine and Stephen Sondheim.
by Joel Benjamin
You would have thought you were at a rock concert or a World Series game the way the audience at the Into the Woods Original Cast Reunion at the Brooklyn Academy of Music greeted the show’s creators, James Lapine and Stephen Sondheim. There were screams, applause and even some foot stamping. Even more so when the stars of the original Broadway cast appeared to discuss their experiences and sing numbers from the score.
Mo Rocca, well-known from CBS Sunday Morning, was the animated and very involved host, shepherding the conversation, introducing the songs and spreading goodwill and charm for two and a half hours of musical-theater-buff heaven.
Mssrs. Lapine and Sondheim mused on the origins of Into the Woods. For those who aren’t familiar with this musical, it’s an odd, brilliant amalgamation of several Brothers Grimm fairy tales: Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk, Rapunzel and Little Red Riding Hood, all with twists and unhappily-ever-afters; plus an original Lapine tale of the Baker and his Wife whose journey “into the woods” brings together all the other tales. The two geniuses had just come off the brilliant Sunday In the Park With George and were eager to work together again. So, they bandied ideas back and forth, slowly deciding that they wanted to do a quest musical-cum-fairytale exposé.
Listening to them talk about how the show coalesced into the one we all know was fascinating: how the central story of the Witch’s curse on the Baker and his Wife made everything fall into place; and how actors considered for one part wound up playing others. Most notably, Chip Zien, the Baker, who initially read for the role of Cinderella’s Prince (which was eventually given to Robert Westenberg who also played the Wolf who eats Red Riding Hood).
Mr. Westenberg’s humorous anecdote about the evolution of the Wolf’s costume from anatomically correct to less-so was echoed by Danielle Ferland (Red) who witnessed the pendulous appendage a little too closely! Mr. Westenberg and Ms. Ferland’s “Hello, Little Girl” still conjured up a funny combination of lust and innocence. As Sondheim proved earlier in Sweeney Todd, no one writes about eating humans better than he does.
Ben Wright, the original Jack, left show business, but you wouldn’t know it from his brilliant rendition of “Giants in the Sky.”
Chip Zien and Joanna Gleason (who won a Tony for her role as the Wife) were splendid both in relating their audition processes and the work involved in singing their central duet, “It Takes Two,” in which they realize that cooperation is the key to their fulfilling their quest for a child. Bernadette Peters, looking absolutely gorgeous, performed what she called “Broadway’s first rap song,” a tongue-twisting bit about how the Baker’s father raped her vegetable garden to feed his pregnant wife. Her “Stay With Me,” originally sung to Rapunzel, her imprisoned daughter, was heartbreaking.
Mr. Rocca’s little interview with Mr. Westenberg and Kim Crosby (Cinderella) made them seem as if they were illicitly living in close proximity to each other, until it was revealed that they were married and parents living in suburban bliss. Ms. Crosby’s “On the Steps of the Palace” was exuberant, complex and a show-stopper. (Mr. Sondheim pointed out that Mr. Lapine’s Cinderella, unlike the Grimms’, purposely left her slipper for the Prince to discover.)
There were few dry eyes in the Gilman Opera House when the cast sang “No One Is Alone” and “Children Will Listen.”
The voices of all have stood the test of time. All sang with passion, freshness and impeccable technique. As Mr. Sondheim mused, if you had closed your eyes you would swear you were listening to the original 1987 cast recording.
Tedd Firth, who has worked with all the great Broadway stars, was the fine accompanist, playing the complex Sondheim score with wit and finding all the colors in the piano arrangements.
Into the Woods Original Cast Reunion (June 21, 2015)
Howard Gilman Opera House, Brooklyn Academy of Music (30 Lafayette Avenue, between St. Felix Street and Ashland Place), Brooklyn, NY. For tickets and information: 718-636-4129 ext. 5 or visit www.BAM.org
Running time: two hours 30 minutes including one intermission