“It Takes Two” is one of the most prominent tunes in Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s “Into the Woods,” but it was clear at the reunion of the show’s original cast that it takes two… plus a cast unafraid of diving into a dark, cautionary story about fairytale characters, to create something special.
The original cast of the musical gathered Sunday at Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa, Calif., almost exactly 27 years after opening night to talk with moderator Mo Rocca about what it had been like being a part of the expansive production, which took home three Tony Awards for its original run. Cast members present included Bernadette Peters, Joanna Gleason, Chip Zien, Robert Westenberg, Kim Crosby, Danielle Ferland and Ben Write, who took the stage alongside Sondheim and Lapine.
Here are ten highlights from the evening.
Ambitious beginnings: “Into the Woods” began because Sondheim “wanted to write a quest musical,” he said, though Lapine discovered quickly that creating an original fairy tale is a quest in itself. “To invent a set of adventures was too arbitrary,” said Sondheim, “there was no kind of guideline for him to make choices.”
The two were inspired by different versions of the same stories, particularly the Grimm’s Fairy Tales’ telling of “Cinderella,” and the French incarnation. “One of the things I said I wanted to do was something that had real plot to it,” said Lapine,” and that was also kind of the pleasure of taking these different stories and amalgamating them into one and then doing a wholly original second act.”
Just the two of us: While theater today has become very much a director’s world, Lapine prides himself on shows such as “Into the Woods,” that he not only directed but wrote. The double job leaves the production to him and Sondheim alone. “It’s just the two of us,” he shrugged, smiling. “That’s the most attractive thing.”
“He has a mind for plotting,” said Sondheim complimenting Lapine’s “brilliant” work. “No critic or writer has ever pointed out that James invented something in that story that has not been in it for 500 years,” said Sondheim, “which is that Cinderella does not lose her slipper, she leaves it behind on purpose.”
To fill Lapine’s writing out with music “was not hard at all,” added Sondheim. “It was about finding the vamp and finding the bean theme,” he explained. “It’s just five notes… and I use them a lot,” he laughed. “Once you write those five notes you don’t have to think about the other songs,” he joked.
Return to the stage: The evening featured an array of performances from the cast, including “No More,” “On the Steps of the Palace,” “Your Fault,” “Any Moment/Moment in the Woods,” “Stay With Me,” and more.
Peters even arrived prepared, with a prosthetic nose to use when performing a snippet of what has become known as the “Witch’s Rap.”
The cast members easily slipped back into their roles for the numbers as if no time has passed at all. Joanna Gleason and Chip Zien entertained with ease, singing “It Takes Two,” as Crosby was joined by her real-life husband Westenberg, who later slipped right back into the role of the wolf for a rendition of “Hello, Little Girl,” that felt as if it were right off of the original album.
Growing up in the woods: “I was lucky enough to start at the top,” said Ben Wright who wasn’t particularly looking to be a full-time actor at the time he was cast as Jack in the musical. “I didn’t know,” about the gravity of “Into the Woods, “and probably didn’t appreciate it as much as I could have,” he said.
Danielle Ferland, who originated the role of Little Red, noted the challenge and gratifying experience of continuing her normal in-school education while in the show, taking the train to the city for rehearsals and performances.
Ferland added that she has remembered many of the lessons of the show, about respect and being cautious and caring, and wants to teach them to her own children. Ferland said that the line, “Isn’t it nice to know a lot? And a little bit, not?,” is what comes to mind as the best way to sum up the thrilling and limited experience of being in “Into the Woods.”
Did you know?: In discussing the role of the Baker’s Wife, Sondheim shared that the line “This is ridiculous/What am I doing here?/I’m in the wrong story,” was the only time he had taken a lyric from an actor. The final statement came from a conversation he had with Joanna Gleason about her character’s adventures.
He also mentioned what some dedicated fans may already know: Jack’s song “I Guess This Is Goodbye,” is the only song he has ever written that doesn’t rhyme.
On the Witch: Sondheim described the sharp-tongued witch as the “moral center of the show.” “Sometimes people who are very unpleasant or obnoxious or mean, speak the truth. And people who are nice, don’t.”
“It’s about the truth is often a hard thing to hear,” added Lapine of the character, who Peters said is best described by her own line: “I’m not good, I’m not nice, I’m just right.”
“She tells the truth,” said Peters. “It may not be pretty but if you want it to get done, that’s the answer. Whether somebody gets hurt or somebody dies – she’s the Witch, she’s not soft and fuzzy.”
Magic, revealed: Given the opportunity to give the audience a behind-the-scenes look at the show’s production, Lapine and Sondheim drew back the curtain on the magic of the Witch’s transformation from old and ugly to young and vibrant.
“We had a very expensive magic consultant on the show,” said Lapine, “but nothing worked. So we thought to ourselves and thanked him and sent him home,” he laughed. The two ultimately cast a body double for Peters, who went on stage as the witch with Peters’ dialogue recorded, while Peters was below the stage being rapidly transformed.
“We had the staging so the double came back around and Bernadette came back out,” explained Lapine.
Bernadette Peters on Sondheim: Signing up for another Sondheim-Lapine musical was an easy decision for Peters, who originated the role of the Witch. “I just volunteered myself,” she exclaimed, having known nothing about the role when it was offered. Peters had previously worked with the duo on “Sunday in the Park with George.”
“The songs just permeate my head,” she said. The actress noted from her seat between the two that she loves working with them, and has frequently sung many of Sondheim’s songs at her own concerts – though not many songs she had sung in productions, she laughed.
“If he didn’t write, I’d have nothing to sing about,” she said.
When asked about their favorite lines or lyrics from the show Peters’ answered the Witch’s “When you’re dead, you’re dead,” while Sondheim laughed that he loves the Baker’s wife’s deadpan, “We. Are. Moving.”
Westenberg noted that one of his favorite moments in the show is Cinderella’s prince telling the would-be princess, “I was raised to be charming, not sincere,” which surprised him by earning laughs from the audience at every single show.
“You think of all of the things you’ve seen, and you wish that you could live in between” from “Giants in the Sky,” Wright answered, “…because that’s how I feel tonight.”
Together again: When asked what it felt like being back on a stage with the “Into the Woods” cast, Lapine, who spent the evening taking photos and videos from his on-stage perspective, answered it felt “like an acid flashback,” sending Sondheim into a peal of laughter.
“It’s very upsetting,” said Sondheim. “I want to hear them forever.”
In addition to the reunion, the theater hosted displays of number of original costumes and props from the original production, including the giant’s harp, Milky White the cow, the carriage and costumes from the main cast. Celebrities in attendance included “Modern Family’s” Jesse Tyler Ferguson, and theater veteran Andrew Rannells, while “Glee” and “How to Succeed in Business (Without Really Trying)” star Darren Criss attended the matinee performance.
The cast did not discuss Disney’s upcoming movie musical directed by Rob Marshall and starring Meryl Streep, Johnny Depp and Anna Kendrick (which will be released Dec. 25).