Fort Greene

BAM hosts ‘Into the Woods’ original cast reunion

June 22, 2015 By Benjamin Preston Special to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Amid frequent and uproarious applause from a packed house, Stephen Sondheim (second from right), James Lapine (left) and several members of the original "Into the Woods" cast, including Bernadette Peters (second from left) took to the stage for a reunion Sunday at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM). Photos by Richard Termine, courtesy of BAM
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Amid frequent and uproarious applause from a packed house, Stephen Sondheim, James Lapine and several members of the original “Into the Woods” cast took to the stage for a reunion Sunday at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM). Between live performances of songs from the award-winning Broadway musical, its creators and cast members, with Mo Rocca as moderator, shared memories about its making nearly three decades ago.

Reunion cast members included Bernadette Peters (the witch), Joanna Gleason (the baker’s wife), Chip Zien (the baker), Robert Westenberg (Cinderella’s prince/the Big Bad Wolf), Kim Crosby (Cinderella), Danielle Ferland (Little Red Riding Hood) and Ben Wright (Jack).

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Sondheim and Lapine recalled that the scope of such a project — mashing several fairy tales into one show — was mind-boggling when they set out to execute their ideas.

“I had a really stoned moment,” Lapine said of the time before he had even contemplated writing “Into the Woods.”  “I thought of all the TV shows I had grown up with — ‘Leave it to Beaver,’ ‘Lucy’ and so on — and smashing them all together into one fantastic movie.”

Although his vision of a cinematic television character pantheon never panned out, a similar story came together, with characters from Grimm Brothers fairy tales, including “Cinderella,” “Jack and the Beanstalk,” and “Little Red Riding Hood.”

The first major challenge, said Sondheim — who had, at the time, already written the music and lyrics to several musicals, including “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” — was to rein in Lapine’s broad array of fanciful ideas.

“It took three or four years to write ‘A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum’ because of the intricacies of a farce like that,” Sondheim said, adding that he suggested to Lapine that “Into the Woods,” which was similarly complex, would require careful outlining.

Lapine recounted the moment when he realized that “Into the Woods” would be, at its base, a study on morality. He was a new father when he started writing it, he said, and was thoughtful about what his new role in life would mean. He said that on one occasion, a colleague’s young child was running around throwing food, and he wondered out loud how the child would learn table manners.

“She said, ‘I just want to teach this kid the difference between right and wrong,'” Lapine recalled. “That stuck with me.”

As a result, he said, morality became an important aspect of the characters he developed for “Into the Woods.”

Aside from becoming an iconic piece in the vast canon of 20th-century American musical theater, “Into the Woods” boosted the careers of several of its cast members, including Zien, Crosby, Ferland and Wright, who was 18 at the time. Lapine, a native Midwesterner himself, said that during auditions, he was drawn to Wright’s Midwestern wholesomeness as he was considering actors to play Jack from “Jack and the Beanstalk.” 

“I remember seeing Ben sitting there with a big smile on his face, and I thought, ‘Yeah, that’s the guy. I just hope he can sing.'” Lapine said.

Most of the actors from the original production are still active in theater, but other parts of their lives, they said, have changed. Wright and Ferland were still teenagers in 1987, and both are now married with children of their own. Westenberg and Crosby, who met at rehearsals for “Into the Woods,” have now been married for 24 years and have four children.

Ferland said that having grown older and become a mother, her perspective has changed, and she remembered her days of innocence fondly. One particular episode from that time, she said, was her surprise at the oversized male appendage that was originally part of Westenberg’s wolf costume. She recalled hearing the audience laugh as it swung back and forth when he moved around the stage, but was herself aghast.

“I think I have post-traumatic stress from that thing,” she said.

Wright said he doesn’t act these days, but on Sunday, his rendition of “Giants in the Sky” was proof positive that he hadn’t lost his touch.

“It’s very special to have been part of something that stood the test of time,” he said.

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