'Into The Woods' Returns To Old Globe 28 Years After Debut
July 24, 2014 1:20 p.m.
28 Years After Its Debut, "Into The Woods" Returns To The Old Globe
Noah Brody, Co-Director and Actor
Ben Steinfeld, Co-Director and Actor
Related Story: 'Into The Woods' Returns To Old Globe 28 Years After Debut
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition, I am Maureen Cavanaugh. Into the Woods, the musical by Steven Sondheim debuted at the Old Globe Theatre twenty-eight years ago. It went on to Broadway as a lavish production about witches, giants, fairytales, and consequences. It won several Tony awards and has been revived through the years. Now it is home again, reincarnated at the Old Globe as a lean, imaginative production by the Fiasco Theater Group. Here is a sample of the finale of Into the Woods performed by the Fiasco Theater group:
[ MUSIC FROM ìInto the Woodsî ]
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I would like to welcome my guest, Noah Brody and Ben Steinfeld, actors and codirectors of Into the Woods at the Old Globe. Welcome. Is this a challenge for you going back to the theater where it got started?
BEN STEINFELD: Not much of a challenge, and that we view it as a huge opportunity. We are honored to be in a place where Sondheim and Lapine created the piece. I think a lot of their collaborative energy and approach to taking risks is something that we have tried to bring to our process for building this reimagining of the show.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: This musical has been performed many times, by many companies. How do you start giving it a fresh spin?
BEN STEINFELD: Partly what we did, we approached the text as though we had never seen or heard it, and ask ourselves the question, how would we engage in this from first principles? We were diligent about not taking on any assumptions about the way that Into the Woods itself may be done or produced, or even a musical or a Broadway musical, so that we try to interrogate not just our instincts, but any information that we brought in from exposure to Into the Woods in the past, or any other Broadway musicals.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: So the assumption of what a Broadway musical is, is that what you mean?
BEN STEINFELD: Exactly.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Who wants to give a crack at giving us in assumption of Into the Woods?
BEN STEINFELD: Well, I can try. Into the Woods is what we might call a sort of mashup of various fairytales from the Brothers Grimm. So we have Cinderella, Rapunzel, Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Giant Beanstalk, and all of those fairytales and characters from these tales end up crashing into each other when they go Into the Woods. Sondheim invented a new set of characters, a man and his wife, who are on a quest to have a child. In the quest to have a child, they have to obtain all of the objects that come from different famous fairytales. That is how all of the stories in the overlapping and interacting, and at the end of Act I we complete the fairytales as we know them, along with some invented stuff. When we come back for act two, the show picks up right after happily ever after, that is what the authors were interested in exploring through the play. They have invented a whole story about what happens to all of these people after they get what they want, after the wishes come true.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: What parts do you play in this?
BEN STEINFELD: I play the Baker.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Noah?
NOAH BRODY: I play three parts, the Wolf, Cinderella prince, and one of the gorgeous stepsisters, by the way, Lucinda.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Very good.
NOAH BRODY: The other actor plays Rapunzel's prince and I play as the stepsister.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: One of the actors plays a cow, right?
NOAH BRODY: He is a cow, stepsister, and a prince. As you can imagine, it makes perfect sense.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: It does, you roll the dice and you get what you get.
NOAH BRODY: Only Andy could play hooky white the cow with such verve and panache.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Fiasco Theater, from what I understand is best known for performing streamlined versions of Shakespeare. First of all, what does that mean?
BEN STEINFELD: That is how it has been described. For us, it means giving ourselves only what we need to tell the story, which in the case of Shakespeare is basically actors, text, and a lot of imagination. Shakespeare's plays, when they were performed 400 years ago, were also streamlined. In a lot of ways, it is honoring the way in which the plays were created, not through original practices or trying to re-create pageant of how Shakespeare was done 400 years ago, but simply by giving ourselves only the basic tools and engaging the audience's imagination as much as possible. It also involves using a much smaller cast, which gives each actor a richer experience of the evening, and involves the audience in the magic making that theater can do.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: When you hear streamlined or some other adjective used in that way to try to bring Shakespeare out in a fresh way, some productions go to bizarre extremes to sort of freshen Shakespeare. How do you go about scraping off those layers, whether it is Shakespeare or Into the Woods?
NOAH BRODY: For us it is really about doing the play with the production in the way that makes sense. We actually don't attempt to take anything away from the piece or the production, to give ourselves the excellent opportunity as performers to create the world and have a rich performative life, and to do absolutely what is necessary in the production for the audience to track all the information, so the scenes and musical numbers can really happen. The audience is experiencing the play, and experiencing the musical, but not experiencing our clever solutions. We don't necessarily want to draw attention to the clever solution. We want to draw attention to the event within the scene, the message of the text, so that the piece is happening between us and the audience.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: You make a very important point there, and the fact that this is a musical as opposed to Shakespearean play. How comfortable are you with singing, performing, playing music, that kind of thing? Did that come is a new experience for you in this production?
NOAH BRODY: I think there's a range of experience in the company. For me it is very new, it is the first musical I have performed. For Ben and others, they have much more experience. That is true for our onstage experience, and our musical production and creativity. There is a lot of range of experience. It's also the dangerous thrill that we seek, we're both relying on skills and building new skills to create productions.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I hate to use this word again, but is the music streamlined too?
BEN STEINFELD: To an extent, it is. We have a great music director, Matt Castle, at the piano. We also have actors for playing cello, bassoon, guitar, and french horn, adding all sorts of different colors and flavors in. We have tried to sort of link those that are not piano to specific characters and moments of the show, and I think it creates a sort of delicious and varied sound, despite the fact that it is sort of small.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: What is your approach to singing Sondheim's music? Are these songs that you feel the to be sung well, or can they be part of an extended musical dialogue, so to speak?
BEN STEINFELD: That is good question, I think everyone has a different answer to that depending on your orientation to musical theater. The reason we were drawn to Sondheim is because he writes for actors. He does the same thing that Shakespeare does, which is to put onto stage and into the actors mouth, and body, and mind and heart, the experience of the person, and the experience of putting thoughts together in real time, which is such an incredible achievement. I think for me that is where the main attention in Sondheim songs needs to go, to the experience and the thought process of making language in the moment. I think absolutely they can be and often are beautifully sung, but some of the best interpretations of Sondheim are from people who we do not think of as having gorgeous instruments, but people we think about as having an incredibly well tuned sense of humanity. I'm thinking of Angela Lansbury or Elaine Stritch, those were not really known for their singing voices, they are known for the ability to convey experience.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Into the Woods strangely enough has never been a play that has been absolutely beloved by critics, but it has been exceedingly popular with audiences. Why do you think the public response to this? Some of the critics have claimed that the storyline is too busy, too muddled, but people seem to love this musical. Why do you think that is?
NOAH BRODY: It is a good question. The storyline is complicated, but I think that is part of what is so enjoyable. There is actually a lot to track, it is a very full and very rich evening. It kind of depends upon your taste. There are some critics would like it to be a little more condensed or streamlined, but what they have done is created something with an enormous number of layers to it. It is working on an allegorical level, playing upon stories that we think we know, but do not actually know. It is re-creating new stories. It is doing a lot, and it takes some time and complexity to do that. It also has simply fantastic music. I mean, there are earworms that don't go away, but it has fantastic singable music that sticks with you, and while the music worms its way into you, so does the message of the piece. I think that is the kind of thing that audiences take away with a lot of pleasure. There is a spoonful of sugar bringing up a lot of message with it.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Ben, what is your take on the appeal of Into the Woods?
BEN STEINFELD: I agree with Noah, and I would add that part of it is because fundamentally the show is about being a parent and being a child. Everyone understands that, and I think it has that broad appeal, because it feels like a foundational, primal, very thing about being a person, and about being part of the continuum of parents and children. I think the other reason it has been popular with a lot of people our age, is because it even though the show is only 25 to 30 years old, a lot of us were introduced to theater through the show, because it has fairytales and it is funny, it has been presented often as a show for families and kids even though it is quite serious in a lot of ways. I did the show at summer camp, and I think a lot of people have fond memories of being part of the show when they were young.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: That is a point, the central core of the Fiasco Theater group have known each other for a very long time since grad school. What does that give you, does that give you a level of trust that you would not have with another performer?
BEN STEINFELD: Absolutely, you can't fake ten or fifteen years of collaborative friendship and love and respect. We are sort of an improvised family of our own choosing. The audience really gets that, we trust each other and can take risks with each other. We can keep the show going long after it opens, and I think the audience feels they are invited into that embrace. That is our goal, to make sure that the audience feels like they are a part of this onstage ensemble and not that they are watching from a distance.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: One quick last question, there is a movie coming out starring Johnny Depp, a Disney movie of Into the Woods. I wonder what you think the comparison may be to what you are doing and the big movie coming out in December, Noah?
NOAH BRODY: Well, I anticipate they are taking the opposite approach, and it is a huge movie. Think that a movies trade upon and what they use very well that we don't, is the visual image. I think it will trade upon the visual image and they will have to make some changes because it is a continuous one and a half hour to two hours stretch, versus a musical.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And for this, you have to use your imagination. It's a musical Into the Woods, it runs at the Old Globe in Balboa Park through August 10. Thank you both very much.