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BWW Interview: INTO THE WOODS Team

The Old Globe is currently presenting Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's Tony Award-winning musical Into the Woods, which made its World Premiere at The Old Globe in 1986. The production is an inventive reimagining by Fiasco Theater, directed by Noah Brody and Ben Steinfeld, in a production that originated at McCarter Theatre Center.

BroadwayWorld chatted with directors Steinfeld and Brody (who also play the Baker and Lucinda/Wolf/Cinderella's Prince respectively), as well as Fiasco Theater Co-Artistic Director cast member Jessie Austrian (Baker's Wife) about the thrills of bringing the show to life, the concept of their re-imagined version and so much more. They have allowed us to re-publish their interview below.

Firstly, congrats on the extension! How have things been going over at the Old Globe?

NB: They've been going wonderfully! As you can imagine, San Diego is a great place to be at any time of year, but the theatre is absolutely spectacular, the staff is amazing, and the audiences have been really wonderful and enthusiastic. It's been such a pleasure all around!

Have you found that the San Diego audiences have been responding similarly?

NB: Actually I had thought that maybe the San Diego audiences would be a bit more reserved or something... but actually they've been VERY responsive, active, vocal, and fully engaged. I also think that the show is better. It's been percolating and gestating within us and we continue to work and think about the show. It's definitely the same show that we did in Princeton, but I think it's a little bit deeper and easier for us, so we're releasing it more fully. So I think that the audiences are meeting that, and responding to that as well.

You are all big parts of Fiasco Theatre, where this started- what can you tell me about the show's journey thus far?

JA: Well it all began about two and a half years ago when we did a production of Cymbeline that put us on the map. That was a success in New York and we started talking about what we wanted to do next. We talked about projects that both excite and scare us. We love making music together, and even in all of our Shakespeare shows we find ways to do that. So we were excited about the idea of taking on a musical, and Sondheim just seemed like a perfect fit because he writes for actors. His writing is so complicated and layered- it's very Shakespearean in nature.

So it all began as a hypothesis, which was "Could we rehearse a Sondheim musical in the way that we would a Shakespeare play?" We did a very brief workshop to pose that question and we fell even more in love with the play and decided to take it on! We were very lucky to have support from the McCarter, who took a big risk in helping us do the show. And we were extremely lucky that it was a success there and that we've gotten to reinvestigate it at another time. As Noah said, we've deepened the show. I'm hearing new things in the material every night, which is so rewarding and such a sign of great writing.

The version has been described as an 'inventive reimagining'. What more can you share about the concept of this version?

BS: This version has ten actors and one onstage pianist, Matt [Castle]. He's also a wonderful musical director. So the whole production is centered around the piano and that is because when we do a show we always ask ourselves what we absolutely have to have to tell the story. Then we give ourselves only those things as a starting off point. So that's what led us to the piano, since it is a musical... then our designers took the concept and our ideas about time, memory and perspective and exploded the piano around the stage. So we have a very abstract environment by Derek McLane that gives us a sense of scale for the woods but also provides a very romantic and atmospheric interior space.

The other thing we were interested in conceptually was the idea of inheritance- what one generation leaves the next and what our responsibilities are as parents and children to each other and each generation. That led us to the idea of this abstract attic of memories. So the props and set pieces we use in the show are very simple, but they all look like things you might find in an attic. Everything that we use in the show is that kind of object- old letters, sheet music, rickety chairs, chandeliers, and an old set of curtains. Things like that.

We use all of that to try to engage the audience's imagination. The play is about fairytales and how we tell stories. So that's what drew us to those conceptual ideas.

This is one of Sondheim's most widely loved shows. Have you been at all nervous that audiences might be expecting one thing and getting something totally different?

JA: It's funny, even though the show is only twenty-five years old, there are still a lot of assumed ideas about what this show is, based on that original production. We tried to be very rigorous with ourselves when we started rehearsing to strip away those assumptions and really look at the writing as if it was a brand new play and act what we thought the authors intended. What did they want the audience to receive and how could we give that to them?

I was very nervous because a lot of people think they know what the show is supposed to look like because they grew up with that PBS video of the original production. The experience that I've had though is that even with the people who know it very well and are coming in and seeing something very different are receiving the story and seeing and hearing it in a new way. Then at the same time, the people who don't know the play are still feeling it in the way that I think the authors intended.

It must be very exciting bringing Into the Woods back to where it all began...

BS: It is exciting! One of the great things is that several people in the audience, who are of a certain age of course, were able to see the original production in 1986 and have now come to see ours. The enthusiasm that they have for our version is really moving and really exciting to think of a theatrical community that has that much continuity. It's something that regional theatres can do. They can have ongoing connections with their audiences over a long period of time.

And then just seeing photos of [James] Lapine and [Stephen] Sondheim in the same theatre that we are in and asking the same questions that we are asking: "How do we make this thing come to life?" Their enthusiasm and support for the production has been very exciting and it has just reminded us that all artists are engaged in the same series of questions. Even legends like them! So it's been very thrilling being back in the place where they did that the first time and I know it means a lot to the Globe as well.

Ben and Noah, you're doing double duty on this... what's it's been like wearing two hats?

NB: It's a challenge, a responsibility and an honor. It's a big piece to be stepping in and out of, but luckily Ben and I don't share very much stage time. So when one of us is in the other can be out. We have an amazing collaborative team including Michael Perlman, our associate director, our music director, our choreographer and our entire ensemble. We have this vocabulary where we define what it is that we are working toward and then we can work as a group towards those things. It allows Ben and I to guide the process without having to be absolutely in charge of everything. That's not really possible with a piece this large. There are so many moving pieces. It's definitely been the greatest challenge of my artistic life and it's also been the most fulfilling.

Is there a part of the show that you're the most proud of?

NB: There's no one thing for me. This piece has been created by sixteen different people, and I think that we are all responsible for all of those moments. What I'm most proud of is how it all fits together. What I think is a great compliment is when people say that they feel like Act 2 is a continuation of Act 1 and that it completes the entire evening. I think a lot of people's experiences in the past have been the challenge of fusing them together and making them one continuous story.

Have you wrapped your head around the Roundabout run later this year?

BS: For me personally, I'm looking forward to doing a run of significant length- we get to do it for three or four months. That creates artistic possibilities that a shorter run of three or four weeks doesn't give you. There's an opportunity to explore possibilities and keep pushing, growing and learning from the audience.

The idea of being a part of the continuum of Roundabout's tradition of these extraordinary revivals of re-imaginings of Sondheim shows is amazing company to be in. I feel like we are incredibly lucky to get to be a part of that tradition that Roundabout has committed to over the past few decades- finding a way to bring Sondheim's work back to a New York audience with incredible vision and excitement.

And there is nothing like doing a show in New York City. Being involved in a show that is so popular and beloved in front of a sophisticated, generous New York audience is going to be a thrill.

I read that you guys chose the name 'Fiasco' to "remind [y]ourselves to brave the huge leaps in the hopes of reaping huge artistic rewards." Do you think you've done that with this piece?

NB: Well, I think we've certainly made the leap! [Laughs] When were in our first previews at McCarter it felt a little bit like we were hanging by our fingernails off of a cliff. Whether or not we have reaped artistic rewards I think is best left to the audience to answer. I will say though that it has been an enormously rewarding undertaking and it has caused a deep and profound artistic growth within our community. We do this for the audience, and I think we all dearly hope that their experience is as rich as ours is. It's been a huge growth opportunity for us.

JA: And I think that we've created a production that each night, both as individuals and an ensemble, can continue to take those leaps. It's a show that relies on the audience being there. It can't happen in a vacuum. Their imaginations are necessary to fill in the rest of the world. So every night is an opportunity to start a fiasco. I'm really proud of the way that the whole company is continuing to do that and I look forward to getting to do that over the long run in New York. It's incredibly exciting and fulfilling.

BS: And in terms of risks, this is what Sondheim and Lapine's work has been about too. From the beginning of their careers they risked everything artistically just to pursue a vision of what musical theatre might be. A part of our inspiration for our version is that we are trying to honor their risk-taking. When something becomes a classic we always think of it as a part of the establishment category of great works. But most of those great works were in and of themselves great risks that pushed the boundaries of what something could be and asked questions that hadn't been asked before. So I hope that what we are doing is very much in line with the risks and rewards that the authors themselves have taken.

Into the Woods will begin performances at Roundabout Theatre Company on December 18 at the Laura Pels Theatre in the Harold & Miriam Steinberg Centre for Theatre. For more information and tickets, please visit our website.

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