Interview: Tina Landau On Collaborating With Idina Menzel On REDWOOD & More

Learn about the creative process and behind-the-scenes insights in this exclusive interview.

By: Feb. 22, 2024
Interview: Tina Landau On Collaborating With Idina Menzel On REDWOOD & More
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Redwood, the new musical starring Tony Award-winner Idina Menzel is now on stage in its World Premiere production at La Jolla Playhouse, where it will run through March 31st, 2024. We spoke with director Tina Landau about collaborating with Menzel and bringing Redwood Forest to life on stage. Read the complete interview below.

Written and directed by Tony Award nominee Tina Landau, with music by Kate Diaz, and lyrics by Landau and Diaz, Redwood is conceived by Landau and Menzel, with additional contributions by Menzel.

In addition to Menzel, the world-premiere cast also includes Tony Award nominee De’Adre Aziza as ‘Mel,’ Nkeki Obi-Melekwe as ‘Becca,’ Michael Park as Finn, and Zachary Noah Piser as ‘Spencer,’ along with understudies Aja Simone Baitey, Giovanny Diaz de Leon, Lance Arthur Smith.

Redwood is a transportive new musical experience about one woman’s journey into the precious and precarious world of the redwood forest. Jesse (Menzel) is a successful businesswoman, mother and wife. She seems to have it all, but inside, her heart is broken. Finding herself at a turning point, Jesse leaves everyone and everything behind, gets in her car and drives… Thousands of miles later, she hits the ancient forests of Northern California, where a chance meeting and a leap of faith change her life forever. With its deeply personal story, refreshingly contemporary sound, and awe-inspiring design, Redwood explores the lengths –and heights– one travels to find strength, resilience and healing.

The Redwood creative team includes Kimberly Grigsby (Music Supervisor), Haley Bennett (Music Director), Jason Ardizzone-West (Scenic Designer), Toni-Leslie James (Costume Designer), Scott Zielinski (Lighting Designer), Jonathan Deans (Sound Designer), Hana S. Kim (Media Designer) and  Melecio Estrella, BANDALOOP (Vertical Movement and Staging). Casting is by The Telsey Office, Patrick Goodwin, CSA/Jacole Kitchen; Lora K. Powell is Stage Manager and Topaz Cooks is Assistant Stage Manager.

Interview: Tina Landau On Collaborating With Idina Menzel On REDWOOD & More
Landau in rehearsals for Redwood.

What initially inspired the concept behind Redwood?

Tina: Idina and I were long ago interested in telling the story of Julia Butterfly Hill, an activist who lived in a Redwood tree for 738 days in protest of the clear-cutting of the forests in the late 90s. We worked on this for a short while about fifteen years ago, but our work and lives took us elsewhere.

Then, when the pandemic began in 2020, and I wasn’t directing and Idina wasn’t performing, we discovered that our obsession with the central image of that piece - a woman in a tree – remained. We had both shifted in our artistic interests and no longer wanted to do a historically based piece but wanted to create our own story.  

So we had to ask, “What would lead someone up into the branches of a Redwood, what kind of woman would do this and why?” In 2020, I experienced a devastating personal loss and found myself grappling with that as I sat in quarantine in my house in Connecticut – and much of the solace I found came from the nature around me, from the trees.  That’s when and where this iteration of Redwood was born.

How did your collaboration with Idina Menzel shape the development of this musical?

Tina: Idina and I would go back and forth, and mull and dream together.  But ultimately, I sat down and wrote a piece which was both inspired by her and shaped for her.  Idina has such tremendous range, not only as a singer of course but also as an actor.  We’ve created a character, Jesse, that demands a very full expression of that range.

Can you share insights into your process for integrating music and storytelling in Redwood?

Tina: Well first we had to find a composer! – and after doing a long, wide search for a fresh voice, we found the amazing Kate Diaz.  What makes Kate the perfect composer for Redwood is she’s equally adept in composing very original pop/contemporary songs and also composing instrumental music, with a background in film and TV scoring.  In Redwood, the score is meant not only to give voice to the characters in song but also to give voice to the forest itself.  The music is not only what people sing but also what they hear and experience from the trees.

Could you describe the collaborative process with the creative team given the production's settings?

Tina: We’re not attempting to create a Redwood forest onstage, in some literal representational form.  We’re creating the main character’s experience of the forest, through her subjective point of view.  I always imagined the show taking place in a blank space, in which Jesse’s journey would be expressed through her interaction with very detailed video and projection – and that’s what we’re getting through the extraordinary work of our media designer, Hana S. Kim.  In terms of scenic design,  sometimes the less-is-more design is the hardest to create.  It’s all about volume, the shape of the space, the architecture of surfaces… and Jason Ardizzone-West (set design) has given us a beautiful container.  

Were there any specific challenges in staging the scenes set in the Redwood forest?

Tina: Oh yes – multitudinous!  There’s staging scenes on the forest floor when, for instance, characters are walking and the forest has to to shift with them, and then there’s staging on a six by six foot platform which is, ostensibly, 300 feet up in the canopy of a Redwood tree.  Again, because I’m staging the show with only 2 or 3 concrete physical elements, the heavy lifting for creating all of this is through our media design.

What was your favorite moment or aspect in the development of Redwood?

Tina: One of my favorite moments was a trip Idina, Kate, and I made to Oakland to visit our vertical choreographers, Bandaloop.  They taught Idina (and Kate, brave soul!) how to climb an actual Redwood to about 30 feet, and they had Idina up about 100 feet on the side of a building doing choreography and a descent, and then they took us into a Redwood forest, where we all spent time together. A magical couple days.

What do you hope audiences take away from their experience of watching Redwood?

Tina: A sweetened appreciation for the interconnectedness of all things. Especially our human connection to nature and to each other, and how those can help us get through each day most fully alive.

Why must audiences come and see the show?

Tina: Idina’s performance, along with those of the other fantastic cast.  Kate’s music. The lush visuals. It’s an utterly unique and, I hope, thrilling journey.